Today, 24 Jun 2012, is the feast day of St Bartholomew of Farne, a rather unusual Saint who lived most of his life in 12th century England as a hermit. How did he come to live on an island exposed to the North Sea for 40+ years praising God in song as he went about his austere life? Read on.
It was a big tussle today between learning more about St Bartholomew of Farne, as part of my quest this year to learn about all Saints with devotion to St Bartholomew the Apostle (my patron saint for 2012) and between honouring St John the Baptist, the beloved patron of our parish. This was the way I was guided, so hopefully in times to come I will be able to honour St John the Baptist as he deserves.
No one is quite sure when St Bartholomew of Farne was born, although it seems safe to conclude that he was probably at least 70 years old when he died. He grew up at Whitby on the Northumbrian coast of England, living with the name ‘Tostig’ given to him by his parents which he disliked. With a name like Tostig, his parents may have been of Scandanavian origin or rather impressed by Tostig Godwinson (d. 1066) brother of King Harold Godwinson. He tried the Norman name William instead. Whether due to his name, or his heritage, or both, our friend came in for a bit of bullying from his peers. To escape that, or to escape an unwanted marriage, he took off to Norway for a while. There his spiritual life must have taken off, because on his return to England a few years later, he had become a priest.
Perhaps one of the reasons he returned to England was to follow a religious vocation, knowing that the monks at Durham had a reputation for holiness. Having joined the monastery he took the name Bartholomew in religion. After growing for a while in monastic life and discipline, St Cuthbert took an interest in Bartholomew’s life, and in a vision invited the monk to become a hermit on the Island of Farne which he himself had made holy through prayer and penance.
Now Bartholomew knew precisely where God wanted him to be, and lost no time in getting the necessary permissions to begin life as a hermit on the the island of inner Farne where St Cuthbert had lived. It was by no means an easy life ; apart from the occasional shipment of provisions from the monastery Bartholomew had to work hard cultivating corn to become bread and a cow for milk. Already on the island was another hermit, and the two men didn’t get on together. From time to time the hermits had to deal with the occupants of boats seeking shelter and hospitality and with pirates who raided their stored foodstuffs. After about ten years, the first hermit gave up. Mind you, if you were seeking total silence for prayer and the other hermit was wandering about praying and singing at the top of his voice, things would get testy.
Bartholomew never used a bed, and often slept propped up against a rock. He also had no time for fastidiousness, and very rarely took off his clothes, preferring to have a dirty body and a clean soul. Needless to say he was rather smelly to be around. To pray constantly was his aim. Because he was where the Lord wanted him to be, living the kind of life the Lord wanted him to live, Bartholomew was continually cheerful. The next hermit to join him, a former prior, found this a sad trial because he was a creature who loved cleanliness. These two didn’t get on either, and this time it was Bartholomew who gave in and left the island. After about a year, the local bishop persuaded Bartholomew to return and sort out the differences between them. This they did, and Bartholomew assisted the former prior during his last illness and death.
Every so often the rich and powerful came to the island to obtain wisdom and prayers from Bartholomew. He paid no attention to rank and exhorted them to repentance and to full conversion of live and behaviour.
Some of Bartholomew’s early manual labour was spent enlarging the inside of a stone sarcophagus in which his bones were to be placed after his death. His last illness was 9 days long, during which the monks came across the water to give him the last rites. Following Bartholomew’s holy death in 1193, miracles were reported at his tomb. He desired that his remains stay on the island, in order to maintain an ascetic presence for future generations of hermits.
St Bartholomew of Farne, dedicated servant of God, pray for us.