Chapter 3 The Holy Island of Lindisfarne of Pilgrims in the Kingdom, by Deborah and David Douglas. Upper Rooms Books, Nashville. 2004 Permission given to reprint for Iona Team.
I travelled to Lindisfarne, drawn by the promise of priory ruins and an island linked at odd hours to England. Often veiled in ocean haze, it rises out of the North Sea three miles off the Northumberland coast. Here on the ragged edge of the world, Lindisfarne became a beacon for Christianity in northern England. The eighth-century scholar Alcuin called it “a place more venerable than all in Britain.” Through a windy mix of landscape and biography, Lindisfarne has oriented visitors toward God for more than thirteen hundred years.
“As the tide ebbs and flows,” explained Saint Bede, “this place is surrounded by sea twice a day like an island, and twice a day the sand dries and joins it to the mainland.” The approach to Lindisfarne, as with Cornwall’s Saint Michael’s Mount or Normandy’s Mont-Saint-Michel, can be narrow and fleeting; fast-rising tides have at time trapped incautious travelers. Visitors can cross the glistening mud flats only from three hours after high tide until two hours before it. Ancient pilgrims did so by foot, following stone cairns (now replaced by fourteen-foot-high wooden guide-posts). Most contemporary visitors glance at their watches, however, and choose instead to reach Lindisfarne by car, negotiating a slender, paved causeway lined with drying kelp.
Though posted tide tables now advise safe crossing times, a passage nevertheless demands attention. For those heedless of tides, emergency “refuge boxes“–three wooden huts accessible by ladders-perch on pillars like tree houses above the seafloor. Known also as Holy Island since the eleventh century, Lindisfarne remains the more ancient, unique and telling name. Lindis stems from the title of a nearby stream, while farne–possibly meaning “a place of retreat” in Celtic tradition–suggests what the island has provided visitors through the centuries.
Leaving the mainland, I cross the ribbon of causeway in minutes, then reach the islands outlying salt marshes and sand dunes. Driving past a handful of cottages and a gentle rise of fertile fields, I arrive in the snug village of Lindisfarne, its population of 150 now dependent as much on tourism as fishing and farming. Tucked in the small island’s southwest corner, the hamlet seems to encroach on its ancient Benedictine priory as though seeking heat from the hearth that once warmed Northumbrians.
I leave my overnight bag at a bed-and-breakfast, then stop quickly for tea and scones as a cafe, bolting them so rapidly the proprietor looks at me with astonishment. “Why, you couldn’t have tasted them,” she says. “You’re on the island now. You can slow down.” Barely mindful of her advice, I walk quickly past the village’s cluster of sea-bitten houses and craft shops. As I approach the medieval priory, its broken profile of red sandstone emerges at last through the late morning haze.
Little remains of the twelfth-century Benedictine priory: a quarter of its nave, roofless transepts and towers, remnants of walls sanded by sea wind, the stone softened, worn frayed and fluted. The rose-red sandstone, reminiscent of canyon rock in the American Southwest, here has been carved into arches and crosses for the glory of God. A spectacular transversals arch with dog-tooth ornament soars between grey sky and green turf. “Durham Cathedral in miniature,” earlier visitors have exclaimed, instinctively recognizing the priory’s link to artisans and Benedictines from Durham who crafted these stones.
Though less exquisite a ruin than the soaring Rievaulx Abbey or Fountains Abbey, there is a sense of a far older sanctuary here, more ancient than the visible Norman stone. The windburned walls evoke memories of even earlier missionaries and lives of austerity, risk, and proclamation. Of that first Celtic church nothing remains. No walls of timber or roofs of thatch. Nothing except the story.
Invited by the mainland king to introduce Christianity to his raw Northumbrian realm, Aidan arrived in 635 from Iona, brining the torch of Saint Columba’s monastic settlement to another holy island. Aidan “cultivated peace and love, purity and humility,” noted Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He “used his priestly authority to check the proud and powerful; he tenderly comforted the sick, he relieved and protected the poor.” Journeying out often from this island monastery to baptize and teach, Aiden helped tame barbarism, persuading warring tribes to lay down their weapons.
A twentieth-century statue of Aidan, backed by a Celtic cross, stands near a grove of wind-bent sycamores and white bean trees. Gaunt, visionary, and fearless, his sculpted countenance alone can cause visitors to muse, So this is how Christianity spread. As tenacious as Ninian at Whithorn and Columba at Iona, Aidan was a “man of outstanding gentleness, holiness, and moderation.“
Bede may have overstated; the temptation to view saints through lenses as rose-colored as Lindisfarne’s arches can be matched by a tendency to disparage the faith of contemporaries. What would be an unremarkable lament from a twenty-first-century observer–“His life is in marked contrast to the apathy of our own times” –originates from the eighth-century Bede himself. The way out, of course, is to put full confidence neither in Bede no Aidan but in the One to whom they both gave witness.
Both Aidan and a later bishop of Lindisfarne, Cuthbert (c.634-87), left an unblemished legacy. Ex-shepherd, former mainland missionary, and guardian of seabirds, Cuthbert bracketed his Lindisfarne tenure with even deeper solitude on the neighboring Farne Islands. “Above all else,” wrote Bede, “he was afire with heavenly love, unassumingly patient, devoted to unceasing prayer, and kindly to all who cam to him for comfort.” Miracles associated with Cuthbert’s life and his incorruptible remains helped usher in the long centuries of pilgrimage to Lindisfarne.
Beide also confirmed that Cuthbert evinced “a love for proclaiming his message.” The story of Jesus often hinges on proclamation. “So faith comes from what is heard,” wrote Paul, “and what is heard comes from the preaching of Christ.“(Romans 10:17, RSV)
Except in the wake of someone’s words, the priory would be mute, its cross incomprehensible.
The monks of Lindisfarne often ventured forth to preach and baptize throughout northern England. Returning here, they would be nourished again with prayer, liturgy, and spiritual discipline. After a time, in a rhythm reminiscent of the tides themselves, they wold gather their bearings and cross the sands again, their voices emboldened.
Across the cloister, a band of schoolchildren, sketchpads in hand, surveys the remains of a stone bench used in monastic kitchen. As wind roils through the priory, several boys climb low walls enclosing the ancient warming room. Their teacher checks his watch; the tide leaves them little time to linger. Finishing their drawings, the children leave as silence reclaims the ruins.
Divine grace tends to be caught in broken cisterns, and by the late Middle Ages the monastery had succumbed to lax ways, far from Aidan and Cuthbert’s beginnings. The priory’s clouded history checks us from confusing holy islands with holiness itself, as though one could trap God in sacred space. As author Belden Lane reminds visitors to sacred places: “God is here–in this place at Bethlehem, Lourdes, Iona, etc. But at the same time, God is not here–not limited exclusively to this place, not only here.”
Wind snatches at the last two tourists to enter before a staff member of English Heritage closes the priory for the day. We are part of the early lapping waves of travelers, not yet summer’s high tide that will bring thousands a day to Holy Island, once northern England’s prime pilgrimage destination. Now visitors with pilgrim hearts often hide behind tourist masks of curiosity, as the wind brings to mind a story of faith partly forgotten or never learned.
To the east, half a mile across the flat island, Lindisfarne Castle spirals into the sky from a spur of basalt. Irresistible to photographers because of tis soaring eminence, the castle ironically has begun to supplant the Benedictine monastery on the cover of contemporary publications about Holy Island.
In a secular eclipse of the spiritual, the sixteenth-century garrison-built with stones cannibalized from the priory-tends to overshadow the monastic ruins on many visitors’ itineraries as well. Snug against the wind, cozy as castles go, the citadel was built to defend the harbor, then restored by Sir Edwin Lutyens into a private residence now owned by the National Trust.
Yet after a brief tour of the stronghold’s low-ceilinged, compact quarters, I encounter a similar paradox: A tour of a fortress tires me, while a visit to a roofless priory somehow fortifies. Over the centuries, paths of pilgrims have tended to lead away from castles, not toward them.
It is possible to walk around the island (roughly 1.5 miles from the north to south and a mile from east to west) in a few hours, but its wilder north coast of crescent bays and grey seal colonies remains largely unvisited. (“You’ll feel like you’re on the edge of the world, it’s so windy,” a young woman, island native, promises me.)
Naturalist Richard Perry claimed that Holy Island offered “undreamt of” opportunities for bird-watching. Even more abundant birdlife thrives on the neighboring Farne Islands, an archipelago of dolerite rocks seven miles southeast of Lindisfarne. Few places in the world harbor more seabirds in such a small setting, the breeding ground for more than twenty species-including cormorant, kittiwake, tern sea duck, and puffin-no protected by the National Trust.
Cuthbert’s thirst for solitude eventually led him to a hermitage on one of the Farne Islands, where he built a circular cell of stones and turf, roofed by timers. In a typically Celtic manner, he cast his protective mantel around more than humans: credited as the first person in Britain to protect birds, he laid down rules for the safety of the eider ducks nesting on Farne Islands, initiating a sanctuary for seabirds that continues to this day.
Lifeboats once set sail from the Farne Islands to pluck the shipwrecked to safety. Indeed, one of the nations most dramatic rescues occurred when the lighthouse keeper’s twenty-two-year-old daughter (the aptly named Grace Darling) rowed through a storm to save survivors from the wrecked Forfarshire, her courage electrifying nineteenth-century England.
Cuthbert spent a lifetime telling others of God’s grace. It is perhaps no surprising that the Farne Islands themselves, bane of ships and shelter for seabirds, retain a legacy of rescue and redemption as well.
In honor of “God and Cuthbert,” a successor bishop at Lindisfarne in 700 crafted the Lindisfarne Gospels. Akin to the Ireland’s Book of Kells, the 259 folio pages of vellum offer a masterpiece of manuscript illumination, brilliantly ornamented with forty-five different colors mixed with egg yolk to keep the text from flaking. Written in Latin, with inter-linear notation Northumbrian dialect added about 250 years later, the Lindisfarne Gospels represent the earliest surviving translation of all four Gospels into a form of English.
Having survived harrowing travel and a sea drenching, the illuminated manuscript now rests securely under glass in London’s British Library, not far from the Codex Sinaiticus and the original score to the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” On Holy Island, Lindisfarne’s parish church displays a twentieth-century facsimile edition, while the Lindisfarne Heritage Centre offers an electronic, interactive version of the Gospels, which allows visitors to turn pages by touching a computer screen.
Superlatives adorn the manuscript, and the book itself has become more widely known than its original home island. Though no more effective than a Gideon’s Bible in conveying the story of Christ, the Lindisfarne Gospels remains one of the word’s most beautiful works of art, and testimony to a man’s response to the words within.
As a bell sounds for evensong in the parish church, I take a seat in the twilit chapel with four other parishioners. The vicar of Holy Island, David Adam, well-known for his books on Celtic spirituality, leads us in antiphonal readings as the wind outside submerges our voices. Few places in Britain have held services more continuously. Except for the years when bloody Viking raids depopulated Lindisfarne (and bequeathed the title Holy Island in honor of slain monks), prayers like tonight’s final prayer have been uttered here on evenings since 635:
Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen
By chance we sit together by gender, three men on one side, three women on the other, our eyes unmoving. The sparse attendance does not surprise me, give Holy Island’s few homes and guest bedrooms, but for a moment we seem only a distant echo of robust Celtic vesper services. Then I catch myself: I am not immune from the infection that enfeebles worship services everywhere–regret over the absent rather than gratitude for those present.
After evensong, with wind gusts snapping at my jacket and seagulls whirling overhead, I climb a path behind the church to the Heugh, a grass-covered dolerite ridge some two hundred yards long. Though only fifty feet high, it offers a spectacular vista over most of the island and a gull’s-eye view down into the priory itself.
In the empty, gated quarters, shadows stretch across the cloister, draining stones of color. Beside the priory in a dark green field, grazing sheep cast long shadows in the low sun. I sit on a bench along the ridge, sheltered from the wind by a rock wall.
I put away the guidebooks, pamphlets, and Bede’s chronicles: no more dates, narratives, or diagrams of ecclesial architecture. With an intake of breath, I remind myself why I have come: to step across the threshold of retreat.
For a few moments my mind continues to dart with ideas, frenetic as the swallows above the cloister. Slowly I become quiet, the stillness primed in part by three questions once posed by Saint Ignatius: “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I do for Christ?” Beyond that I at last reach silence and prayer.
To the west now, tidal sands no longer glint in twilight. The rising sea has begun to cast off Holy Island from England. Tomorrow morning when the ocean recedes, now visitors will arrive, attentive and expectant in the wind-honed silence. Others like myself will leave Lindisfarne, paralleling the route taken by Aidan and Cuthbert. The cairns guiding the Celtic saints, like today’s guideposts and causeway, lead away from the island no less than toward it. Midway across the tidal sands, we will glance back for a final view. As the name itself suggests, Lindisfarne remains a place of retreat, apart yet linked, as we return to the mainland of our lives.