The cover of the month
“You will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these you will do!” by Pierre-Marie Dumont
This English miniature from the twelfth century depicts the return of Saint Cuthbert, and of two of his brother monks, from the land of the Picts where they were on mission. After resisting the Romans, the Picts maintained until the tenth century a powerful kingdom occupying a large part of present-day Scotland—a kingdom where Christianity had not yet succeeded in taking root until Saint Cuthbert († 687) evangelized it. There is a veritable golden legend about Saint Cuthbert’s mission among the Picts. It was said about him, as about the holiest missionaries, that he fulfilled the Lord’s prophecy: You will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these you will do! (Jn 14:12). He then became bishop in the kingdom of Lot, in the southwest of present-day Scotland. We know that in the Arthurian legend, Lot was the husband of Arthur’s sister, Morgause, and the father of Sir Gawain, Gareth, and Mordred.
The sea, with its waves and its immense swell, is the place where the Egyptians perish, along with the pigs that were possessed by the devil. It is the depiction of the universe that has been perverted by original sin and has come under the domination of Satan, the prince of this world. But it is also the place where Jesus walks on water without sinking into it, the place where the ship of the Church ventures, fluctuat nec mergitur (“she is tossed [by the waves] but does not sink”). Here, then, is this ship, depicted on its primordial peregrination, which is mission itself.
The red background of the sky is made with lead oxide—the minium that gave its name to miniatures. This fiery sky represents the fire of hell to which the souls of the Picts were doomed before their passage from the waters of the abyss to the waters of baptism. This background is sown here with fleurs de lys: with their corollas opening upward they symbolize the souls that are open to receiving the grace of salvation. From now on these souls will embody the Church and become sharers in Christ’s charity, and thus escape the damnation to which they had been doomed. In the Communion of Saints, they will become active members of Christ’s kingdom—here represented by a golden solar frame, prolonging exactly, not upwards but in the direction of the infinite depth of its celestial fulfillment, the earthly influence of the ship of the Church. Outside of this well-demarcated influence, there is no salvation: The abyss of perdition represented by the sea leads inevitably to the horror of damnation represented by the red-hot fire of hell. Hence the first and absolute requirement of charity which, for Christians, means mission work.
The new and eternal Ark furrowing the seas
In a manner of speaking, mission is the essential thing that is lacking in the Passion of Christ for his body which is the Church (cf. Col 1:24). It is up to his disciples to take up this responsibility until he comes again.
However, we hasten to explain: Mission work is lacking in Christ’s Passion only insofar as it comes in addition. In reality, Christ’s Passion lacks nothing for the glory of God and our salvation. This explains the golden frame* in which this dynamic depiction of the new and eternal Ark is situated: the ship crisscrosses the seas in order to snatch souls away from their native curse through the grace of their baptismal rebirth, and so this frame, which embraces the Church as well as the abyss, down to the infernal regions, is gold like the heaven of the elect. It represents the infinite divine mercy which in the person of Jesus Christ will come again in glory on the last day and will speak the last word of history. Can anyone be saved outside the visible Church? For man it is impossible. But for God, all things are possible. Now, it is not the will of My Father who is in heaven, Jesus tells us, that one of these little ones should perish (Mt 18:14).
So it is that, on their return from the land of the Picts, while Saint Cuthbert with open hands gives thanks for the miraculous catch of fish that it was granted to him to make, his brother in mission, at the prow of the Church, points to all the souls that were saved.
*To see this golden frame click here.
St. Cuthbert and two of the brethren returning from the land of the Picts [Northern Scotland], English illumination from Bede’s prose Life of St. Cuthbert, 12th c., British Library, London, UK. © akg-images / British Library.