20 May 2020, The Tablet

A Saint in isolation

by Michael Carter

A Saint in isolation

Finchale Priory in 2006
© Mike Fletcher/Creative Commons

I should’ve been at Finchale (pronounced ‘finkle’) Priory on 21 May, leading a group of erudite English Heritage members around this beautiful monastic ruin in the Durham countryside. Alas, Covid-19 means that the tour is cancelled, the site closed for the foreseeable future. 

The event was scheduled to coincide with the feast of St Godric, a revered holy man and hermit who lived at Finchale in the 12th century. His feast this year was already an event of some significance as it marks the850th anniversary of his death. 

I can’t but feel that it has added resonance because of the lockdown. Not only does Godric’s extraordinary life provide inspiration for how to deal with seclusion, but it also leaves little doubt about the negative consequences of isolation, showing that even the saintliest of medieval recluses were taken to the limits of their endurance by a life lived apart.

Much of what we know of Godric comes from the Life (or biography) written by a monk called Reginald of Durham. He knew Godric personally, so it’s very much a first-hand account of the saint’s eventful time on earth.

Life in the Middle Ages, as the old adage goes, was nasty, brutish and short. Godric certainly endured more than his fair share of nastiness and brutality, but even by the standards of the 21st century, his life was by no means short as he lived to the ripe old age of 100. 

Of Anglo-Saxon parentage, Godric was born at Walpole (Norfolk) in around 1070. At an early age he became a pedlar. His trade soon took him as far afield as Scotland and Flanders. He enjoyed some success, becoming a ship’s captain and part-owner of two vessels. But Godric’s activities may not always have been entirely above board and there’s a hint that he may even have turned his hand to piracy. 

Despite (or perhaps, because of) this his trade and travels assumed a strong religious dimension. Godric undertook several long-distance pilgrimages. He was one of earliest– possibly the first – Englishmen known to have visited the shrine of the apostle St James at Santiago in northern Spain. He walked to Rome several times, once in the company of his aged mother. He also journeyed to the Holy Land, where, in the spirit of penitence, he went barefoot. Sharp stones consequently became permanently embedded in his feet. 

In the course of his seafaring Godric visited Farne Island. It was here that St Cuthbert (d. 687) had sought to emulate the Desert Fathers of the early Church by living in seclusion. The experience inspired Godric to become a hermit.

After a couple of false starts, he eventually settled at Finchale in 1112. At this deserted site, Godric sought to atone for his past sins by living a life of almost unimaginable austerity. He ate only roots and berries. Later he cultivated vegetables and barley, but would only eat these when dry or mouldy. 

He added to his discomfort by wearing a hair shirt and chainmail armour, labouring by moonlight to clear the nearby forest to build a wooden oratory dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Sunk into its floor was a barrel were he would immerse himself in freezing water. Later Godricbuilt a small stone church dedicated to John the Baptist whose life in the wilderness was a source of inspiration for medieval hermits. 

But as so many of us have found during the current lockdown, a life lived in isolation needs a routine. For Godric this came in a rule, or set of regulations, drawn up by the prior of the Benedictine monks at Durham Cathedral Priory. 

Godric was also accepted into the priory’s confraternity, becoming, to use a 21st-century term, a ‘virtual’ member of its monastic community. In his remote hermitage, Godric would have taken comfort from knowing that he was connected, ritually and spiritually, with the Durham monks as they gathered in their choir-stalls to sing the eight services that punctuated the monastic day.

Like hermits before and after him, and a good many people in lockdown Britain today, Godric found solace in the natural world. He was renowned for his compassion for animals and would save freezing rabbits and field mice from death by warming them by his fire before setting them free. 

Seclusion also brought out his creative side. Godric has the distinction of being the composer of the oldest songs written in English for which the original music survives. One of songs was composed after the Virgin Mary visited him in a vision, instructing him to sing it whenever he was tempted, weary or in pain. Another was written in praise of St Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors, and was doubtless inspired by Godric’s early years on the high seas. After almost nine centuries, the melodies of Godric’s songs remain captivating.

Visitors occasionally broke his isolation and included the Cistercian abbots Aelred of Rievaulx and Robert of Newminster, both of whom were destined, like Godric, to become saints. Godric also corresponded widely and his counsel was even sought by the pope. 

But there can be no doubt that life as a hermit affected Godric’s mental wellbeing. As the lockdown goes on, many of us will be able to empathise with the grumpiness and depression that he is reported to have endured. His psychological anguish had supernatural manifestations, and like many a medieval recluse Godric is reported to have experienced diabolic visitations. 

Monks from Durham cared for Godric in his final years. He died at Finchale on 21 May 1170. He was soon venerated as a saint and a priory was founded around his tomb. This became a focus for pilgrimage. Two hundred miracles were attributed to Godric. 

Later in the Middle Ages, Durham monks used Finchale Priory as a retreat. Their three-week stays by the banks of the Wear were intended to provide relief from the monotony of the monastic routine. The events of spring 2020 have left me, and I’m sure many others, with a better understanding of just how nurturing a trip to this enchanting and awe-inspiring place must have been.

Dr Michael Carter is a fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. His research is focused on saints, relics and monasteries.




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