Happy Halloween! As a kid I used to love Halloween. Armed with pillow cases, my siblings and I would spend the entire evening going from house to house in our small town, reveling in the loot we gathered. This was in the days when regular size candy bars were only 5 cents, so our pillow cases were heavy. Later in the evening, we’d organize all of our candy in rows, give everything with coconut to Dad, and decide what to eat first.
Although candy corn is still one of my favorite candies, the lure of Halloween has long been replaced by the anticipation of All Saints Sunday. The privilege of honoring the saints of the local church who have died over the previous year reminds me of the great cloud of witnesses who not only live in our hearts forever but cheer us on to greater faithfulness on our life’s journey.
I have always been intrigued by the saints of the Christian tradition and was blessed this summer to become immersed in the lives of 2 Scottish saints, Columba and Cuthbert. St. Columba was born in Ireland of royal blood in 521 A.D. At the age of 42 Columba sailed away from Ireland to Britain, choosing to be a pilgrim for Christ. Columba and 12 men landed on the barren, windswept island of Iona and founded one of the most powerful Christian monasteries in the early medieval world that was home to 150 monks by the time he died.
Columba was a monk, priest, teacher, counselor, preacher, healer, pastor, evangelist, and administrator, for monasteries were among the busiest institutions in Celtic society. He was also a politician and diplomat, a prime connector of the church and the secular world, a mediator of disputes between British and Irish kings, and a key figure in the Christianization of Scotland. The tradition arose that Columba had 2 names: Crimthann (the fox) and Columcille (the dove).
It was expected of holy men and women at the time that they would prophesy, heal, and work miracles as well as engage in spiritual disciplines and self-sacrifice. Columba had a powerful singing voice, and his 7th century biographer Adomnan claimed that when Columba was chanting psalms in the church people could hear every word a mile away. It was also said that Columba would sleep only for a brief time on the bare earth of his cell with a stone for a pillow. Then he would go to the ocean to chant all 150 psalms before sunrise each morning.
On the day Columba died, he climbed a hill overlooking Iona, blessed the island, and predicted that it would come to be reverenced by Christians and non-Christians alike. Then he copied psalms in his hut, stopping at Psalm 34:10, “Those who seek the Lord shall not want for anything that is good.” After summoning the brothers and admonishing them to “love one another unfeignedly,” Columba went to the church for the midnight office. Adomnan writes, “At that moment the whole church is filled with angelic light around the Saint. Helped by his faithful servant Diarmait, he raises his right arm to bless the choir of monks and at that moment the venerable abbot gives up the ghost, his face transfixed with a wonderful joy and gladness ‘for he could see the angels coming to meet him.’”
St. Cuthbert was born in 635 A.D. into a family of means. At age 8 Cuthbert was swimming and doing acrobatics with friends when a 3 year old approached him and said, “O holy priest and bishop Cuthbert, these sorts of games are not becoming of one of such a high calling.” Later Cuthbert would see this encounter as a prophecy of his future.
Cuthbert dedicated his life to God at age 16 and became a monk at Melrose Abbey. At age 29 Cuthbert was appointed prior of the monastery at Lindisfarne, the Holy Island, where he became known as a healer and a man of God. One night one of the brothers observed Cuthbert walking into the North Sea up to his neck with arms outstretched where he spent the night praying and singing. When Cuthbert knelt in the sand at daybreak to continue praying, 2 otters ran out of the sea and rubbed his legs and arms as if to dry them. Cuthbert blessed them, and they returned to the sea.
In 676 Cuthbert was given permission to retreat to the island of Greater Farne and build a tiny hermitage of rough stones. Many people visited him there to confess their sins, receive forgiveness, and be healed. It was said that Cuthbert could see into their hearts. Cuthbert was appointed (somewhat unwillingly) Bishop of Lindisfarne in 684 and spent most of his time traveling to villages in order to preach, teach, heal, and treat his people with care and dignity.
In 686, at the ripe old age of 52, Cuthbert resigned and went back to Farne Island to live out his final days. Miracles were recorded at his tomb on Lindisfarne, as many people made pilgrimages to the Holy Island. A year after his death a decision was made to “elevate” Cuthbert’s body; that is, to dig up Cuthbert’s remains, wash the bones, and place them in a place where they could be venerated. To everyone’s surprise, however, Cuthbert’s body was still intact, and it became one of the most visited shrines in all of Europe.
Cardinal Basil Hume once said, “Saints from all ages have something to say to us. Their lives speak eloquently of God. We can be more touched by contact with holy people than by any number of sermons.” We remember the saints so that we can learn from them and our lives can be transformed into the likeness of Christ.
- Both Columba and Cuthbert left the safety of their known world and journeyed into uncharted territory to follow their call. Do you have the courage to follow your call?
- The word praxis is sometimes used to explain the synergy of involvement in practical issues and theological reflection upon them. The rhythm of the lives of the saints called for periods of intense engagement with the world and subsequent times of complete withdrawal. Are you mindful of your need for both action and contemplation?
- Saints have a system of spiritual accountability, which was often a combination of spiritual direction, soul friends, and community. To whom are you accountable for your spiritual life?
- Creative imagination and beauty were at the center of the lives of both Columba and Cuthbert and their monasteries on Iona and Lindisfarne. There was a deep reverence for the arts: poetry, music, reading, jewelry, leatherwork, and stonecutting. Is it any wonder that the most famous illuminated biblical manuscripts in the world were produced at Iona (The Book of Kells) and Lindisfarne (The Lindisfarne Gospels)? How do you express your faith through beauty and creativity?
- Saints were very familiar with red and white martyrdom. Red martyrdom refers to the shedding of blood and the literal offering up of one’s life for one’s faith. White martyrdom implies that the way to fulfillment includes traveling through life lightly, demanding and sacrifice, and becoming like Christ through self-abandonment. Are you ready to step over the line of comfort and cast your lot with Christ?
- Saints are missionaries who boldly take the good news of Jesus Christ into a hurting world. A missionary has been defined not as someone who crosses the sea but as someone who can see the cross. Do you see the cross in your work, play, and family and as you reach out to God’s beloved ones in the far corners of the world?
- The authority of the saints was not institutional but personal. Saints changed their world by leading from their heart. Do you focus more on who you are as a disciple of Jesus than what you do? Grace, compassion, forgiveness always trump achievement.
I have been greatly enriched by following in the footsteps of St. Columba and St. Cuthbert’s this past summer. But I learn just as much from the everyday saints whose lives touch me daily. This past week my mother’s sister Beulah died after journeying with Alzheimers for many years. Beulah never made the headlines, became famous, or earned a fortune. Yet she was a missionary and a saint because she saw the cross.
Beulah was a life-long member of the Church of the Brethren. She married and raised 4 wonderful children who have led faith-filled lives. After her children were grown, Beulah went to college and became an accountant. However, her life always revolved around the church and her faith. Beulah lived frugally, sacrificially, and generously: a true white martyr. She singlehandedly started and maintained a food pantry in her church, which is still running today. Beulah was also an activist who in retirement traveled to conflicted parts of the world to advocate for peace and justice through the ministries of the Church of the Brethren, one of the 3 historic peace churches (along with Mennonites and Quakers).
Whether volunteering in Haiti, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Africa, around the country with the Red Cross, or in her own backyard, my aunt was an incredible witness to the love of God. Beulah’s deep desire to serve the least, the last, and the lost is an example to all of us and will never be forgotten. A caring, gentle, giving saint who heard God’s voice and courageously lived out that call is now at peace.
On this Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, I thank you, Columba. I thank you, Cuthbert. And I thank you, Beulah. If my life can speak of God even half as eloquently as yours did, it will be enough.