Sacred Places Journal
6 October, 2001: Durham Cathedral: On One's Knees with Cuthbert
Even the internet café becomes a place of pilgrimage as I think of Egeria, that fourth-century pilgrim to the Holy Land, whose diary was written in the form of letters sent back to her priory in Spain to inform them about Christian worship. And finding a ship to carry her letters back must have been a similar difficulty for Egeria. "An internet café? Yes, down the alley, around the corner, along the street. It's called 'Saints & Sinners'."
I find a Dungeons-and-Dragons-looking place that will open in two hours-maybe. But there's another "up the way and over the bridge. It's a black door. Ring the bell." A homeless man selling "The Big Issue" newspaper tells me this one will be open in an hour - maybe.
Late in the afternoon I find the black door opens to my ring-and what a perfect time to be here. Is there another internet café in the world that looks out on a wooded hill topped with such a cathedral as Durham Cathedral? And through the open window beside me, the bells ring forth with peal after peal of glorious English change-ringing . . . but I've jumped ahead.
Market scene in Durham
First, back to Saturday morning, through the bustling market square which looks far too medieval not to be a play set. I keep expecting Tybalt and Mercutio to spring out and begin dueling in front of me. This whole city has a magical unreality about it. I climb the cobbled path to the crowning magnificence of the Norman cathedral with the Castle (now part of the university) at the other end, while the city straggles higgledy-piggledy up and down this city of seven hills.
Durham has long been my favorite cathedral-although I love them all-and I never fail to catch my breath as I enter the nave: those mammoth pillars, eleven feet in diameter, each pair carved in a different design, getting progressively more intricate as one progresses toward the altar, moving eastward toward the holy place.
Enroute up the south aisle to Cuthbert's Chapel, I pause at the Millenium window. At the top are scenes of Holy Island and St. Cuthbert, then the exodus from Holy Island with the monks fleeing the Vikings, taking Cuthbert's remains. I smile at the modern image of a university computer printing out the 12th-century account of the Pilgrimage of Cuthbert's Shrine.
The plaque on the door to the shrine explains: Cuthbert, the greatest saint of the North Country. His undecayed body was placed here in 1104, and became a famous center of Pilgrimage up to the Reformation.
The high altar at Durham Cathedral
After a journey of some 150 years that included a stop as far afield as Whithorn, and sharing his coffin with the remains of Sts. Oswold and Bede, Cuthbert has come to rest in a shrine in the apse of Durham Cathedral behind the high altar.
The tomb is now a simple slab of marble in the floor with "Cuthbertus" engraved on it and a prie dieu at the foot, where a young woman knelt in rapt prayer when I entered on tiptoe. In medieval times the tomb was made of costly green marble, guilded with gold. There were four seats where pilgrims, especially the sick and lame, might rest to pray. Many of those who received aid left lavish gifts, and this became one of the richest monuments in England. On Cuthbert's day, 20 March, and other festivals, the cover of the shrine was raised. The heavy oaken cover was raised by a rope attached to a pulley. The rope was hung with silver bells, and the lovely sound of their ringing drew people in the church to prayer.
St. Cuthbert's tomb in Durham Cathedral
Before leaving the chapel I kneel and pray the cathedral prayer for St. Cuthbert's day:
Almighty God who didst call thy servant Cuthbert from keeping sheep to follow thy Son and to be a shepherd of thy people, mercifully grant that we, following his example and caring for those who are lost may bring them home to thy fold, through thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In the cathedral treasury we see the treasures buried in Cuthbert's grave: A pectoral cross, a portable altar, beautifully embroidered vestments. And, most amazing of all, we see Cuthbert's coffin: heavy oak planks cut from a single tree, carved with the twelve apostles around the sides and, on the lid, Christ in the center with the symbols of the four Evangelists around him, all in delicate line drawings. Cuthbert, the gentle lad who saw a vision of the death of Aiden, Abbot of Lindisfarne, while watching his sheep on a Northumbrian hillside and recognized it as a call of God to shepherd His sheep. Cuthbert, who was ever happiest among the seabirds and otters of his island hermitage and in solitary prayer, lived a life of quiet dedication as monk, priest, abbot and bishop, but in the end, he is remembered not so much for what he did as for what he was-a gentle, loving, devout man of God.
The nave at Durham Cathedral
The organ peals forth as we go to the small Gregory Chapel for mid-day prayers, led by a gentle priest of today, on his knees.
Pilgrimage surrounds me. Tonight we attend a special concert in the cathedral: "A Choral Pilgrimage." The Sixteen, an early music consort, taking pre-Reformation music on a tour of England's cathedrals, sings Thomas Tallis, William.Byrd and other composers of English polyphony. As the massive stonework resounds to the soaring voices, it seems a fulfillment of the prophecy of the very stones crying out in praise of the Creator.