The red sandstone arches of the 11th-century abbey on Lindisfarne (otherwise known as Holy Island). If you seek peace, this is the place to go. Some even claim that the spirits of long-dead saints still walk the ruined passages and pray in unison with the present-day pilgrim…
The first time I went to Holy Island, I went as a tourist. I was there for about four hours, most of which time I spent dodging the giant crowds of fellow tourists–folks with dogs, folks with kids, folks with dogs and kids–an infestation if I ever saw one. Then we were off, beating the tide…because we still had to drive to our Travelodge outside of York, with a stop at Whitby in between. Needless to say, this fly-by-night schedule afforded little opportunity to really see the place, especially since the place was fairly well obscured by the people crawling all over it.
The second time, I went as a researcher, fresh from the reading room at the NLS in Edinburgh. This time we stayed for a full week, leading up to Christmas. I was there to gather information for my Master’s thesis. Several years before, while working as a youth minister in rural Missouri, I had stumbled across the Venerable Bede and his saints. Like so many others before and after me, I fell in love. I became convinced that these ancient Christians, the “Celtic Christians,” with their standing crosses and illuminated Gospels, were the key to everything superficial about 21st-century religion, an impression I carried with me right into graduate studies, onto a British Airways jet, and across the causeway to Lindisfarne. I came in search of answers; I came in search of Aidan, Cuthbert, and their band of medieval holy men. And I found them…in a manner of speaking.
Given the total absence from the island of any vestige of the tourist trade–even the shops lining Marygate were closed against the winter months–we (well, I, anyway; Tammy was overcome by the cold) rambled about the place in solitary fashion. On the original visit, I hadn’t had the time to explore the priory ruins. This time I did so at my leisure, and completely by my lonesome. Throughout the hour I spent knocking around the structure’s reddish-tan remains, not another soul crossed my path (at least not one visible to the eye). There is an air of liminality about the place; whether that is inherent in the locale or is experienced due to conditioning–a sort of spiritual backward masking, if you will–I leave to the judgments of more impartial observers. For my part, I believe in friendly ghosts…
Another of my favorite quotes, this one concerning the spiritual history of the island, comes from a BBC documentary series entitled Memorable Leaders in Christian History. In the episode on Aidan, Andy Raine, a member of the Northumbria Community, described the spot as soaked in the devotion of the early saints: through them, the seeker is offered “a blank check of…prayers that have already been prayed that are waiting to be cashed in on.”
I leave you with this blessing from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica:
Thine be the might of river,
Thine be the might of ocean,
The might of victory on field.
Thine be the might of fire,
Thine be the might of levin,
The might of a strong rock.
Thine be the might of element,
Thine be the might of fountain,
The might of the love on high.
Until we meet again…
One of my favorite descriptions of Lindisfarne comes from the 17th-century Legend of St. Cuthbert, with the Antiquities of the Church of Durham, by Robert Hegge (1599-1629). Given its limited access, governed by the rise and fall of the tide and the consequent filling and emptying of the estuary separating it from the mainland, Hegge wrote: “In ancient description it was an island but twice a day, and embraced by Neptune only at full tide, and at Ebbe shaked hands with the Continent.”
I have been on Lindisfarne (Holy Island) twice: once in June, at the height of tourist season, and again in December, the week before Christmas, as out of season as can be. Of the two experiences, I highly recommend the latter. Other than another young couple who spent one night at our B&B–and the people who came over for the Christmas service at St. Cuthbert’s Centre–I’m fairly sure Tammy and I were the only non-islanders to put in an appearance that week.
We were fortunate enough to stay at Rose Villa, a small bed and breakfast at the center of the town. The concept of renting a room in someone else’s house and sharing, albeit briefly, the intimacy of their home life is still new to a person raised on a diet of Motel 6’s and Super 8’s. It took me a bit to get comfortable with the idea. Once I did, though, I learned to love it. Furthermore, if you have never had the pleasure of an English breakfast, this is the place to seek out your first. I have seen less food on some buffet lines, and cooked to absolute gorgeous perfection, from the expertly prepared haggis right down to the little roasted tomato (and I’m not a huge fan of tomatoes). Added bonus: Tammy couldn’t do the haggis, so…more for me!
One of the joys of traveling to Lindisfarne in the off-season is the strong sense of solitude it confers upon one unfamiliar with island living, and the opportunity to wander for the most part unhindered, uninterrupted, and unnoticed over the wide expanse of duneland (declared a national nature reserve in 1964). Legend (and Bede) has it that St. Cuthbert, abbot of Lindisfarne from 684-686, walked these dunes during his tenure, communing with the nature he so loved, and a patchwork of fading and faded footpaths testify to the great number of pilgrims who have, in the interval, sought to follow in his steps.
During our week on the island, I dedicated several hours to exploration among the dunes and along the shoreline of the North Sea, not a few times thinking I had finally done it–I’d never be seen or heard from again. Somehow, though, it didn’t seem to matter. There was too much to see, so much beautiful bleakness to take in. So, there I stayed, fearless and freezing, lost but found, simultaneously sure and unsure of where I was. I was, in all events, THERE–and if I had vanished into the ether nevermore to appear, I’m not convinced I would have minded…
They say that Lindisfarne is a “thin place,” a place where heaven and earth meet, so closely intertwined that one might punch right through whatever metaphysical barrier hangs in between and touch the face of God. Now, I did not stumble upon any wayward medieval spirits, and I never heard voices from beyond the edge of time. But I did, in my own small way, manage to break through that barrier and glimpse–perhaps–just a fringe of what lies beyond. I leave you with this succession of images I captured while strolling from town out to the castle, just after a midafternoon rainstorm.
Until the journey continues…