Letter from Cuthbert to Cuthwin
This important letter by Saint Cuthbert is dated November, 734AD.
Cuthbert was formerly a pupil of Bede. Cuthbert later became Abbot of the Wearmouth and Jarrow Monastery in succession to Huaetbert.
This letter gives us a rare glimpse into the life of a man about which we know very little. We know that he came to St. Peter’s, Monkwearmouth at the age of 7 – almost certainly an orphan from Sonderlonde (Sunderland) – and here we hear of his death many years later from someone whom he taught and no doubt inspired, just as he has inspired so many millions since through his writings and work.
“To his fellow-lector, Cuthwin, beloved in Christ, Cuthbert, his fellow-student, greeting and salvation for ever in the Lord. I have very gladly received the gift which thou sentest to me, and with much joy have read thy devout and learned letter, wherein I found that which I greatly desired, to wit, that masses and holy prayers are diligently offered by you for our father and master Bede, beloved of God. Wherefore I rejoice, rather for love of him than from confidence in my own power, to relate in few words after what manner he departed out of this world, understanding also that thou hast desired and asked this of me. He was troubled with weakness and chiefly with difficulty in breathing, yet almost without pain, for about a fortnight before the day of our Lord’s Resurrection; and thus he afterwards passed his time, cheerful and rejoicing, giving thanks to Almighty God every day and night, nay, every hour, till the day of our Lord’s Ascension, to wit, the twenty-sixth day of May, and daily gave lessons to us, his disciples; and whatsoever remained of the day he spent in singing psalms, as far as he was able; he also strove to pass all the night joyfully in prayer and thanksgiving to God, save only when a short sleep prevented it; and then he no sooner awoke than he straightway began again to repeat the well-known sacred songs, and ceased not to give thanks to God with uplifted hands. I declare with truth that I have never seen with my eyes, or heard with my ears, any man so earnest in giving thanks to the living God. O truly blessed man! He repeated the words of St. Paul the Apostle, ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,’ and much more out of Holy Scripture; wherein also he admonished us to think of our last hour, and to arise out of the sleep of the soul; and being learned in our native poetry, he said also in our tongue, concerning the dread parting of souls from the body:
Fore then neidfaerae
than him tharf sie
to ymb hycggannae
aer his hin iongae
huaet his gastae
godaes aeththa yflaes
Which being interpreted is: “Before the inevitable journey hence, no man is wiser than is needful that he may consider, ere the soul departs, what good or evil it hath done and how it shall be judged after its departure.”
“He also sang antiphons for our comfort and his own. One of these is, ‘O King of Glory, Lord of all power, Who, triumphing this day, didst ascend above all the heavens, leave us not comfortless, but send to us the promise of the Father, even the Spirit of Truth—Hallelujah.’ And when he came to the words, ‘leave us not comfortless,’ he burst into tears and wept much. And an hour after, he fell to repeating what he had begun. And this he did the whole day, and we, hearing it, mourned with him and wept. Now we read and now we lamented, nay, we wept even as we read. In such rapture we passed the fifty days’ festival4 till the aforesaid day; and he rejoiced greatly and gave God thanks, because he had been accounted worthy to suffer such weakness. And he often said, ‘God scourgeth every son whom He receiveth’; and the words of St. Ambrose, ‘I have not so lived as to be ashamed to live among you; but neither do I fear to die, because we have a merciful Lord.’ And during those days, besides the lessons we had daily from him, and the singing of the Psalms, there were two memorable works, which he strove to finish; to wit, his translation of the Gospel of St. John, from the beginning, as far as the words, ‘But what are they among so many?’ into our own tongue, for the benefit of the Church of God; and some selections from the books of Bishop Isidore, saying, ‘I would not have my boys read a lie, nor labour herein without profit after my death.’
“When the Tuesday before the Ascension of our Lord came, he began to suffer still more in his breathing, and there was some swelling in his feet. But he went on teaching all that day and dictating cheerfully, and now and then said among other things, ‘Learn quickly, I know not how long I shall endure, and whether my Maker will not soon take me away.’ But to us it seemed that haply he knew well the time of his departure; and so he spent the night, awake, in giving of thanks. And when the morning dawned, that is, on the Wednesday, he bade us write with all speed what we had begun. And this we did until the third hour. And from the third hour we walked in procession with the relics of the saints, according to the custom of that day. And there was one of us with him who said to him, ‘There is still one chapter wanting of the book which thou hast been dictating, but I deem it burdensome for thee to be questioned any further.’ He answered, ‘Nay, it is light, take thy pen and make ready, and write quickly.’ And this was done. But at the ninth hour he said to me, ‘I have certain treasures in my coffer, some spices, napkins and incense; run quickly and bring the priests of our monastery to me, that I may distribute among them the gifts which God has bestowed on me.’ And this I did trembling, and when they were come, he spoke to every one of them, admonishing and entreating them that they should diligently offer masses and prayers for him, and they promised readily. But they all mourned and wept, sorrowing most of all for the words which he spake, because they thought that they should see his face no long time in this world. But they rejoiced for that he said, ‘It is time for me, if it be my Maker’s will, to be set free from the flesh, and come to Him Who, when as yet I was not, formed me out of nothing. I have lived long; and well has my pitiful judge disposed my life for me; the time of my release is at hand; for my soul longs to see Christ my King in His beauty.’ Having said this and much more for our profit and edification, he passed his last day in gladness till the evening; and the aforesaid boy, whose name was Wilbert, still said, ‘Dear master, there is yet one sentence not written.’ He answered, ‘It is well, write it.’ Soon after, the boy said, ‘Now it is written.’ And he said, ‘It is well, thou hast said truly, it is finished. Take my head in thy hands, for I rejoice greatly to sit facing my holy place where I was wont to pray, that I too, sitting there, may call upon my Father.’ And thus on the pavement of his little cell, chanting ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,’ and the rest, he breathed his last.
After his formative years in St. Peter’s, Monkwearmouth, Sunderland St Bede moved to the twin monastery in Jarrow and is now buried in Durham Cathedral. Sadly, his original tomb was destroyed in the Reformation. The present tomb, built in 1831 is inscribed with Bede’s own words:
“Christ is the morning star, who when the night
Of this world is past brings to his saints
The promise of the light of life & opens everlasting day”