The Fire of the North
Cuthbert would often say that to be a light, one had to be ready to get burnt. How hard it is to live life to the full when one is afraid of death!
On one occasion, Cuthbert was visiting his foster mother Kenswith at Wrangham. An unusual commotion arose outside. A house on the edge of the village was on fire! The villagers came out to watch in horror as the flames rose and began to spread, fanned by a mighty wind blowing the flames towards the centre. Every hand was carrying and pitching water, desperately trying to stop the advancing inferno. Kenswith found Cuthbert in the commotion, pleading with him to lend his hand, for Cuthbert was still. “Do not be afraid,” came Cuthbert’s unwelcome reply: “This fire will cause you no harm.” Cuthbert gazed into the eyes of the approaching conflagration, unperturbed. He fell onto the ground in prayer, uttering prayers that sounded unlike any earthly tongue. At precisely this moment, the wind changed direction, blowing the flames back from whence they came, saving all houses in the village bar the one where the fire started.
Cuthbert held an unwavering certainty in the strange power of prayer. He had found that God was always more powerful than the best laid plans of man, and that prayer was mysteriously linked to God’s will for creation. In the dark days, it was necessary to fight fire with fire: the fire of prayer; the fire of the love of God. Cuthbert thus became associated with the Fire of the North, for here was a man who was truly fired by the love of God.
As time passed, Cuthbert became less and less able to fulfil his duties as Bishop. Thus, he decided to return to his beloved Farne, to spend his last days in the place he called home.
In his quiet little dwelling, Cuthbert gave thanks for the sunrise and the sunset, the peace and the quiet which he enjoyed. He would watch the light playfully rippling off the crashing waves on the coast. His illness came in earnest, and Cuthbert knew his days were limited. He asked the monks on the island to ensure his burial in his oratory, on the eastern side of the cross he had placed there. Cuthbert had even prepared his own sarcophagus and cloths in which to be buried.
The monks were greatly troubled at the illness of this holy man, and wished to be near him the better to help him in his suffering. Cuthbert made clear his wishes to be alone. And so they left him, and for five days were prevented from returning to him by a storm that roared around the island.
When the storm abated, Herefrith the monk went to him, and found him in a poor state. Here was a man in his final moments, greatly weakened by a lack of food and by disease. Cuthbert told Herefrith of his last five days, bed-bound, which had been a time of great battle with the Enemy. Amazed, Herefrith asked how Cuthbert could have went five days without food. Cuthbert feebly moved down his blanket to reveal five onions. Only one showed any signs of having been nibbled on.
The day passed, with Cuthbert reciting the Psalms from memory. At the appointed time, Cuthbert said Evening Prayer and received Holy Communion for the last time on earth. He raised his hands high up to God in praise, and left to be with his Father.
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away
Change and decay in all around I see
O Thou who changest not, abide with me
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee
In life, in death, o Lord, abide with me
O God, our heavenly Father, whose glory fills the whole creation, and whose presence we find wherever we go: preserve those who travel; surround them with your loving care; protect them from every danger; and bring them in safety to their journey’s end; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.