cuddy: wonderful and weird

Cuddy is the affectionate name given to St Cuthbert, patron saint of Northumbria, “the birthplace of Christianity in England” (305).

Cuddy tells the story of the ‘life’ of his dead body because “his death is far from the end of the story” (122). He was a shepherd-lad from Melrose who was called by God to the Lindisfarne (Holy Island) community in 665 and then he died in seclusion on nearby Inner Farne. When the Vikings attacked in 793, the monks exhumed his coffin and “he was moved all around the north-east for a full century by an ever-changing community that was led by monks…” (416).

An in-credible story. And their mission?

To find a safe final resting place for their saint, and then when this was achieved they would instigate the construction of a great monument in which to house him forever, a building to celebrate his greatness and inspire awe. More than a building, in fact, it would be a gift to God himself, something so vast and beautiful that it would be beyond comprehension to those few people about the place who lived in conditions most primitive, something to be seen from miles around as it stood tall and proud on the peninsula, a structure so breath-taking as to be frightening, that all across the land might flock to see it, and to see him—and to remember. And they do. (318)

Cuddy is as much about this building—Durham Cathedral, as it is known today—as it is about the saint [… and guess where I am headed on my next free day in the UK?! ]

Gotta have a map—always need a map.

The book opens with the band of holy men—the haliwefole—in the final stages of finding the resting place for their Cuddy. Wary of needing to offer too many ‘spoiler alerts’, let me focus on the Weird and the Wonderful in this book—a little of the former, a lot of the latter, and covered in reverse order.

A Lot of the Wonderful

The Plot This story of Cuddy and his cathedral is told across four slices of history, which provide the main sections of the book.

  • AD 995—The wanderings of the haliwefole, narrated by Ediva, the “orphan girl of the holy folk clan” (85), who is added to their number to assist as a cook and nurse. As they journey she is the one who has conversations with Cuddy and visions of what the cathedral will look like and, eventually, she guides the little band to Dunholme (or, ‘hill-island’, the old word for Durham).
  • AD 1346—The cathedral has been built, but is undergoing some renovations. Another woman—Eda, a maker of ale—is the central character. She is caught between a brute of a husband (Fletcher), who is warring with the Scots most of the time, and succumbing to the advances of a stonemason working on the cathedral (Francis)—with “a soul sensitive to all around him” (213).
  • AD 1827—the Catholics want Cuddy’s body exhumed in order to confirm the truth of the legend that it is not decaying. An atheist, Professor Fawcett-Black, is summoned from Oxford to witness the event and to ensure that a scientific decorum is maintained throughout the exercise.
  • AD 2019—as the story enters the near-contemporary world, it jerks in another direction as the reader lives life with a 19 year old, Michael. His lack of education means he drudges off to uncertain work on demolition sites through the day, with his home 3 miles from Durham, before returning to care for his dying mother overnight. Eventually he finds work supporting a team restoring parts of the cathedral.
The haliwefole, as discovered in the back of The Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, Holy Island

It is just so well done. The story unfolds like an old polaroid—and so I was a bit lost in the darkness for the first few dozen pages. Or, if I may switch metaphors (as I am want to do!)—while the opening section is a bit like a game in need of a commentary in order to be understood, the later sections do provide that commentary with increasing clarity. In retrospect, it is all very satisfying.

The Characters There are so many people to fascinate the reader, with many of the main characters being ‘little people’ (using the Francis Schaeffer phrase) in the story. Let me linger with the three I enjoyed the most…

Ediva (in AD 995) She is the ‘least of them’ in the haliwefole, the only woman—and it is only late in the journey that she seems to be appreciated. In a tender few pages (135-138), one in the haliwefole, Hunred, ‘ambles alongside’ Ediva and engages her in conversation, having noticed her with her visions.

(It is) as if God himself has gripped you. As if his hands have closed around your heart and held it there. Yes. He has chosen you in a way that none of the brothers have been chosen. This much I believe to be true. We monks might know that we have been anointed or blessed or ordained—or whatever words you might use for this calling—but only one of the haliwefole truly stands in the light. It is you, Ediva … You, my child, are a prophet. A visionary. And I perhaps have always known this. Right from that first day when you were wandering, lost and bedraggled in the stinking boglands of Asunderland, you had a glow around you (135, 136).

Isn’t that beautiful? Ediva is the only one with whom Cuddy speaks—and numerous pages begin a bit like this:

Not only does she hear what no one else hears, she sees what no one else sees: visions of an unbuilt cathedral.

Summoned by a saint, envisioned by a woman, built by man, by hand. A cathedral, as big as heaven … a carved cavernous place of worship the size of the sky (40).

At night under this stone weight of troubled visions I see the hollow mountain again (95).

Then I can see every detail … Here lies Cuddy. Cuddy in a coffin within a coffin within a coffin. But still alive. Alive always. Alive surrounded by his most precious items, sealed within stone, sealed under stone, the great mountain of a cathedral growing grander around him with each passing age (127).

I see a church as a big as a mountain … It is beyond beautiful. It is heaven cast in stone (137).

The Professor (in AD 1827). This proud and patronising man is not one of the ‘little people’ in the book—but within the pages of his story lie some the best and most profound writing of all. Best? There are the merciless descriptions of the North of England, as seen through the eyes of an Oxford professor:

The north to me has always appeared a land of coughing chimneys, blotched babies, vile ale, wet wool and cloying clouds, where all is coated with a slick of grime, a skein of grease, and such concepts as aspiration, education, and betterment extend to an extra pan-load of dripping of a week’s end. ‘Never the north’ has been my maxim… (285).

Spring has not yet sprung here (290)—and it is May.

Profound? I was writing a blog about the lid, exploring immanence and transcendence, at the very time I was reading these pages. It was uncanny. Fawcett-Black’s atheism—”a worthy armour; a rain-shade” (326), or a lid—has an encounter with the transcendent and begins to crumble. First, this young lad, an odd ghost-like figure, haunts him and seems to appear everywhere he goes. Then, at night, he hears voices chanting Cuddy’s name. “The very sound of this whispered mantra, so dire in its delivery, made me want to flee from the room, but I could not move for I was frozen still with fear” (329). Finally, he is enchanted by the cathedral itself—and here he reflects on his experience of the Rose Window inside it:

As I examined it, the May sun moved into position in such a manner that one might almost be tempted to cite it as an act of divine intervention—almost—and the rendered blue and red details that predominated its petal-like shape became illuminated where, just a moment earlier, they were difficult to discern. Dappled light played on the cathedral’s stone floor, and the music enveloped me entirely then. It didn’t play upon me—or at me—but inhabited my entire being, in a manner that was wholly unanticipated, and I became otherwise deaf and blind to my immediate surroundings, save for this powerful hymn that reached deep down to my core, to the marrow within my bones, and still the sunlight streamed through the glass.

Rapt, I stood unmoving in a moment of supreme quietude and was alarmed to discover that my eyes had become wet … I was silently weeping.

There was a pause in the music then, an aural stillness—or did a cloud cross the sun?—and the spell, the stupor I had sunk into while gazing up at the Rose Window, the call-it-what-you-will, was broken. Only then did I see that right beside me was the feretory that held the burial place of St Cuthbert himself. Here up some short steps, his resting bones were marked by a stone slab worn smooth from the knees of pilgrims…

Though my surroundings might sound tranquil on paper, I did not feel altogether myself, as if I were quite deeply in the vapours. Thoughts of the boy on the steps and the music, the changing light, the tears and the sudden realisation of the close proximity of the dead saint … combined to plunge me into a state of despair that was quite overwhelming. Inwardly, I felt as if I had been dropped from a great height, yet I felt raw too, as if I had been flayed. I was frit.

But there was another sensation too. It was alien and undeniable. It was desire. (310-311).

Sorry, that is such a long quotation—but I find it stunning. It may be 1827, but it could easily be 2024. It provides a case study on how the transcendent can haunt the ‘immanent frame’, in the words of Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age. The lid leaks. Sadly, I am not here to tell you that the professor found a path to Jesus, via Ecclesiastes! But his life was messed up: “I believe myself to be unravelling” (327) … “My grip upon all reason and reality was loosening” (345) … “Everything in which I once believed now lies about me in fragments. I pray only for this torment to end; I pray to a God I now believe in” (348).

Durham Cathedral—’heaven cast in stone’ … ‘a mountain burst from the earth’—completed in 1093

Michael (in AD 2019). If the professor can shed a quiet tear, in these pages it may well be your turn…! Michael cares ever-so-tenderly for his dying mother (just in her forties), while picking up work wherever he can. He has long, long days and then returns home to “Describe the day for me, love. Tell me what you can see” (405) from his mum.

As he picks up work at the cathedral, it is “like a mountain that has burst from the earth” (405). He has never really noticed it before and yet, at the same time, it becomes like an ‘exhumed memory’, or ‘a forgotten photograph’ from his childhood as he recalls, vaguely, much earlier visits with his dad. When asked about the cathedral, as a local lad, he is embarrassed by how little he knows. How sad—and true—are his reflections?

Michael feels his face flush. Actually going inside the cathedral was what middle-class families did; it wasn’t for those who lived in the outlying villages left fallow after their local industries had depleted in the years before he was born. No: the secret history of the building’s interior belonged to the academics and the teachers, the doctors and their children. It was for people who wore cagoules and hiking boots and owned caravans; people who walked across wet moors for fun at the weekend, dropped French phrases into conversations and could afford to be vegetarian. It was for the students too, with their neat, nippy cars, their pashminas and credit cards, their rugby legs and clean skin and white wine hangovers. And the cathedral was also the playground for the choirboys who went to the fifteenth century Chorister School in the close just behind it, and who would soon go on to run the country. Also you had to pay to climb the central tower, which was the best part. It cost money. Even if he ever had any spare cash Michael wouldn’t have spent it on sweating his way up a tower when you could climb a hill for free. He knows that God, if he exists, would agree with him on this. (390-391).

It is another case study worthy of unpacking and discussion methinks. Later, it is Evie, the student-waitress in the cathedral cafe who gives him a Cuddy 101 lesson, as they stand in the Chapel of the Nine Altars. But that is a story you’ll need to read for yourself!

The Touches The author holds the story together across the sections in little ways. Each section has a woman with a name beginning with the letter E— Ediva, Eda, Edith and Evie. Boys with big eyes feature in each section as well—”The lad’s eyes were doorways leading down into the darkest, deepest tomb of the self” (309). Yes, I agree, that one is kinda creepy. The dead Cuddy keeps speaking to people, but less and less as the story progresses. Ugly and disgusting men have a way of reappearing as well!

I know this sounds kinda odd, but these touches are a bit reminiscent of the Bible, a book written over far more centuries than this one. But it, too, has a way of threading ideas and themes across its storyline leading to a woven outcome that holds the story together remarkably well. Also similar to the Bible are the variety of literary genres embedded into the story: letters, plays, prose, dialogue, narrative, poetry—they are all present and accounted for in Cuddy. Even the repetition of Cuddy’s story in different places is a reminder of the way Luke tells Paul’s testimony a few times in the book of Acts. But to assert that Benjamin Myers is intentionally following the example of the Bible might be a bit of a stretch…!

The insights A close reading reveals some wisdom along the way. On History? “I always think that history sits in the spaces between the different accounts and, really, our job is to stop it falling between the cracks” (422). On Churches? “Reverend, the world is full of humble men. The church, as you know, is particularly packed like pickles in a jar with those who wear their piety with pride” (314). On Adolescence? “Alas, young Chadwick is a soprano no more, reverend. In daily evensong his honk resembles that of a goose in migration” (325). On Questions? “Questions are the engines of conversations. They keep them going” (362). On Counting? “Counting imposes a system of order and breaks the day down into increments. Counting is a form of control. It is calming, like prayer” (371). On Death? “Death has been in the house for a long time, but now it has crawled into bed with his mother and is intent on occupying her entirely” (435).

On Holy Island last November—overlooking little St Cuthbert’s Island, with its cross and hut where Cuddy stayed, in solitude.

A Little of the Weird

It was weird, really weird, right at the start. I’m guessing the author was trying to write in some kind of poetic AD 995 way. Not only were pages often left mostly blank (see below), when he wanted to support his story with sources and facts and context, he just cut-n-pasted sentences and paragraphs from other books (see below, a little further). How lazy is that approach, I say to myself…

However—I did repent of such rushed responses, as it all became so interesting…

All the Cuddy-talking-to-people was kinda weird, as was Cuddy having this Jesus-like persona where people follow him and even pray to him. “I thought I could pray the pain away, at least until we reach our final resting place, for when we find a home for Cuddy all wrongs will surely be righted, and all suffering will end…” (144). Yikes. That is not exactly what happens in the story! The wrongs and the sufferings keep on coming. And a little later, “Cuddy, I call out to you. I ask for guidance, pray for forgiveness” (216). Double yikes. We visited Holy Island on a Sunday and so were able to attend a service at The Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, where the liturgy closed with this prayer (which was also kinda different for me):

I haven’t mentioned the Interlude yet, have I? It is just 13 pages and set in 1650 when 3000 Scotsmen are imprisoned in the cathedral—and 1700 of them die. The pages are in the form of a play in which the cathedral is the narrator! “In my six centuries of standing I have not hosted such torment. This is not right, This is not Godly” (273). Kinda random and weird. I didn’t see that one coming, even though the title is “The Interlude: the Stone Speaks”.

May I also add, in case you are off to find the book and read it. I don’t read a lot of novels. Maybe that’s part of the issue. But I did find the vulgarity and sexual violence in the second section to be confronting and shocking. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

There you have it, I told you that the Weird would only be a ‘little’—but that might be just because the ‘lot’ of Wonderful simply exhausted me.

nice chatting

Paul

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About Me

paul06.16

the art of unpacking

After a childhood in India, a theological training in the USA and a pastoral ministry in Southland (New Zealand), I spent twenty years in theological education in New Zealand — first at Laidlaw College and then at Carey Baptist College, where I served as principal. In 2009 I began working with Langham Partnership and since 2013 I have been the Programme Director (Langham Preaching). Through it all I've cherished the experience of the 'gracious hand of God upon me' and I've relished the opportunity to 'unpack', or exegete, all that I encounter in my walk through life with Jesus.

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