A light in the Dark Ages?

Posted in: Comment
Date posted: 15 February 2018

Operation Noah volunteer Philip Box reflects on the UK’s Christian traditions that inspired his support for our work.

The so-called ‘Dark Ages’ that gripped Britain after the sudden departure of the Romans were uncertain and divisive times. Then as today, the world appeared turbulent and unpredictable. But how did the UK’s early Christians respond?

Looking at the traditions of the UK’s earliest church, the story of St Cuthbert (634 – 687) of Northumbria is a source of inspiration to me.

The Lord of sea and sky

According to Bede, the 7th century monk and historian, Bishop Cuthbert took an unconventional approach to personal worship: he was said to wade out into the freezing sea in order to pray, often singing psalms until dawn.

Today, few of us may wish to follow in Cuthbert’s chilly footsteps! Even so, we have every reason to respect his habit as more than just ascetic self-punishment. His actions unashamedly embrace the sense of awe, peace and wonder we often associate with nature.

Indeed for many of us, being out and about in nature, listening to the birdsong or gentle crash of the waves, is precisely the time when we feel most at peace, and closest to God. Exposed to the elements, Cuthbert no doubt had a fuller grasp of his ‘creatureliness.’ Far from being a bad thing, this points us more keenly to our Maker:

‘When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers— the moon and the stars you set in place— what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?’ (Psalm 8:4)

An ark in a storm

The story of Cuthbert was especially relevant to my becoming involved with Operation Noah. In an era characterised by rising sea levels, we all do well to follow Cuthbert’s lead in embracing God’s creation, not running from it. That’s why I’ve appreciated Operation Noah’s commitment to raising awareness and promoting good practice across churches, to help safeguard our nation’s natural wonders for future generations. Whether alive, deceased or as yet unborn, the earth matters to all of us, and we are called upon to preserve it.

As Bede records, Cuthbert’s appreciation for creation was ultimately blessed in turn. We are even told of two otters emerging from the sea to dry his feet and keep him warm! Yet today, even such recognizable species face an uncertain future, thanks to a multitude of threats including pollution and habitats rendered increasingly volatile by climate change.


Yet hopeful signs are to be seen. Around the world, churches are increasingly recognising their duty of care for God’s creation. In the realm of international politics, the ‘unseen’ value of nature is being discussed by the likes of the World Bank. Through ongoing discussions around the concept of Natural Capital, societies are beginning to acknowledge the multiple strands of value attached to a balanced stewardship of our finite natural resources. For example, recent studies have shown how environmentally-beneficial land management can not only mitigate interconnected environmental problems; it also provides incalculable benefits for our mental health.

As global and national policy progress (slowly) towards tackling the myriad of environmental problems we face, perhaps there is increasingly a place for the very-British traditions of reflection on, and humble appreciation for, our beloved natural world.

Medieval manuscript showing St Cuthbert in a boat.

Cuthbert Sailing, from a 12th century manuscript of Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert.


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