Post from 28th May – Picture of Arctic Tern. These birds have been a frequent thought over these holidays, with their bright red beaks and red feet, and agile flight. They swoop down to protect their partners and their treasure, they use most of their energy doing this. The female sits adamantly on the egg and ignores all threats to her to keep the egg warm, she ignores her own needs for the goal.
The Farne Islands are known for their wildlife, and when I visited the islands the Arctic Terns were particularly fun to watch swooping down on the travellers who came too close.
There are many other birds on these islands, Puffins, crossbills, gulls, and many other birds and mammals.
I thought of the Arctic Terns when reading about St Cuthbert. He had spent most of his later life as a hermit on the Farne Islands and he would have encountered these birds.
What was life like as a hermit?
Even though we are told that St Cuthbert was a hermit, we are also told that he spent a good part of his life travelling to the villages and towns in the hills, where others didn’t really want to go to preach. He had the gifts to heal and expound on the bible, being able to see into people’s hearts, which converted many.
It was only on his last part of his life that we are told he went to be a hermit, first for a little while on the small retreat island (Hobthrush) just a short distance from the priory and then to Inner Farne Island which no one had lived on because it was said to have been inhabited by demons.
Perhaps people mistook the cry of these birds and their red feet and red beaks as the demons that kept travellers at bay? When I visited the islands I was amazed at their persistence in attacking everyone who came near, their struggle seemed to occupy most of their time. Perhaps living on the island with these birds would have been horrendous every day. But St Cuthbert would have had to grow his own produce and be self reliant to create all his food and live. This meant a hard life that was not just kneeling down and praying.
But on the island all the wildlife is beautiful, it is full of vitality, it is alive, growing. Perhaps we are so full of the luxuries in life that it is extremely difficult for us to imagine what life could have been like. Life must have been hard, very cold and tough on most days. Perhaps that is one reason that St Cuthbert did not live to a ripe old age.
But he spent his time in prayer and obedience to God alone!
Why would God ask for someone to spend their time alone? Clearly God does ask some people to lead a solitary life and to commit themselves to God alone. But when you read the bible the first mention of man being alone is in Genesis.
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him”
Clearly most people were made to be with someone. Someone comparable, not as a helper that is subservient, but as someone in life who has different qualities that can compliment your qualities. My wife is great at organising things and the week ahead, where I tend to just see what happens, and I think it is good that there is that mix, it works well.
The next time we here about being alone is in Genesis 32:24 in the story of Jacob.
And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered
Here we see Jacob is in turmoil with what to do with the coming of his brother, and it could go very badly. So he is left alone and he has an encounter with God. Was this man who wrestled with Jacob Jesus? I would suggest yes but you have to make your own mind up. But the important point is because he was left alone, and I presume he prayed to God and he had an encounter with God because of this. Is that what the hermit life is trying to achieve? Even though the encounter with God might weaken your physical life, as it did St Cuthbert, it is to be welcomed because it is a wonderful blessing, and a fearsome privilege to have an encounter with God. St Cuthbert must have had encounters with God but it is a pity not much remains of his thoughts to expand on his view of God.
Clearly we need to reach out to God, to pursue His face. But perhaps a small time alone in our routine is good so that we can get some quality time with him. The Arctic Terns have a life together but there are times when the male goes off for food and the mother is left alone nesting with the precious egg, and that must be a higher goal than feeding her own hunger or fear. Just like when we are alone and praying to God we must ignore our petty feelings for food, for distractions, for comfort, and turn our whole attention to seeking the face of God.
I will finish with an excerpt of a prayer from the Celtic Daily Prayer book published by collins.
My eyes, my eyes have seen the King.
The vision of his beauty has pierced me deep within.
To whom else can I go?
My heart, my heart desires Him.
He’s touched something inside of me that’s now reaching out for Him.
And I know that I must go.
My God is my love, my guard, my healing one;
my bright love is my merciful Lord;
my sweet love is Christ;
His heart is my delight;
all my love is you,
O King of glory.