| Our Island Saints|
|by Amy Steedman|
|Gentle stories of saints who lived their lives of service in the British Isles during the Middle Ages. Includes tales of St. Alban, St. Patrick, St. Bridget, St. Cuthbert, St. Columba, St. Margaret of Scotland, and others. Ages 6-10 |
 IN all the countryside there was no other boy so strong
and fearless as Cuthbert, the shepherd lad who dwelt
amongst the hills above the old town of Melrose.
It was in the time when life was hard and rough,
and there were but few comforts or luxuries
even in the houses of the rich. The children in those days
early learned to brave many a danger and suffer many a hardship,
and so they grew up sturdy and strong of limb,
accustomed to an open-air life, little heeding the icy winds
of winter or the snow-storms that swept
their southern border-lands of Scotland.
But among all these hardy children of the hills
there was none to compare with Cuthbert.
In all their games of skill or strength he easily won
the foremost place. Whether it was winter
and they played at mimic warfare, with wonderful snow castles
to be stormed and good round snowballs for their ammunition,
or whether it was summer time and they ran and wrestled
on the grassy slopes of the hillside, it was Cuthbert
who led the attack on the victorious side,
Cuthbert who was champion among the wrestlers
and swiftest in the race. When others grew tired
and cried for a truce, Cuthbert was still fresh and eager,
ready to urge them on,
 for he never seemed to know what it meant to give in.
And yet there were times when the boy stole away silently
by himself to a lonely part of the hill
that overlooked the little grey road beneath,
and there sat as quiet and motionless
as the rabbits that peeped out of their holes
in the rocks beside him. So still did he sit
that any one seeing him might have thought he was asleep,
if they had not seen his keen bright eyes
and guessed that he was as busy with his thoughts
as he had been about his games.
But there was no one on the wild hillside
to watch the silent boy; only his little furry friends
the rabbits stole out and nibbled the grass about his feet,
and the birds came hopping around him, knowing they had nought to fear
from one who never harmed them, waiting for the meal
which he always shared with these his friends.
Sometimes impatient of his long long thoughts,
they would come nearer and peck at his bare feet,
and Cuthbert would raise himself and chide them
for their greediness, as he spread the crumbs
which he had saved for them.
It was the little grey road beneath on which his eyes were fixed,
and his thoughts followed its windings
until it reached the old abbey of Melrose,
the home of the holy monks, the servants of God.
Sometimes he would see two or three of the brothers
in their homespun cloaks passing beneath,
and would listen to the soft notes of the vesper hymn
as it floated upwards, and the eager light in his eyes
grew ever brighter as he watched and listened. He
 knew what these good monks did for the people around;
how they protected the weak, helped the helpless,
nursed the sick, and went about unarmed and fearless
through all the dangers that beset their path.
There was something about the look of their kind strong faces
that fascinated the boy, and drew him to watch for their passing
and to dream of their work and their courage.
Then he would softly sing over the fragments of their hymns
which his keen ear had caught, and the sound stirred something in his soul.
"Who knows; some day I too may become a servant of God,"
he would whisper to himself. And it was a wonderful thought to dream about.
Then came a day which Cuthbert never forgot.
He was playing as usual with the other boys,
who were leaping and wrestling, and in their wild spirits
trying to twist themselves into every kind of curious shape.
They were all laughing and shouting together, when a little boy,
scarce more than a baby, ran up and pulled Cuthbert by his coat.
"Why dost thou play such foolish games?" asked the child gravely.
Cuthbert stood still and looked down with surprise
into the child's solemn eyes.
"Little wise one," he answered with a laugh,
pushing him aside, but with no rough touch,
"wilt thou teach us thy games of wisdom instead?"
The child turned away and with a sob flung himself upon the ground,
crying as if his heart would break. The children gathered round,
fearing he was hurt, but no one could find out what it was
 that vexed him, until Cuthbert lifted him up
and soothed him with kindly words.
"Has aught harmed thee?" asked Cuthbert.
"No, no," sobbed the child; "but how canst thou, Cuthbert,
chosen by God to be His servant and bishop,
play at foolish games with babes, when He has called thee
to teach thy elders?"
What strange words were these? The
other boys had little patience with the crying child,
and roughly bade him go home. But in Cuthbert's ears
the words rang with a solemn sound, and he stored them up
in his mind to ponder upon their meaning.
What had the child meant? Was it possible that some day
the words would come true and he would indeed be chosen by God
to enter His service?
There was so much to think about that the lonely hours on the hillside
grew longer and longer, and he but rarely joined in the games now.
Even at night he could not rest, thinking those long long thoughts.
He knew that the holy monks spent many a night in prayer to God,
and he learned to love the dark solemn stillness
when he crept out on the bare hillside to say his prayers
under the starlit sky.
It seemed to be a link between him and those servants of God,
and he thought in his childish way that if the angels were there
to carry the holy prayers up to God's throne,
they might in passing take his little prayer as well,
and in that goodly company God would accept the best
that a child could offer, knowing it was the prayer of one
who longed to serve Him too.
 As Cuthbert grew older there was less time for dreaming or for play.
The sheep that were entrusted to him needed constant watchful care,
for it was no easy task to be a shepherd in those wild days.
Many an enemy lurked on the hillside, ready to snatch away
a lamb if the shepherd was not careful.
Not only did wolves prowl hungrily around,
but men, not too honest, were as ready as the wolves to rob the flock,
and it behoved the shepherd to be ever watchful and wary.
At night-time the shepherd lads would gather their sheep together
and spend the hours in company watching round the fire,
which they piled high with dried heather and dead branches from the wood.
It was no hardship to Cuthbert, for he loved the long quiet nights
on the hillside, and often while the others slept he watched alone,
using the time for prayer.
He had helped to make the watch-fire as usual one night
and had seen to the safety of the sheep, and then, one by one,
the shepherd lads had fallen asleep in the warmth of the glowing fire.
There was no need to rouse them, for he could keep guard alone,
and he stole away a little apart to spend the night in prayer,
as was his custom.
It was a dark night; the sky was velvet black,
without even a star to prick a point of light through its heavy blackness,
and the reflection of the fire served only to make the darkness
more dense on the lonely hillside. Cuthbert could scarcely see
the outline of the sheep, huddled together for warmth,
and in that great silence and solitude God seemed
 very near. Then, as he knelt in prayer, gazing upwards,
a vision such as that which gladdened the eyes of the shepherds
of Bethlehem burst upon his view. A great stream of dazzling light
broke through the darkness, as if a window in heaven had been opened,
and in that white shaft of light a company of angels swept down to earth.
It was no birthday message which they brought this time,
but their song of triumph told of a good life ended,
the crowning of a victor in a well-fought fight,
as they bore upward the soul of one whose warfare was accomplished
and who was entering into the joy of his Lord.
A great awe and joy filled the soul of Cuthbert as he gazed.
Long after the last gleam of heavenly light had vanished,
the last echo of the angels' songs had ceased, he knelt on there.
This then was the glorious end of those who entered the service of God.
"Fight the good fight: lay hold on eternal life";
was that an echo of the angels' song, or how was it that
he seemed to hear the words spoken clearly in his ears?
With a cry Cuthbert sprang to his feet and ran back to the fire
where the sleeping shepherds lay.
"Wake up, wake up," he cried, shaking them by the shoulders as he spoke.
"How can ye sleep when ye might have beheld the vision of God's angels?"
The startled lads jumped up, wondering at first
whether it might be an alarm of wolves or robbers,
but even they were awed when they caught sight of Cuthbert's face
and saw the light that shone upon
 it. With breathless interest they listened to the tale
he had to tell of the angels' visit
and the soul they had carried up to God.
What could it all mean? They wished that they too
had spent the night in prayer, instead of sleeping there.
Early in the morning, as soon as it was light
and he could leave the sheep, Cuthbert found his way
to the nearest hamlet, and there he learned that Aiden,
the holy Bishop of Lindisfarne, had died that night.
So it was the soul of the good Bishop whose glorious end,
nay rather whose triumphant new beginning,
had been heralded by the angel throng.
Cuthbert was awed to think that his eyes had been permitted
to gaze upon that wondrous vision, and he felt that
it must surely be a sign that God had given ear to his prayers,
and would accept him as His servant. It was a call to arms;
there should be no delay. He was eager and ready to fight
the good fight, to lay hold on eternal life.
Before very long all his plans were made.
It was but a simple matter to follow the example
of the disciples of old, to leave all and to follow the Master.
Only the sheep were to be gathered into the fold
and their charge given up; only the little hut on the hillside
to be visited, and a farewell to be said to the old nurse
who dwelt there. Cuthbert had lost both father and mother
when he was eight years old, and the old woman
had taken charge of him ever since.
She was sorely grieved to part with the lad,
but she saw that his purpose was strong and that nothing would shake it. With
 trembling hands she blessed him ere he left her,
and bade him not forget the lonely little hut on the hillside
and the old nurse who had cared for him.
So at last all was ready, and Cuthbert set off down the hillside
and along the little grey road that led to the monastery of Melrose,
beside the shining silver windings of the Tweed.
Snow lay on all the hills around, and the wintry wind wailed
as it swept past the grey walls and through the bare branches
of the trees that clustered round the abbey.
So mournful and so wild was the sound
that it might have been the spirit of evil
wailing over the coming defeat in store for the powers of darkness,
when the young soldier should arrive to enrol his name
in the army of God's followers.
At the door of the monastery a group of monks were standing
looking down the darkening road for the return
of one of the brothers. The prior Boisil himself was among them,
and was the first to catch sight of a figure coming towards them
with a great swinging stride. "A stranger," said one of the brothers,
trying to peer through the gathering gloom.
"It is no beggar," said another. "Methinks it is a young knight.
His steps are eager and swift, and he hath strong young limbs."
The prior said naught, but he too eagerly watched
the figure as it came nearer. A strange feeling of expectancy
had seized him. Something was surely about to happen
which he had half unconsciously
 long waited for. Then, as the boy drew near
and lifted his eager questioning eyes to the prior's face,
the good man's heart went out to him.
"Behold a servant of the Lord." Very solemnly the words rang out
as Boisil stretched out both hands in welcome,
and then laid them in blessing upon the young fair head
that was bowed before him.
The greeting seemed strange to the brethren gathered around.
Who was this boy? What did their prior mean?
But stranger still did the greeting sound in the ears of Cuthbert himself,
and he could scarcely believe that he heard aright.
"A servant of God": did the holy man really mean to call him,
the shepherd lad, by that great name?
"Father," he cried, almost bewildered, "wilt thou indeed teach me
how I may become God's servant, for it is His service that I seek?"
The prior smiled kindly at the anxious face,
and bade him enter the monastery in God's name.
"My son," he said, "there is much for thee to learn, much to suffer,
much to overcome, but surely the victory shall be thine."
So Cuthbert entered the monastery and the gates were shut.
The old life was left behind and the new life begun.
The prior himself taught the boy his new lessons,
for his love for the lad grew stronger and deeper each day.
Boisil felt sure there was a great future before the youth,
and he often dreamed dreams of the greatness in store for him
and the work that he should do for God in the world.
 "Who knows," he would say, "what honour God hath in store for thee.
If heaven sends dreams, then is thy future sure,
for I have seen thee wearing the bishop's mitre
and holding the pastoral staff."
As for Cuthbert himself, he was too busy to think much of dreams
or make plans for the future. Just as he had played his boyish games
with all his might, so now he threw his whole soul
into the work of the monastery. Lessons, prayer, fast and vigil,
all were diligently attended to, and it was pleasant
to see his glad cheerfulness when he was set to labour with his hands.
The harder the task the more he seemed to enjoy it,
and he rejoiced in the strength of his body
which made him able to undertake much service.
Although he now lived in the sheltered convent of the valley,
his thoughts would often fly back, like homing birds,
to the green hillsides, the glens and rocky passes,
back to the little lonely weather-beaten hut
where the old nurse lived. He never could forget the people
who lived up there among the hills&$8212;poor shepherds,
work-worn women and little children. It was a hard life they lived,
with never a soul to bring them a message of hope or good cheer.
Little wonder that their ways were often crooked and evil,
and the thought of God but a far-off, dim, half-forgotten dream.
Little wonder that black magic and witchcraft
should still have power to enchain them in their ignorance and fearfulness.
The good prior often talked with the eager young brother
about these wandering sheep, and when the
 time came he sent Cuthbert out with his blessing
to work amongst the hills once more,
to gather the flock into the true fold.
How well did Cuthbert know those steep mountain paths!
With what a light heart did he find his way over the rough hillsides
where no paths were, to reach some cluster of huts
where a few poor families lived, or even a solitary dwelling
where some poor soul needed his care.
There was something about the young monk that won a welcome for him
wherever he went. Perhaps it was because he was so sure
that all would rejoice to hear the message he brought;
perhaps it was because he looked for the best in every one
and so they gave him of their best.
From place to place Cuthbert went, and it mattered not to him
how rough was the road or how terrific the storms
that swept over the border-land.
The snow might lie deep upon the hills,
and he might be forced to spend the whole day without food,
but no difficulty ever turned him back or forced him
to leave one but unvisited.
Far and near the people began to look anxiously for his coming,
and to listen eagerly to his teaching. There was always much for him to do;
many a tale of sin to listen to, many a sinner to be taught
the way of repentance. There were children, too,
to be baptized, and this was work which Cuthbert always loved.
They were the little lambs of the flock to be specially guarded
from the Evil One, who was ever prowling around to snatch them
from the fold. The hut where the old nurse lived
 was often visited, for Cuthbert never forgot his friends.
There were other friends too that Cuthbert remembered and loved.
His "little sisters the birds" soon learned to know and trust him again,
and the wild animals of the hills grew tame under his hand.
It is said that on one of his journeys,
as he went to celebrate Mass with a little boy as server,
they had finished all their food and were obliged to go hungry.
Just then an eagle hovered above their heads
and dropped a fish which it had just caught.
The little boy seized it gladly and would have promptly prepared it
for their meal, but Cuthbert asked if he did not think
the kind fisherman deserved his share.
The boy looked at the eagle and then at the small fish;
but he knew what the master meant,
so the fish was cut in half and the eagle swooped down
to secure its share of the dinner.
There is another story told of the kindness
shown by his furry friends to Saint Cuthbert,
and it is a story which many people have remembered
even when the history of Saint Cuthbert's life has been wellnigh forgotten.
It was when Cuthbert went to visit the holy Abbess of Coldingham,
that, as was his wont when night came on,
he wandered out to say his prayers in silence and alone.
Now one of the brothers had long been anxious to know
how it was that Cuthbert spent the long hours of the night,
and so he stole down to the seashore and hid among the rocks,
watching to see what would happen.
 It was a cold bleak night, and the sea lay black and sullen
outside the line of breakers, but Cuthbert seemed to have no fear
of cold or blackness. Reaching the edge of the waves,
he waded in deeper and ever deeper until the water rose
as high as his chest. Standing thus, he sang his hymn of praise to God,
and the sound of the psalms rose triumphant,
hour after hour, above the sob of the sea
and the wail of the wintry wind. Not till the first faint gleam
of dawn touched the east with rosy light
did Cuthbert cease his vigil of prayer and praise.
Then, numbed and half frozen, he waded out
and stood upon the shelving beach once more,
and from the sea there followed him two otters.
The watcher among the rocks saw the two little animals
rub themselves tenderly against the frozen feet,
until their soft fur brought back some warmth and life
to the ice-cold limbs; and when their work was done
they stole quietly back into the water and were seen no more.
It is this legend of the kindness of the otters
which has never been forgotten
whenever the name of Saint Cuthbert is mentioned.
For fourteen years Cuthbert remained at Melrose,
and when the good Boisil died the brethren chose
the favourite young monk as their prior.
But it was not long before he left the abbey of Melrose
and went to the monastery of Lindisfarne,
on the wild bleak island known as Holy Island.
Here for twelve years he did his work as thoroughly
and bravely as he had done when he was a monk at Melrose,
and within the monastery his gentleness and infinite patience,
his kindliness and wise dealing, smoothed
 away every difficulty, and brought peace and happiness
to all the community.
It was no easy life he led on that bleak, bare, wind-swept island
of the North Sea, but still Cuthbert sought for something harder
and more difficult to endure. He longed to follow the example
of the hermit saints of old, and he made up his mind
to seek some desert spot where he might live alone with God,
far from the world with its love of ease and its deadly temptations.
From the monastery of Lindisfarne, Cuthbert had often gazed across
to the little islands which in summer-time
shone like jewels set in a silver sea,
and in winter seemed like little grey lonely ghosts
wrapped in their shroud of easterly haar,
or lashed by the cruel north wind until only the white foam
of the breakers marked the spot where they stood.
It was whispered by the brethren that evil spirits had their haunt
upon the wildest of those little islands,
and it seemed a fit place for the powers of darkness
to work their will. There was not a tree and scarcely a plant
upon the little island of Farne,
for the bitter winds blew the salt spray in from every side,
and only the wild sea-birds, gulls, kittiwakes, puffins,
and eider-ducks, found shelter among the rocks to build their nests.
It seemed exactly the spot that Cuthbert sought for his retreat,
and he only smiled when the brethren sought to dissuade him,
and talked of the dangers that awaited any one
who dared to land upon that island.
"Have we not ourselves heard the demon shrieks
 and their wild wicked laughter on stormy nights?"
said one brother solemnly.
"Ay, and have we not seen the glitter of the demon lights
set there to lure poor fishermen to their destruction?" said another.
"The greater need, then, that I should go," said Cuthbert.
"Christ's soldier is the fittest champion to fight the powers of darkness."
So Christ's soldier went out to seek a home on the desolate island,
and all alone there he set to work to found a little kingdom
of his own. Whether the demons fled at the approach of the holy man,
or whether they fought for their kingdom
and were cast out by the might of Saint Cuthbert,
or whether he found only the shrieking wind
and wail of the wild birds instead of the howls of a demon crew,
we know not. But certain it is that
when at last some of the brothers ventured over,
half timidly, to see how their prior fared,
they found only Cuthbert and the wild birds there in peaceful solitude.
The hut which he had built for himself against the rocks
was almost like a sea-bird's nest,
for it was hollowed out deep within,
and its walls were of rough stones and turf,
its roof of poles and dried grass.
It must have been a work of great labour to build that wall,
and some of the stones were so large
that it seemed as if it would have needed three men to move them.
"He could not have done it by himself," whispered the brethren;
"it is God's angels who have helped him." And when, too,
they found a spring of clear water gushing from the rock close to the little
 oratory, they said in their hearts, "He who turneth
the stony rock into pools of water,
hath here again shown His care for His servant."
At first it was needful that food should be brought
to Cuthbert on the desolate island, but he was very anxious
to provide for himself, for he always loved to work with his hands.
The first crop of corn which he sowed came to nought,
but the next thing he tried was barley,
and that grew and flourished, and Cuthbert was content
to think that now no longer was he dependent on others for his food.
Yet it was but a scanty supply of grain that he had,
and it was not without reason that the people whispered
that the angels must bring food to the holy man,
for he never seemed to lack the daily bread.
The wild birds that built their nests in the island of Farne
soon grew accustomed to their new companion,
and ceased to rise in white clouds when he came near.
Of all the birds the eider-ducks were his special favourites
and his special friends, and even to this day
they are known by the name of Saint Cuthbert's ducks.
So friendly did they become that, when the sunny month
of June smiled on the little island and the mother duck
was sitting upon her nest, she would allow Saint Cuthbert
to come near and gently stroke her, and even let him peep
inside at the hidden treasure&$8212;the five pale olive-coloured eggs
that lay so snugly at the bottom of the nest.
For eight years Cuthbert lived his life of prayer and self-denial
in the little home he had made for himself,
but at the end of that time God had other
 work for him to do. In the world of strife and human passions
the Church had need of a strong arm and a pure heart,
and it was decided that the hermit of Farne Island
should be called forth and made a bishop.
A company of men landed on the island and brought the message
to the lonely man in his little oratory,
but Cuthbert would not listen to their pleading.
The honour was too great for him, he said,
and he prayed them to leave him to his prayers.
Then it was that the King himself, with the bishops
and great men of the kingdom, came in a wondrous procession
and besought Cuthbert to come out and do battle for God in the Church.
Cuthbert saw then that it was the will of God,
and very sorrowfully he yielded. It was with a sad heart
that he left his home among the wild birds and prepared
to take his place in the world again as Bishop of Lindisfarne.
The dreams of Boisil, the good prior of Melrose,
had indeed come true. The shepherd lad of the hills,
the monk of Melrose, the prior of Lindisfarne, the hermit of Farne,
now held the pastoral staff and wore the mitre of a bishop.
It was no mere sign of office that Cuthbert held in his hand
the pastoral staff. He was indeed a shepherd and bishop of men's souls,
and he guarded and tended his flock as carefully
as in the old days he had tended the sheep upon the hills.
Once again he trod the rough hilly paths
and brought comfort and help to those who were afar off,
and lit the lamp of faith that had grown dim.
Sometimes, in the wild waste districts where there was no church and
 but few huts, the people would build a shelter for him
with the boughs of trees, and there, in Nature's green cathedral,
they would gather the children together for confirmation.
Surely none of the little ones ever forgot
that moment when they knelt before the good Bishop
and felt the touch of his hand upon their bowed heads.
The pale thin face was worn with suffering and hardship now,
but the old sweet smile still drew all men's hearts out to him,
and the love that shone in his eyes seemed more of heaven
than of earth. He had always loved the lambs of the flock,
and each little fair head upon which he laid his hand
had a special place in his heart, as he gathered them
into the fold of the Good Shepherd.
But it was not only the souls of his people for which Cuthbert cared,
but for their bodies as well. Many an illness did he cure:
many a stricken man owed his life to the Bishop's care.
It seemed as if his very presence put fresh courage
and strength into those who were thought to be dying,
so that the touch of his hand led them back
from the very gates of death. God had indeed given His servant
special powers of healing, and who shall measure the power
of a good man's prayers?
Once, in a far-off hamlet which had been visited by a deadly sickness,
Cuthbert had gone from hut to hut, visiting and cheering
each one of his people, leaving behind him courage
and returning health. He was very weary and worn out,
for the work had been heavy, but before leaving,
he turned to a priest who was with him and said, "Is there still any one
 sick in this place whom I can bless before I depart?"
"There is still one poor woman over yonder," answered the priest.
"One of her sons is already dead and the other is dying even now."
A few swift strides and the Bishop was by the
side of the stricken mother. No thought had he of
the danger of catching the terrible disease. His
strong loving hands gently drew the dying child
from her arms, and, holding the little one close to
his heart, he knelt and prayed that God would
spare the little life. Even as he prayed the child's
breathing grew easier, and the cold cheek grew
flushed and warm, and when he placed him again
in his mother's arms it was a living child she held
and not a dying one now.
But Cuthbert's strength was waning fast,
and the old splendid health and strength were gone.
He knew his work was drawing to a close and the days
of his usefulness were over, and with the knowledge
came a great longing to creep away to the little sea-girt island,
and spend the last few months alone with God.
It was with heavy hearts that the brothers watched
the little boat made ready which was to carry their beloved Bishop
away from their care.
"Tell us, Reverend Bishop, when may we hope
for thy return?" cried one.
"When you shall bring my body back," was the
calm answer. Then they knew that this was their last farewell,
and they knelt in silence to receive his blessing.
 The end was not far off. A few short weeks
amongst the happy birds; a worn weary body laying itself down
to rest before the altar in the little
oratory; a glad soul winging its triumphant flight back to God,
and Saint Cuthbert's earthly life was over.
The end? Nay, there is no ending to the lives of God's saints,
for they come down to us through the ages,
a golden inheritance which can never die;
stars in the dark night shining steadily on,
with a light "which shineth more and more unto the perfect Day."
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