3. KENSWITH: FOSTER-MOTHER OF CUTHBERT
It has been said that behind every great man is a good woman. So I decided to look for the woman in Cuthbert's life and, shadowy though she is, I found her...
About St. Cuthbert's real parents we don't know anything at all, though there are several hints in his story that they were upper-class people. One of these hints is that he had foster-parents. In that society fosterage of children was normal among the upper classes. The theory seems to have been that if you brought up your own child you might be too soft. But also, since society was very violent, it was a kind of insurance for children to have a second family, and often the bonds of affection were very close.
So Cuthbert had a foster-mother, whose name was Kenswith. Presumably he had a foster-father too, as we hear later that Kenswith was a widow, and she eventually became a nun. She took care of Cuthbert from the age of 8 until he was reckoned fully grown-up at 17 - when he decided to become a monk. But even after he joined the monastery Kenswith was still important to him. He had great affection for her, always called her 'mother' and used to visit her frequently.
On one such visit he arrived to find the whole of Kenswith's village in a panic, as a fire had just started in one house, which threatened to engulf them all. But he said, 'Don't worry, mother. You and yours will be safe, no matter how fierce the flame'. And he lay down at full length on the ground outside the house and prayed, and the wind changed and carried the flames away from that house and village.
Cuthbert loved Kenswith dearly, and this suggests that she had loved him dearly from the moment when he came into her care as a little boy. But what part she played in his development as a Christian we can only guess.
Yet - someone taught him to pray and to believe in prayer, someone taught him to think of God and his angels as very close, someone encouraged him to be friendly and courteous and to care about others and their needs. Later ages of course revered Cuthbert and never gave a thought to Kenswith. But God knows and remembers all, and we are told to expect some surprises when we get to heaven.
Dryhthelm, an ordinary working man, married with children, lived in Northumbria in the seventh century. It was a good Christian family. But one day Dryhthelm became ill, got worse and died in the middle of the night. His family were sitting round, mourning, when suddenly, at dawn, the "dead" man sat up. The mourners all shrieked and fled, except for his wife, who loved him very much. He told her that he had had a very remarkable experience.
"Someone met me: a man wearing very bright robes. We walked together towards the sunrise, through a long and deep valley. On one side of the valley was a raging fire, and on the other side deadly cold, with snow and a bitter wind. It seemed to me that I could see human souls being tossed from one side to the other: when the heat became intolerable they leapt into the snow and then back again. I thought this must be hell, but my guide told me it was not. Then suddenly it was completely dark, except for flames leaping up, in which I could see human souls. I could hear shrieking and wailing, and jeering laughter, and the smell was disgusting. That in fact was really hell, but we went no further into it. We crossed a very high wall and my guide then led me on into a broad and pleasant plain, full of light and the fragrance of flowers, and full, also of happy people. I thought this must be heaven, but my guide told me it was not. Briefly, I was allowed to see in front of me a much brighter light with a delicious scent and the sound of sweet singing. My guide told me that I had had glimpses of both hell and heaven, and had seen purgatory and paradise. Then I woke up."
After this Dryhthelm felt he could no longer live as before. He made provision for his wife and family, and then entered the monastery at Melrose, where he was allowed to live as a hermit in a secluded part of the monastery land. Naturally, after his vision, he was very anxious eventually to go to heaven, and felt he must atone for his earlier sins. So, on freezing winter days, he would go down to the River Tweed, break the ice, and immerse himself in the river, while the little icebergs floated by. Some of the locals came out to stare at him. "How can you bear such bitter cold?" they asked. But he remembered his vision, and being a man of few words, simply replied, "I have known it colder." He died, revered as a saint, in the year 700.
In our own age there has been a lot of interest in what are called "near-death experiences". There are more examples of them now, probably because we have better techniques for reviving people who have been near death. Of course this does not apply to anyone who has really died. In earlier ages perhaps they were not always so sure in diagnosing death. Nowadays the argument is about whether these experiences do actually reveal something beyond death, or not. But it is fascinating to read of such an experience in an earlier age, which of course they interpreted according to the beliefs of their time.