St Cuthbert’s Comb – or ‘The Sacrament of Getting Dressed’

The saint I feel closest to in many ways is Cuthbert of Lindisfarne – a monk, hermit and bishop of the seventh century. I was ordained in the Cathedral where he’s buried and served as a curate at St Cuthbert’s Church in Shotley Bridge. When Cuthbert was buried, in his coffin were placed a copy of St John’s gospel, a portable altar and his Bishop’s Cross – the model for the one still worn by the Bishops of Durham. There was one thing which seems a bit odd to include – his comb.

St-Cuthbert-Comb

Altar, cross, gospel book – these obviously belong with a saintly bishop. But the comb?

I wondered about this, and was fascinated to discover the reason for the comb being included. It seems that it was the custom of the Northumbrian priests to comb their hair before celebrating communion. This wasn’t just because their hair got messed up while they put on their robes. As St Cuthbert combed his hair before worship, he would have prayed that God would order his thoughts and tidy his mind. The action and the prayer went together, and something which was very practical and down to earth got a new significance.

I’ve found that this has sparked a pattern of praying which helps me (when I remember to do it…) I can’t remember where I read of the idea originally, but I suspect it may have been in one of David Adam’s wonderful books. I’ve suggested it to a lot of people since under the title of ‘the sacrament of getting dressed’.

A sacrament, according to the traditional definition, is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’. The key sacraments are the bread and wine of communion and the water of baptism, which both become deeply significant as we use them in prayer and worship. But other things in life can have a ‘sacramental’ side to them – where we give deep meaning to ordinary things.

So, given that I have a set routine of things I do to get ready for each day, it seems to make sense to give them some extra depth by praying as I do them. It goes something like this (in an ideal world I’d probably wake up already thanking God for the new day, but in real life it takes a bit to get to that stage…).

  • As I wash and shave I ask God for forgiveness, and a new start with him as the past is cleared away through his love.
  • As I dress I ask for the ‘armour of God’ from Ephesians 6:10-20, his protection and strength through whatever the day may bring.
  • As I put on shoes I ask that God will take me where he wants me to be that day.
  • As I brush my hair I ask with Cuthbert for an ordered and clear mind.
  • As I put on my glasses I ask for clear vision of eye and mind through the day.
  • As I put on my watch I ask for strength to use the moments of the day as God wants me to.
  • As I put a cross around my neck I ask for protection and that I may wear it worthily.
  • As I brush my teeth, I ask God to ensure that my words today may always be true, good and encouraging to others.

All in all it probably adds a minute at most to the time I’d spend getting dressed anyway, but it means that before I get far into the day I’ve already put myself and my day consciously into God’s hands. I find that it helps me to be more aware of his presence through the rest of the day.

Why not find your own routine of getting dressed sacramentally? It’s important that it’s taking the things you do anyway and turning them to prayer that matches the action. At least, that’s important for me – after all, this is prayer for when you’re probably not fully awake yet, so make it as easy for yourself as possible!

Nick

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