Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The seeds of contemplation

Do a Google search for "Cuthbert" and you'll get two main hits: a stunning blonde Canadian actress who I never heard of, and the 7th-century Anglo-Saxon monk I was looking for. Make that an image search and poor Saint Cuthbert gets washed away in a sea of unclad sexiness that would probably have rattled the poor abbot/bishop to his core.

Well, we don't really know, do we? We don't really know what was on Saint Cuthbert's mind. Certainly he had an impressive career as a Church administrator, but be seems to have been irresistibly drawn to the life of an anchorite. For a while he was prior at the famous abbey of Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumbria, then bishop of the same place, but he gave all that up for a solitary cell on the nearby island of Farne. According to tradition, his severe abode had no windows or doors, and no views of scenery or humans. It was circular and open only to the sky. There Cuthbert lived, like a mouse at the bottom of a coffee can.

Was his mouse-eye view of the sky enough to feed his soul? Presumably he didn't see rainbows, since rainbows don't appear near the zenith. He was far enough north (56° 37') not to see the sun at all, even in summer, depending on how wide was the angle of his view of the sky. Only a few bright stars illuminated his night: Capella, Vega, and Deneb (taking into account the 18 degrees of precession since his time). In late summer the Milky Way would have been draped overhead, although -- alas -- the least bright part of the galaxy. The aurora would have entertained him on occasion, and "shooting stars."

How much is enough? Thoreau had his pond, and dinner at the Emersons whenever he wanted. Henry Beston had the whole wide sea crashing outside his "outermost" house on Cape Cod. Annie Dillard's Tinker Creek was in a valley, but her patch of sky was supplemented by woods and fields and the always changing theater of the creek itself. Many of us have longed at one time or another for greater simplicity, for a life lived deliberately, for the intensely-experienced few rather than the trivialized many.

It's all a matter of finding the balance, between the harsh parsimony of the anchorite's cell and the rush and clutter of 21st-century, media-saturated overload.

(I went looking for Saint Cuthbert because of a TLS article on the Lindisfarne Gospels, an 8th-century magnificently illuminated manuscript that has somehow miraculously survived into the 21st-century.)