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A VERY PRIVATE GRAVE
20 March, the year of our Lord 698
The Holy Isle of Lindisfarne
Hands folded, heads bowed, the black-robed brothers gathered in the front of their monastery church.The candles glowed beside the rough stone altar, casting flickering shadows on the hard-tamped earthen floor, marking the spot where their beloved Cuthbert had lain for eleven years.
Now the brothers must perform their solemn task. Eleven years was the prescribed period. Eleven years buried in the earth. Plenty of time for worms, rot and decay to have done their work. Plenty of time for the body of the holy Cuthbert to achieve the end of all mortal flesh. The prior, presiding in the absence of the abbot, who was on retreat, read out the solemn words, “Thou hast brought me into the dust of death.”
And the brothers replied, “All flesh shall perish together, and man shall turn again unto dust.”
The prior strengthened his voice, “The Lord knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.”
Again the reply, “All flesh shall perish together, and man shall turn again unto dust.”
“All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.The dust shall return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”
“All flesh shall perish together, and man shall turn again unto dust.”
Their brief litany ended, the brothers set about their task, digging in the consecrated ground. A few feet down their shovels hit the lid of the stone sarcophagus. They dropped to their knees and did the rest of the digging with their hands, brushing the dirt from the stone until they could grasp the handles on each end and lift the hewn stone box from the soil. Now the precious bones could be washed clean and enshrined above ground in order to be more accessible to the steady stream of pilgrims who made their way to Lindisfarne to pray at the holy man’s grave.
The brothers knelt around the coffin while the prior led in a prayer of petition for rest to attend the soul of their dear departed. “May light perpetual shine upon him.”
“And may he rise in Glory,” the brotherhood replied.The prior sprinkled the coffin with holy water and blessed it with incense.
Then, the two strongest brothers lifted the heavy stone lid. All held their breath as stone grated on stone. The cloud of incense cleared, and the brotherhood crept forward to view the remains.
One brother fainted. Another shrieked. Several fell back, crossing themselves.The prior began babbling.
There before them was not the skeleton they had expected.The casket which had been buried in the earth, untouched, beside their own altar for eleven years held a fresh, fully intact body. Cuthbert looked more like a man who had been asleep for eleven hours than one who had been buried for eleven years. Even his vestments were clean and fresh, unstained by water, mud or worms.
One brother kilted his robe to enable him to run to the shore. The tide was in, so he was obliged to shout across the neck of water to the abbot, who was making retreat on tiny Hobthrush Island, just beyond the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne. The abbot paddled over in his tiny coracle and brought order to his astonished, agitated community.
He gave precise orders: dress the uncorrupted body in fresh vestments; place it, along with Cuthbert’s portable altar and other holy objects, in the wooden coffin already prepared, and proceed with the elevation ceremony. God had spoken clearly.
Cuthbert was a saint.