the penultimate WORD

Series 2008 - November
Hardy... not brittle!


The Irvine Tartan  My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican




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 and opens everlasting day.

:St Bede, Above his Tomb

Durham Cathedral


St Cuthbert and St Bede

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has opened the doors of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham to thousands that might never have peered into the holy precincts of the Norman structure. Foundations are laid by a generation with an eye to the future that cannot possibly comprehend its end. These foundations were laid in 1093 and the hinges of a thousand years have witnessed the passage of the faithful and curious, the intransigent and the penitent, the pious and the profane.

The growing cult of Cuthbert – the seventh century Lindisfarne saint – strained the embrace of earlier foundations protecting the object of devotion for the faithful making a pilgrimage.

Cuthbert died four hundred years earlier and had conceived a mortal aversion to women in his lifetime. The false witness of a daughter of the King of the Picts slandered the saint. The lady herself accused him with the view of averting suspicion in a personal indiscretion. Cuthbert’s innocence defended, his absolution was granted on condition that no woman should ever after be allowed to come near him!

Apparently forgiveness knew no bounds. In consequence of this no woman was allowed to enter a church dedicated to Cuthbert. Hurt and angry, perhaps understood, his fury expanded to misogyny – intolerance that would surface again in 1333. Queen Philippa, accompanying her Plantagenet husband on his way north to fight the Scots, was invited to leave the cathedral to avoid upsetting the saint – albeit posthumously!

Wills softened with the addition of a “Lady Chapel” – intended for the use of women. Abortive attempts were made to erect a chapel at the eastern end of the building, but the foundations kept collapsing. Some – males – interpreted this as a sign that Cuthbert objected to the presence of women so close to his tomb. With the completion of the Galilee Chapel women were granted entry in company with the remains of the Venerable Bede of Yarrow.

The presence of Cuthbert and Bede, of Benedictine monks and women provide both strengths and weaknesses blazing a trail of cultic observance and gracious fidelity. Early generations impact later communities in alarming and unexpected ways. Intransigence by one is transformed by the compassion of another: mortal, fallible and haughty disciples of a Saviour who knew these fierce qualities well.

The image is seen in the wheat bearing the same name.

Durham is the hardest of all wheat. Its high protein content and gluten strength make it the choice for spaghetti and other pasta products. The wheat contributes vitamins thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin and we refer to it as the staff of life. It supports us, nourishes us, strengthens us – and becomes the vehicle for the Bread of Heaven without which Jesus reminds us, we will surely die.

I find the spaghetti image especially helpful. It is so common and easily visualized. Not many cupboards are without a packet of Durham wheat spaghetti. It is enduring and enjoys a long shelf life. Refrigeration isn’t required and as long as it is kept dry, will last a very long time. It is a staple and can nourish and strengthen us; but uncooked, it is brittle.

Cuthbert, brittle in his seventh century pronouncement, found an echo in his unwavering admirers tenacious in advancing the saint’s intolerance of women for over half a millennium! Brittle qualities of previous hurts and fears are extended and camouflaged as certitude.

The Yarrow monk knew a certainty unclouded by indignity of defamation: “Christ is the Morning Star,” he wrote.

Bede’s course took a bearing outside himself and beyond his defenses. He traveled by a Light who, “when the night of this world is past, brings to His saints the promise of the light of life and opens everlasting day.”

He sets before us a metaphorical bowlful of Durham wheat cooked and appetizing to the palate of historic Prince Bishops and devout pilgrim alike. It may even have been served in the Refectory of Hogwarts School.  Nothing compromised; he offers us a hardy meal to satisfy the deepest hunger, reaching beyond the fragile certitudes of a brittle moment.


Copyright © 2008 James T. Irvine

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 Series 2008

Sermon delivered at St Matthew's ELCIC, Fredericton


Background image: Durham Cathedral overlooking the River Wear

Icons: St Cuthbert and St Bede

Inset image: Norman Arches of Durham Cathedral

Midi: Harry Potter - Visit to the Zoo and Letters from Hogwarts