St Cuthbert was always a figure of fascination to me. Bede, less than half a century after his death in 687 C.E., wrote a biography of the northern British saint that made him more than just some austere venerated figure. A kind of wild man of the lonely places, swimming with otters in the sea, going off despite the offer of worldly inducements to first one small island accessible during low tide from the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne (one of the photos below) then one even further out, which is a bind to visit even today – let alone 1400 years ago (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/farne-islands/features/the-chapel-of-st-cuthbert-on-inner-farne). But he had a warmth and a charisma that seem to reach out from deep within the so-called Dark Ages, and his life illustrated, in a harsh time, the perpetual struggle to be better.
All the talk about the new Silk Road (aka The Belt and Road Initiative, a somewhat less emotionally appealing title, which shows, despite the vast resources at their disposal, just how limited the imaginations of the current leaders of China can sometimes be) should have made Westerners more alert to the phenomenal career of Cuthbert’s near contemporary, though in another geography the other side of the world, running parallel to Northern Europe during the era of the decline of the Holy Roman Empire, but almost wholly unknown to it. Born at the dawn of the great Tang dynasty, the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (玄奘) lived a life as committed to ideals embodied by his religion as that of his European Christian counterpart. The way in which they expressed their devotion however was very different. Xuanzang’s life was not spent largely in stillness on isolated islands conversing with his deeper self and nature, but in almost a quarter of a century of epic journeying, travelling across deserts, speaking with kings, queens, princes and emperors, guided by this mission to bring back the great documents of Buddhism from India to the Chinese empire.
Xuanzang is one of the truly great lives humanity has produced – an extraordinary tale of individual heroism and endurance that probably had a more lasting impact on more people than any other figure in the millennium from 500 C.E. The only real mark he has made, very faintly, in western consciousness however is to be the lead figure in the epic Ming novel
Journey to the West' or `Monkey’ as it was translated into abbreviated form by Arthur Waley. The quality of his vast pilgrimage, and the stage on which it was performed, is perhaps simply too massive to easily conceptualise. Perhaps that is why the Monkey figure often comes across in television portraits played in the Chinese speaking world to this day as somewhat other worldly and almost naïve in their commitments and faith in others.
One thing that does link Cuthbert and Xuanzang is their connection to this day to very particular places. For St Cuthbert, it is the natural landscape in and around Lindisfarne island, off the coast of the Northumberland area of Britain. For Xuanzang, his shadow still haunts the ancient city of Xian, despite competition from the Terracotta Warriors and the terrifying figure of the First Emperor, continuing to traumatise the historic memory nearly 2300 years after his rule (the faces of those figures of soldiers, all individual, all frozen – do they suggest reverence fear, or simply abject nullity?). The other wonderful thing about knowing of their lives is that, for me, they solve this persistent problem of trying to relate what was happening in the Chinese imperial world to what was happening elsewhere. The Dark Ages for Europe, which Cuthbert lived towards the end of, are parallel to the rise of one of the greatest of all Chinese dynasties. Xuanzang, alongside figures like Du Fu the poet, and Wu Zetian the great empress, bring that history to life. Cuthbert and Xuanzang, therefor, continue to inspire and fascinate many centuries after their very different but equally epic and moving lives ended. In that sense, despite all the differences between out world and theirs, and between their own separate lives, they live on.
(Below: An early depiction of Xuanzang, and the small island Cuthbert lived in off the coast of Lindisdarne, at high tide.)
(For more on Xuanzang, see Sally Wriggins,
The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang,' Basic Books, New York, Revised Edition 2003, and Huili (a contemporary of Xuanzang), `Histoire De La Vie De Hiouen-Thsang Et De Ses Voyages Dans L’inde Depuis L’an 629 Jusqu’en 645′ , Wentworth Press, 2018.)