Sunday, 30 June 2013

On the Lindisfarne Gospels

Letters of the alphabet are relevant today when we focus on a text and its writing. I like the letter ‘M’ (something no doubt not unconnected with my name).  It is one of those that are beautifully illuminated in the Lindisfarne Gospels: see the opening page of St Mark.  So you will forgive me for focusing on that letter in an alliterative way today.

We are here to celebrate a manuscript, a man and a message. 
 
Although it is the focus of this service, the manuscript itself is perhaps what I need say least about. The celebrated Lindisfarne Gospel Book, as we all know, is one of those landmark cultural artefacts that are universal in their value and their appeal. Perhaps there are not many books in the world that are so exquisite, that hold such huge appeal and evoke such strong loyalties. It belongs to the history of civilisation not only in this county but worldwide. Here in this part of England, we think of it as ‘ours’ in a special way because its identity seems so closely connected to the North East’s strong sense of place. It is part of our landscape of faith. And insofar as it once belonged to this Cathedral Priory and lived here from its Saxon beginnings in 995 throughout the rest of the middle ages, there is something truly symbolic about its being displayed here in Durham, in the shadow of these beloved ‘mixed and massive piles’ as Sir Walter Scott called the grey towers of Durham. If only the book could tell us its story and speak! But of course, that is precisely what it does do, even today: speak. We shall come back to that.
 
The man is of course St Cuthbert. The Gospel Book was written ‘in honour of God and St Cuthbert’ not much more than a decade after he died in 687. And this too is what gives this summer’s exhibition in Durham real intellectual and spiritual importance. For we cannot understand the Gospel Book unless we know something about Cuthbert, nor can we fully appreciate its significance in isolation from the Saxon Christian world both he and it belonged to. When Cuthbert’s community left the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, they took with them the objects they valued above everything else: the relics of Cuthbert and their other saints, and their precious gospel book. We heard how Symeon of Durham wove stories around that journey in the 12th century. They perhaps did not know that in his coffin they were also carrying Cuthbert’s own Gospel of St John, that marvellous little Saxon book that has just been purchased for the nation and is also in the exhibition. I am saying that it would have seemed impossible to that community that the saint and the manuscript written in his honour could ever be separated. So on these occasions when they are brought together in one place, Cuthbert’s place, it is like a rare conjunction of planets in the sky.
 
That so much effort, investment and cost went into creating the Lindisfarne Gospels is of course a measure of how Cuthbert was remembered.  No other saint in England has had his capacity to foster not just reverence, not just affection, not just honour but, I want to say, love. We admire our saints but I am not sure that we love them in quite the way we do Cuthbert – or this simply the way Durham people and Lindisfarne people speak of him?  I believe that although he was a native Northumbrian, he like his book belongs to us all. In this respect, he is like St Francis, and perhaps for the same reason: his simplicity, his humility, his closeness to the created world, his love for people, his vision of how all of life is transfigured by God’s mercy and grace.  This was the man the Lindisfarne Gospels were created to honour, every page of this precious manuscript a community’s tribute to the man they remembered with such love. 
 
And this of course brings us to the point of it all, the message. ‘In honour of God and St Cuthbert’. God first, then Cuthbert. If we could ask Cuthbert what he thought about such an extraordinary book being created in his honour, he would I think have been horrified, just as he would be horrified to think he was buried within this great Norman shrine. We know that he wanted to rest in the obscurity and isolation of the Inner Farne, but acknowledged with a sigh that the monks on Holy Island would not let it be so. He would have said that what matters more than anything, more than everything, is the message that the Gospel Book and this Cathedral exist to bear witness to. He would have said, don’t let your eye linger on the piers and arcades of a magnificent building, don’t let it linger on the pages of a magnificent book. Let these things draw your eye upwards to the God they point to. And if you see anything to value in my own life (this is still Cuthbert speaking), then give God the praise for his wonderful words and works.
 
When I was speaking to the media about the Lindisfarne Gospels last week, they all asked me the same question: what is significance of the book today?  I replied that as well as appreciating its cultural, artistic and historical significance, it lay in discerning the gospel within the Gospels, the good news that God has come among us in Jesus Christ, and that because of this, we can know that we are loved, there is purpose in being alive, and we can find an anchor of hope amid the changes and chances of this fleeting world. The ‘spirituality’ of the book is, with that perspective, the secret of ‘reading’ it aright, because this was all along at the heart of its message. The gospel was the truth for which Cuthbert lived and died. As another English saint was to put it seven centuries later, ‘love was his meaning’.  We can admire the pages but not penetrate their surface. Then we have ‘had the experience but missed the meaning’, as T. S. Eliot says.  The same can be said about St Cuthbert’s life and career.  The same can be said about this Cathedral.  The sheer greatness of what we admire is, I think, a challenge not to remain on the surface but to probe deep, become explorers of the spirit, try to see into the life of things, glimpse God.
 
The manuscript, the man and the message all spoke once upon a time with great power and conviction. They still do today, and always will. This unique summer when we celebrate the rich heritage of North East England is an invitation to all of us to listen. We should be intellectually, artistically, spiritually curious. We should expect the rewards to be great, for those who seek will find, for as the Scottish 17th century writer Samuel Rutherford said, ‘God always has more light and truth to shine forth from his holy word’. And at whatever level we find ourselves doing this, I know that whatever brings us to visit the exhibition and see the Gospel Book for ourselves, we shall find our lives immeasurably enriched by what we experience, discover and enjoy.
 
At a service to celebrate the arrival of the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham
30 June 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment