Tuesday 20 March 2012

St Cuthbert and his Unseen Warfare against the devils of Farne



Bede: The Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindesfarne (721)


WHEN he had remained some years in the monastery, he was rejoiced to be able at length, with the blessing of the abbot and brethren accompanying him, to retire to the secrecy of solitude which he had so long coveted.

He rejoiced that from the long conversation with the world he was now thought worthy to be promoted to retirement and Divine contemplation: he rejoiced that he now could reach to the condition of those of whom it is sung by the Psalmist: "The holy shall walk from virtue to virtue; the God of Gods shall be seen in Zion."

At his first entrance upon the solitary life, he sought out the most retired spot in the outskirts of the monastery. But when he had for some time contended with the invisible adversary with prayer and fasting in this solitude, he then, aiming at higher things, sought out a more distant field for conflict, and more remote from the eyes of men.

There is a certain island called Farne, in the middle of the sea, not made an island, like Lindisfarne, by the flow of the tide, which the Greeks call rheuma, and then restored to the mainland at its ebb, but lying off several miles to the East, and, consequently, surrounded on all sides by the deep and boundless ocean.

No one, before God's servant Cuthbert, had ever dared to inhabit this island alone, on account of the evil spirits which reside there: but when this servant of Christ came, armed with the helmet of salvation, the shield of faith, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, all the fiery darts of the wicked were extinguished, and that wicked enemy, with all his followers, were put to flight.



Traditional and orthodox Christians need to recover the mode of thinking in which we can read the above account - by Britain's first great historian writing of her greatest Saint - and regard it as an account of what happened.

For instance, that Inner Farne was un-inhabitable because of the evils spirits, and after Cuthbert arrived to set-up his hermitage, the first thing he did was to expel these devils.

And it was participation in this cosmic conflict, on behalf of Good, that was the highest activity of Holy Elders of the past, that towards which the greatest Saints strove.

In other words, ascetic monasticism (and the Via Negativa) was (in part) intended to be a spiritual training for unseen warfare for the benefit of mankind - when [Cuthbert] had for some time contended with the invisible adversary with prayer and fasting in this solitude, he then, aiming at higher things, sought out a more distant field for conflict...



Gyan said...

This account reminds me of the legends of the upper Himalayan district of Kinnaur-each village has a temple and they have stories of how their gods fought with the demons and made the valley fit for habitation.

I also note that the Schoolmen, whom you tend to deride, made precise the concepts involved in
" evil spirits which reside there".
As CS Lewis notes in Preface to Paradise Lost, a thing can be in a place (A) circumcribatively (i.e. the thing is bounded in that location) or (B) definitively (i.e the thing is there and not anywhere else, but the location does not bind the thing.
The angels and demons are in a place definitively

Bruce Charlton said...

Re Schoolmen - if you find that explanation useful, and are happy to 'leave it at that' then fine!

But the precision comes at a cost - the cost of abstraction; and most schoolmen will not stop at that level of precision but have indeed pressed on with the project of precision, generation upon generation, for hundreds of years and no end in sight.

Wurmbrand said...

Perhaps it was when I read St. Athanasius's Life of St. Anthony the first time that I perceived the departure into the desert of the ancient Christian monks not only as a withdrawal from the world but as an act of aggression against evil spirits.

St. Athanasius alludes to our Savior being raised on the Cross to purify the air of demons. That in itself will seem a very quaint idea to some. If there is anything in it, perhaps the raising of Church crosses in so many parts of the world had some part to play as a visible sign of the prayer to the true God that rose from the churches below and also was of some importance in the unseen warfare. But the crosses will be taken down as secularism and non-Christian religion continue their campaigns. I suppose church bells will be silenced more and more...

Still, as Grundtvig's hymn has it:

Built on the Rock the church doth stand,
Even when steeples are falling; Crumbled have spires in e’ry land, Bells still are chiming and calling;
Calling the young and old to rest, Calling the souls of men distressed,
Longing for life everlasting.

Not in our temples made with hands God, the almighty, is dwelling; High in the heav’ns his temple stands, All earthly temples excelling;
Yet he who dwells in heav’n above Deigns to abide with us in love, Making our bodies his temple.

We are God’s house of living stones, Built for his own habitation;
He fills our hearts, his humble thrones, Granting us life and salvation;
Where two or three to seek his face, He in their midst would show his grace,
Blessings upon them bestowing.