To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.—Ecclesiastes 3: 1
On or about the twentieth day of March, Planet Earth passes the midpoint between the winter and summer solstice, between the extremes of darkness and light. It is the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, the day when the hours of night and day are equal. Poised between extremes, it is the perfect time to consider the virtue of a balanced life. Balance, of course, is a familiar virtue.
On the importance of balance in our spiritual lives, I have learned much from Saint Cuthbert of Northumbria, the most revered missionary saint of Anglo-Saxon England. His name may sound a bit strange to our modern ears, but he is someone well worth knowing. By coincidence, the vernal equinox also happens to be Saint Cuthbert’s Day, because it was on that day of celestial equipoise that Cuthbert passed from this life into the nearer presence of God.
Like with many of the ancients, we know little about Cuthbert’s early life. He was born around 634 into an Anglo-Saxon family somewhere near the river Tweed. As a young man, he worked as a shepherd on the rolling hills of his homeland. One evening, while keeping watch over his flock by night, he saw a great white light streaming from the starry sky and a choir of angels descending to earth. Following this heavenly vision, he resolved to give his life to God.
Cuthbert entered the priesthood and served as a missionary throughout northern England and later as a bishop and prior at an abbey on Lindisfarne, a speck of an island along the border of England and Scotland. It was there that he died on March 20, 687. Throughout his ministry, Cuthbert pursued and taught a balanced life. Although his time and place are far different from our own, his message has a power that is undiminished. If anything, the importance of his teaching has only increased over time.
Cuthbert also taught that a healthy spiritual life includes a balance between solitude and service, between asceticism and evangelism. The perfect metaphor for this balance is Lindisfarne itself. Like Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, Lindisfarne is a tidal island—isolated from the mainland during high tide and connected when the tide ebbs. This ebb and flow of the sea reflects the rhythm in Cuthbert’s life between times of solitude, communing with the Spirit, and times of service, going out “to love and serve the Lord.”
Cuthbert was powerfully drawn to the ascetic life of quiet prayer and meditation. In pursuit of solitude, he occasionally retreated to a remote island out beyond Lindisfarne. There he built a small stone chapel and hermitage, a retreat house for months at a time, a place to be totally alone, free from distractions, in soulful, solitary communion with his Lord.
But Cuthbert’s times of isolation were balanced by month-long missionary journeys through the wilds of seventh-century Northumbria, offering care and consolation to all he encountered. On his missionary journeys, he preached as an evangelist, calling people from their idols and incantations and to faith in the loving God made manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It was said that Cuthbert rarely celebrated Mass or heard confession without shedding tears of compassion.
At the heart of his evangelism was a bold proclamation that the fullness of our humanity can only be experienced by a new birth of the Spirit within us. God reaches out to the whole world by the grace of Jesus Christ so we may be saved from sin and death. We thereby become fully human, fully alive. We have but to open our hearts through faith. With tears of compassion streaming down his face, Cuthbert preached the good news.
I have been privileged to visit the island of Lindisfarne and stroll among the ruins of Cuthbert’s abbey. It was there that I first encountered his lessons about the balanced spiritual life—the balance of scripture and nature, of solitude and service. I also have visited Cuthbert’s grave in Durham Cathedral in the north of England. When last there I picked up a devotional card with words I commend if ever you choose to observe Saint Cuthbert’s Day, the vernal equinox, as a day of equipoise:
We cannot today copy the style of Cuthbert’s life, but we can share his love of God and his care for God’s creation; make time for solitude and time for service; learn his lesson that holiness and humanity belong together; and remember always that being a Christian is to become not less human but more truly human through the grace of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Rawls, James J.. On the Way: 100 Reflections on the Journey of Faith. WestBow Press. Kindle Edition.