There is a story of “Saint Cuthbert and the Otters.” A friend asked if I could do a talk, on the theme of Saints, to a group that meets in her church, and I thought this story would serve as an introduction to a talk about my swim. When I read up on St Cuthbert I realised that there is much more to him than a protector of wild life with a gift for hospitality and a fondness of the sea.
So I was a little apprehensive when I arrived for the meeting, although I was welcomed by the welcomer she was distracted by a couple of ladies who had arrived for a different group. Another person came in, and seeing me standing by the teas and coffee table, asked if there was any chance of a cup of tea. Well it wouldn’t do to say “No”, then talk about hospitality, so I poured her a cup. In the meantime, the welcomer was asking the two ladies, who had got the wrong week for their meeting, if they would like to stay for a cup of tea. When she told them that Ann would be speaking about St Cuthbert, they made their excuses and left. Then as my friend was about to open the meeting another lady, who had also got the wrong week, having finished her cup of tea stood up and walked out. However the remaining audience did seem pleased to be there and eager to hear the talk.
A Talk on St Cuthbert
In his last illness, my father could no longer respond, but the nurses said he could hear us. So I took things to the hospital to read to him. One of the things I read was Compline from “Celtic Night Prayer.” The night before he died, it being Tuesday, I read the Cuthbert Compline.
It was fitting that it was Cuthbert’s Compline, because my father was proud of his Northumbrian heritage. He had done his teacher training in Bede’s College in Durham and he loved Durham Cathedral with its shrine to Cuthbert. He often told us stories about Cuthbert, particularly when we visited places connected with the saint.
Once, when I was about ten, I was swimming in the sea with my cousin. It was probably on the Isle of Skye, so not a place connected with Cuthbert, but no matter. My father had been watching us, from a cliff top above the bay, and thought he saw 4 people swimming. When he looked, with his binoculars, he realised it was not people but otters. The otters had swum close enough for us to swim alongside them.
Back on the beach, my dad told us he had been watching us swim with the otters and asked if he had told us the story of Cuthbert and the Otters. Well of course he had. But what child doesn’t want to hear their Dad tell one of his stories again.
This is the story he told.
“In the time when the country was divided, and the king was trying to unite the Kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira into the great Kingdom of Northumberland, he named Cuthbert as the patron saint. For, Cuthbert had lived and travelled throughout both Kingdoms, an ambassador to the Prince of Peace, and both Kingdoms honoured him. Cuthbert also sought to bring unity to the church, which was divided between those who followed the traditions of, Christianity brought from Rome by, Augustine and those who followed the Celtic tradition. Cuthbert had once been a staunch supporter of the Celtic tradition and was among the brothers expelled from the monastery at Ripon for refusing to adhere to the ways of the Rome, but following the synod at Whitby he accepted our Mother Hilda’s example that there should be unity between Christians, and that it was politic to become one church of England by accepting the traditions of Rome. Thus when Cuthbert became bishop he travelled among his flock and instructed them to accept the Roman method of calculating the date of Easter and for the brothers to adopt the Roman tonsure.
But Cuthbert not only loved his people and desired them to live in unity, he also desired that people live in harmony with nature and forbade the killing of his ducks- Cuddy Ducks as they are known in North or eider ducks as they are known elsewhere. Indeed such was his love of nature that he created the first nature reserve around his beloved island, the Inner Farne. We may think of St Francis of Assisi as the first conservationist, but we have our own Cuthbert of the North Sea (my dad loved a play on words). Cuthbert spent time alone, as a hermit, on his cell on the Inner Farne, but when his duties as bishop kept him from his cell, he still sought time for solitude and did not neglect his prayer life.
Once, when Cuthbert was visiting the monastery at Coldingham, one brother sought to see if he could make some charge of hypocrisy against him. At night, when other men took their rest, Cuthbert went out to pray. One night this brother, stealthily followed him and spied on him from a distance. The saint walked down to the sea and into its waves until they lapped about his neck and raising his arms he began to pray, his chanting floating in the darkness like the waves of the sea. As twilight came and the dawn began to break he waded back up the beach. There he knelt and prayed again and as he prayed two otters came from out of the sea and warmed his feet with their breath and dried him with their fur. The saint blessed them and they slipped back into their native waters. Then he returned to the house to sing the hymns of office at the appointed hour. The brother was seized with remorse and sought out Cuthbert to confess his foolishness and beg forgiveness. Cuthbert granted him forgiveness and blessed him, but made the monk promise to tell no one what he had seen while the saint still lived.
The monk kept his promise but after Cuthbert’s death made the story known.”
I loved this tale of Cuthbert and the Otters and can relate to praying with nature in solitude. Although if I am in the sea I prefer to be swimming in it and want the warmth of dry clothes when I get out. I had enjoyed swimming with otters though. I probably first heard of Captain Matthew Webb about this time for it would have been around the centenary of him swimming the English Channel. I had never been as far south as Dover and it only looked a tiny distance on the map, so I thought I could do that. Then I found that what looks a tiny distance on a map, isn’t in reality and it involves a lot more than walking into the sea and swimming in the right direction. The little girl grew up and life happened and, although I sometimes swam in the sea, I forgot about swimming the channel.
I finished my talk with my story of how I came to fulfil that dream, as I have written in previous blogs.