If Walls Could Talk, This Historic Site Would Sing

Durham Cathedral is one of Britain’s most famous and unforgettable buildings. It dominates the northern city over which it watches — a vast, glorious fortress-like structure around which everything else is gathered. And why not? It has stood here for 1,000 years.

Built in honor of St. Cuthbert (feast: March 20), the cathedral is the best and most complete example of Norman architecture anywhere in Britain. Some would say it’s the finest of its kind in all of Europe.

The Normans, of course, arrived in Britain in 1066, following the defeat of the Saxon king Harold at the Battle of Hastings. The transplants transformed the land, building great stone churches to replace the smaller, often wooden, ones that the Saxons had known.

Here at Durham, in Northumbria, the cathedral stands as a witness to centuries of Christian faith. Not without heartache and division, however: Today, of course, this is an Anglican cathedral, as it has been for some 400 years. Elsewhere in the town, a small and rather attractive Catholic church, also dedicated to St. Cuthbert, draws good congregations to its Masses. It also acts as a center for the Catholic students at Durham’s famed university.

We must continue to pray for Christian unity. Meanwhile today much good will prevails, and the Catholic visitor to the ancient cathedral can enjoy its history and recognize the love and care that today goes into its upkeep.

Hermitage Hunger

Who was Cuthbert? A Northumbrian shepherd boy who, it is said, had a vision one day while caring for his flock. The vision was of St. Aidan, then a living monk and bishop, being taken up to heaven. Aidan was bishop of Lindisfarne — the famous holy island off Northumbria’s coast, another place well worth visiting — and young Cuthbert understood that the vision meant that he, too, was meant to take monastic vows and dedicate his life to God.

Cuthbert went to Melrose Abbey and in due course became a missionary, preaching the Gospel on the borders of England and Scotland. He went on horseback or on foot and became a well-loved figure for his preaching and his simplicity. But his heart was set on living as a hermit, as he desired more time to pray. Eventually he was allowed to do this, settling on the tiny island of Farne. This lies further out to sea, beyond Lindisfarne. He would have remained there all his life, but word of his holiness had spread. He was called back to the mainland to become bishop.

Stories of Cuthbert’s work abound. He is said once to have healed a gravely ill baby with a kiss, and to have had a special affinity with God’s humble creatures such as birds and squirrels. At the end of his life he returned to Farne and died there. His remains were first taken to Lindisfarne, then whisked away by the monks during a raid by the pagan Vikings. His body finally came to rest at Durham.

For hundreds of years, pilgrims venerated Cuthbert’s grave in this great church. During the Reformation much was destroyed, but a restoration brought much back. The grave, bearing his name in Latin, is there for all to see. Kneelers alongside invite prayer. Candles glow. People hush into silence as they respect this quiet place.

Also buried in Durham Cathedral is St. Bede the Venerable, England’s great historian who lived from 673 to 735. It is from the History of the English Church and People, written by this Saxon monk, that we know what we know about Christians’ early years in this country. Bede is the first known writer in English prose; before that, everything written in the land had been in Latin, a language he also used fluently. He also wrote in Greek.

Bede’s grave is in the “Galilee” of the cathedral, the entrance area at the foot of the great nave. He was buried here in the 14th century, his body having been brought from Jarrow, where he had spent his life.

To visit Durham is to get an up-close-and-personal glimpse of the Christian centuries that have gone before us.

And what a story the centuries have to tell. When Bede’s body was brought here in the 1300s, this was already a great and thriving cathedral in a land that had been Christian for more than 800 years. Tragically, much of Anglo-Saxon literature from the period before the Norman conquest has been lost. A great many documents and old manuscripts were destroyed when, on the orders of King Henry VIII, England’s great Catholic monasteries and convents were closed. Their libraries were burned, their churches stripped, their buildings ransacked.

After a visit to the cathedral, you can take a quick look at the nearby Durham Castle, which is now part of the university, and then enjoy a walk by the River Wear — or perhaps a cup of tea or coffee in one of the city’s innumerable small cafes and restaurants. Sts. Cuthbert, Aidan and Bede will be praying for you every step of the way.

Joanna Bogle writes

 from London.