IKNEW Fr. Cuthbert for the best part of half a century. By his death the English Capuchin Province has lost a gentle and pensive personality, a disarming idealist and a writer of undoubted if unostentatious distinction.
He was, by natural temperament, a quiet and unobtrusive man, as sedate in his youthful manhood as he remained in his mature seventies. The hustle of modern life left him unmoved. He was essentially a serious-minded character. He often
times saw the humorous side of men and things, and could laugh at them. Normally his outlook was grave. Injustices anywhere hurt him, but he Was incapable of large indignation. His psychological tendency was that of "II Penseroso ": " But let my due feet never fail To walk the studious cloister's pale, And love the high embowed roof, With. antique pillars massy proof, And storied windows richly (eight Casting a dim religious light, And may at last my weary age Find out the peaceful hermitage,"
as indeed he did in the studious research home of the Capuchin Franciscan experts at Assisi.
I have called him a disarming idealist, I do not mean it in the philosophical acceptation of the term, but rather in its popular sense. While he strove not to ignore the concrete realities of objective life, he constantly sought a conceptional framework in which to place his everyday duties.
Thus, for example, when in 1894 he and I were together in Pantasaph Monastery, he acted as chaplain to a neighbouring convent of nuns engaged in the education of some hundreds of very young girls. It fretted him to observe the routine mechanical regulations of school discipline. He felt it gave a casual outlook to childhood. which he was inclined to idealise. He asked me to allow him to write a series of papers in the Franciscan Annals, of which I was then editor, and I agreed.
The trend of his thoughts may easily be inferred from the heading he gave his articles: " Only a Child."
Later, when he and I were again together, at Crawley, I as Guardian, he as acting chaplain to Lord Ashbourne's public Oratory at Holmwood, we had many an academic discussion on the ideal and real of Franciscan theory and practice. You could not. quarrel with Fr. Cuthbert. He was too gentle, elusive, silent. But he held to his views. I am bound to say, however, that I perceive definite results of our discussions in his booklet, St. Francis and Poverty, published in 1910, and elaborated in his Romanticism of St. Francis published In 1915, where he is at pains Francis, show he realises the full implications of those stern practical necessities, which need Involve no de'viation from the valid interpretation and perfect observance of the Seraphic Rule,
I think it was the hop fields which opened his eyes thoroughly to the grim realities of life. In 1905 he organised the Franciscan Mission to the hop pickers. There had been a lamentable absence of spiritual ministration among the crowds who flocked to the Kentish fields. Fr. Cuthbert gathered helpers among clergy and laity, who did valiant work amid difficult surroundings, and although it was, in many ways, depressingly prosaic, it brought comfort to the zealous missioner's heart to witness the cheery co-operation and gratitude of the people. He felt well rewarded for his strenuous labours and unwearying almsbegging. Oddly enough, yet true to himself as I am describing him, he had an almost insuperable repugnance to beg for his Order or his Monastery. Soon after he left England in 1930 to take charge of the Research House at Assisi, his chief recreation from intellectual work was to gather the poor of the town around him, and to entertain the children, who looked upon him as a fairy godfather.
As a writer he produced at least twelve volumes, and wrote papers not easy to numerate for periodicals. His two best works I consider the Life of St. Francis and his Story of the Capuchin Franciscans. Before he published any of his volumes he was an indefatigable writer to magazines. I was Guardian at Crawley and he a member of my community. He was a 'keen upholder of the proposition—a truly evangelical one—that " the labourer is worthy of his hire." Seeing him working so hard over his various contributions to periodicals I said to him one day: "Cuthbert, you don't seem to be getting much in the way of ' wages' for all your work." He replied meekly, and, I think, rather professionally: " Well, you see, I haven't made a name yet." But he did at last make a name, so that the morning after his death The Times could state: "Father Cuthbert may be said to have been the most outstanding Franciscan of the century in England." He had a facile literary style, easy flowing, lucid and agreeable. Although several of his works show repetitionary chapters, all are good, informative, interesting and
In practical life his chief work was that of Head of the House of Studies at Oxford University, where he spent 19 years, from 1911 till 1930. He put the crown to the work sanctioned by Rome, promoted by the late Fr. Anthony Brennan, thrice Provincial of England, and begun by me and the late Fr. Alphonsus. Accompanied by one laybrother, the late Bro. Pacificus, I left Crawley on Friday, April 20, 1906, to open the Franciscan College at Cowley, now the Oxford House of the Salesian Fathers. Fr. Alphonsus leased a house In John Street, and so we pioneered the return of the Friars to Oxford. The school on the hill was meant to feed the house in the town. When Fr. Cuthbert was awarded the M.A. honoris causa for his Life of St. Francis, the University Hostel for Friar Undergraduates was put on its feet, and the broken Franciscan -Oxford traditions, begun by the Blessed Agnellus of Pisa in 1224, were renewed. Fr. Cuthbert was called from Oxford to Assisi in 1930. He was succeeded by the late lamented Fr. Alfred, M.A., B.Litt., he by Fr. Dunstan, M.A., B.Litt., and he by Fr. Wuletan, M.A., D.D., all of whom graduated at Oxford under Fr. Cuthbertes regime.
If Franciscan literature owes much to Fr. Cuthbert, the English Province is his debtor, too, not merely for his intellectual achievements, but for the priestly life and evangelical labours, which enhance its fair name for spiritual goodness.
WHEN I first got to know Fr. Cuthbert he was still living at Grosseteste house, the forerunner of the present Greyfriars, formed out of
two mid-Victorian neo-Gothic red brick houses on the opposite side of the road. The only Franciscan feature they possessed was their sense of poverty and absence of comfort. Most of the furniture looked as if it had been bought at a jumble sale, and the life was spartan in its primitive simplicity. " Plain living and high thinking " is the best way to sum up the ménage of
Grosseteste House, for it was certainly a House of Studies. and that tiny chapel was a real House of Prayer. But what struck one most was the indefinable atmosphere of Peace and Joy— the Franciscan message to the world — within these walls; something which did not exist elsewhere in Oxford. There were many people who found Fr. Cuthbert " difficult " to get to know. They maintained that he was shy and uncommunicative. Yet there were others, and myself among them, who found this grey-bearded friar the most responsive and sympathetic of men; one with whom any subject could be discussed with absolute frankness. What stimulating and inspiring talks have X had with him at Oxford during the many visits I paid to Iffiey Road! More often than not our conversation drifted round to Franciscanfem, for there was nothing he loved to talk about so much as the history, spirituality and ideals of his Order. He made one realise what a tremendous responsibility it was to be a Tertiary of St. Francis. He strongly deprecated the indiscriminate roping-in of all and sundry into the Third Order, feeling that this well-meant zeal for numbers only resulted in a loss of fervour. He deplored the fact that in these days the Third Order had so little Influence in the world and had become much more of a vast confraternity of men and women whose lives differ very very little from that of the average practising Catholic.
In fact, Fr. Cuthbert was always just a little heterodox in his views on many subjects, at least in private conversation. Perhaps he was inclined to be over optimistic about the chances of leading those outside the True Fold into the Church. Soon after I got to know him he organised a Summer School of Franciscan Studies at Oxford. Most of those present were non-Catholics who belonged to a Franciscan Study Circle which met at the Guildhouse in London, where Dr. Maude Hoyden was minister at that time. Those of us who attended the School will never forget his inspiring addresses on the spirit of St. Francis. We felt we were back in the thirteenth century—at the famous Chapter of Mats in Assisi, instead of in twentieth-century Oxford ! During the autumn of 1928 Fr. Cuthbert Was at work completing his two monumental volumes entitled The Capuchins—a contribution to the History of the Counter Reformation. It was my privilege to help him correct the proofs and to check references to quotations, which involved many visits to the Bodleian Library, not to mention long hours discussing each chapter. There can be no doubt that this is his most outstanding literary effort, and is the expression of his inmost feelings on the true ideals of Franciscan life as well as being an authoritative history of the Capuchin branch of the Order. He glorified in the fact that the first Capuchins had broken away from the older groups of Friars Minor and used to tell me that if he were younger he would like to start another " reform movement," maintaining that the essential spirit of Franciscanism lay in this ability to " strike off cuttings " from the parent tree.
It was with mixed feelings that in 1930 he received the news of his appointment as first President of the Cap,chin Research Studies in Assisi. Oxford had become a real home to him, and he felt he was too old to take root in a foreign country. But he packed up his few possessions and went off to Italy, fun of boyish enthusiasm to make a success of this new job imposed on him by obedience. I met him several times in Assisi, where at first he seemed to be very much lost in that vast palazzo in the via S. Francesco which no amount of adaptation could disguise as a Capuchin friary. He disliked the climate, he disliked the food, and he pined for Oxford. But by degrees he settled down and a year or two later he had thrown himself into various social activities for the welfare of the poor in Assisi, particularly the children, in whom he took a great interest..
He was essentially a John Bull at heart, and suffered acutely from his patriotism during the time of the war in Abyssinia. He told me afterwards how painful it was to him to see that the Italian flag was hoisted on the collegio on the occasion of any victory! But he suffered almost as much, so he told me, from living in a community of students. " I'm out of touch with real life," he remarked on the last occasion we met, "I'd like to get back to England and work in the slums of Peckham or in the Kentish hop fields. It's all wrong to be living perpetually in past centuries." The learned author of books of a historical and philosophical nature was always the simple friar at heart, with an essentially childlike attitude towards life, and he firmly believed that his true vocation was to win souls to God by preaching the Gospel, following in the footsteps of his Father, St. Francis.
He loved his native land as much as any Englishman, but I think he would be glad that his body now rests on the same Umbrian hillside where the Little Poor Man of Assisi is buried, and of whom there was no more devoted follower. May he rest in peace.