St Cuthbert and a Few Thoughts about Europe Today

Many years ago I took as my Special Subject in Part II of the Cambridge Historical Tripos the Church in Northumbria. That meant I spent long hours reading non-Classical Latin texts and looking at photographs of MSS, sculptures and precious atrefacts of the period, none more precious (or interesting) than those associated with St Cuthbert. As a young nun, I was thrilled to read a report from the General Chapter of the English Benedictine Congregation asking whether any of the current monks knew the whereabouts of St Cuthbert’s remains (the so-called Secret or Legend of St Cuthbert) and was disappointed that no-one did. What impressed me powerfully about Cuthbert himself, however, was what most historians merely allude to in passing: his gifts as a reconciler. He was brought up in the Celtic tradition but was instrumental in persuading the monks of Lindisfarne — most of them, anyway — to accept Roman usages. No mean feat when one considers the personality of St Wilfrid, the champion of Roman orthodoxy. And to anyone who has lived in a monastery, little short of a miracle.

That is one reason I find St Cuthbert very helpful when considering the problems engulfing Europe at the moment. We need more than goodwill to solve the difficulties that face us, especially those that have assumed tragic dimensions.

There is the humanitarian tragedy of the migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers being washed up on our shores. The photographs published yesterday of little Aylan Kurdi dead on the Turkish seashore touched the hearts and imaginations of many. They didn’t tell us anything we did not already know, but they provided an image, a simple and arresting image, we could all relate to. Suddenly a vast and seemingly intractable problem had a human face and there were calls for action such as we had not heard before. There is also the humanitarian tragedy lurking behind the economic tragedy that is Greece, the humanitarian tragedy lurking behind the political tragedy that is Ukraine, and the tragedy of the failure of Europe as a whole to cope with any of these.

As long as we continue to think about the challenges we face as abstractions, we are never going to find solutions. Cuthbert in Lindisfarne had to use every gift of mind and heart to win others over to his way of thinking. He saw people where others might have seen merely ‘difficult monks’; he appealed, he urged, he ordered, like the exemplary abbot in the Rule of St Benedict, but he did so with great charm and genuine concern for those he served. He made sacrifices; he asked sacrifices of others. We in Europe will have to do the same. It is no good saying, for example, that the Gulf States should ‘do something’ about the Syrian refugees trying to make their way to Germany; no good saying Greece ‘must accept’ reforms imposed by others; no good demanding that President Putin change his tone about Ukraine. There has to be a consent won from those whose help or co-operation is needed. In the meantime, whenever we see someone go hungry or thirsty and do nothing to help, we see Christ go hungry and thirsty. Let us not abandon Him in our suffering brothers and sisters.

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Greece in Flames

Anyone who doubts the impact of Europe’s financial crisis on the lives of ordinary people has only to look at the images and stories coming from Greece. Soup kitchens, abandoned children, street violence, these are not what we expect from a European country in the twenty-first century. We have all grown up with the notion of social and economic progress. Life is supposed to get better and better, but the last few years have shown that life does not get better for everyone. There is fear of a general economic meltdown and all the social evils which flow from that.

What is the Church’s response? By and large, what it has always been: practical help, prayer, and lobbying of political interests. The Orthodox Church in Greece is apparently feeding 250,000 people a day and its orphanages are struggling to cope with the number of abandoned children. That is humane, but everyone knows that something more is needed to address the roots of the problem. Suddenly Germany is the object of hatred. Berlin is blamed for the Euro crisis and for the suffering of the Greek people. It seems the European economic union is fragmenting before our eyes. Can it be long before the political union also is under strain?

Exaggerated? Perhaps, but it is high time we started to think about the future in more than narrowly personal terms. A ‘devaluation’ in our standard of living is inevitable and it challenges us to think through the implications of being Christian and the values by which we live. Selflessness and a sense of common purpose are essential. I think John Donne’s Meditation XVII is as apt here, as we watch the death throes of our accustomed order, as when we lament the death of an individual:

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee . . .

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