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Thin Places - Travels through Celtic Holy Ground
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by Revd Michael Mitton

Lindisfarne CastleI write this after returning from a business trip to Scotland. I travelled by train from my home town of Derby to the city of my birth, Edinburgh. The second part of the journey is truly beautiful. You have to change at the historic city of York with the towering Minster and the ancient Roman walls somehow comfortably fitting in with the modern bustling city. Then on, further north until you reach industrial Newcastle, which now welcomes you with a huge, mysterious and rather wonderful modern statue of an angel. It is called “The Angel of the North”, and somehow the designer has caught the strength and mystery of the North East of England in this statue.

As you pass its mighty wings, are become aware that you are entering a land that has known deep spiritual wells in its history. You are reminded of this again, as you enter the ancient city of Durham, and you are granted a wonderful view of the city from the train. The massive Cathedral, founded in 1093, sits majestically as the heart of this town of saints and scholars, and I yearn to disembark from the train at this point, to visit the Cathedral. I would go in through the North Door and be spellbound again by the sheer grandeur and magnitude of the place. The Dean has written in the guidebook to the Cathedral:

First sight of the Cathedral, from the train or from Palace Green is breathtaking. Equally breathtaking, when you enter, is the impact of carved stone pillars, strength and stay of the whole amazing edifice. A triumph of engineering. A creation of faith. A parable of God.

I would go, first of all, to the West End and find the tomb of the Venerable Bede, that scholar who so loved the Celtic saints, and who so faithfully recorded stories of their lives and witness. He died in 735AD in his home town of Jarrow. However, his bones were brought to Durham in 1022 to be near Cuthbert, and in 1370 they were placed in the tomb that we can still visit today. I would spend time in prayer at Bede’s resting place, thanking God for those, like Bede, who have fostered the gift of writing, and have ensured that truth passes from one generation to the next.

Then I would head for the East End, beyond the great High Altar, and find a simple yet large grey plain marble slab, with the simple inscription “Cuthbertus”. It’s hard to take in that only a few feet below me lie the bones of that remarkable saint, whose body failed to corrupt for generations after his death, indicating, among other things, the sheer life force within the man, and the harmony he knew between this world and the next. For he was one who planted his feet firmly on the earth, yet filled his lungs with the air of heaven. We know much about Cuthbert because the faithful Bede wrote so much about him. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, he writes,

Above all else he was afire with heavenly love, unassumingly patient, devoted to unceasing prayer, and kindly to all who came to him for comfort. He regarded the labour of helping the weaker brethren with advice as equivalent to prayer, remembering that he who said, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God’, also said, ‘ Love thy neighbour’.

Many have come to this shrine and felt the presence of the love of God. I think of a friend of mine, a wild Celt if ever there was one, who took a friend with him to that tomb. The friend was not a Christian, and he simply said to the friend, “Wait here for a time - I think Cuthbert wants a word with you”. He went off and returned two hours later to find the friend prostrate on the ground, laughing and weeping at new found faith. I never found out what happened in those two hours, but there is undoubtedly a hovering of the Spirit over that tomb, and those with open hearts often find themselves beckoned closer in to the love of God.

Such thoughts come back to me as we pass through Durham. But I can’t get off at this station, because I’m heading for Edinburgh, and the diesel engine pulls us out of the station. Now the railway line leads us right up to the coast, and we see wonderful views of the sea. Suddenly I see Bamburgh, the site of the ancient castle, from where Oswald ruled as the first Christian king in Northumbria. It was he who sent to Iona for a mission team to evangelise his people, and it was at Bamburgh that the faithful Aidan arrived in 635AD and looked out to sea from Bamburgh and saw the little island of Lindisfarne with its little satellite Farne islands nearby. This was the island that was to become the base of the evangelisation of the English in the north, and it was destined to become a truly holy island.

As the train speeds north so we pass Bamburgh, and then we see it! Lindisfarne, gentle, almost hidden, yet most definitely there! It lies about a mile off the Northumberland coast. No one is quite sure how the island got its name. Some reckon that farne is a Celtic word meaning ‘land’, and the word lindis came from the name of a stream on the island. Others believe that Lindis comes from the Old English lind meaning ‘shield’. I must say I like the idea of the island being named after a shield. In many respects the island, in its spiritual history, has been a shield.

As I look at this little island, my mind immediately goes back to my first visit there on a bright and breezy March day in 1992. I drove through the little hamlet of Beal, down the winding road until I came to the beginning of the roadway that connects the island to the mainland at low tide. I arrived just as the tide was receding, and the waters were clearing the roadway, leaving little bundles of sandy seaweed that were objects of great interest to the gulls and terns. It was hard to believe I was actually here. I had read much about the island, and I recalled the Venerable Bede who wrote,

As the tide ebbs and flows, this place is surrounded twice daily by the waves of the sea like an island, and twice, when the sands are dry, it becomes again attached to the mainland.

In Bede’s day there was of course no tarmac road, but locals would have known the right track to follow across the sand at low tide. You can still walk over, following the tall guide posts, and many a pilgrim has arrived on the island in this way. But for me, it was a slow drive over in the car, with my window down feeling the stiff breeze of the North Sea, and listening to the almost deafening cries of the sea birds. Half way down there is a little hut, raised high up, a refuge point for any who should suddenly be caught out by the incoming tide. It is surprising how fast the tide comes in, and the road is about a mile long, so it would not be difficult to be caught out if you were walking across.

I expect many a pilgrim has welcomed this refuge. It is full of imagery, as I think of our God, who provides many refuges for us in this life which so often catches us out. As I approached the island I saw the welcome sight of my friend John Peet. John had been on the island a few days having rented one of the several little holiday cottages that are available for letting on the island. It was wonderful to meet a friend, and to share these initial moments of discovery with him. I stopped my car and got out, and together we knelt in the sand and thanked God for this moment.

Although it was my first visit to Lindisfarne, it somehow felt familiar. Was it because I had read so much about it from Bede? Or was it because the Holy Spirit of God was present in an almost tangible way on the island, and the familiarity was the familiarity of God? I think it was a bit of both. We then drove on. The road which acts as the causeway at low tide, continues for another couple of miles along the coast of the island. On your right are the mud and sand flats which stretch out toward the sea. On your left are sand dunes, mostly covered with the resilient Marram grass that holds the sand in place when the blustery winds and gales assail the island.

On a map, Lindisfarne looks in outline rather like an old axe-head, with a knobbly shaft lying west to east , and the rather chipped blade points south. The axe-head is only about a square mile, and the shaft is another mile and a half. The whole of the northern part of the island is a range of sand dunes. The northern part of the coast is edged by rocky cliffs which stretch out to sea, with sandy bays in between. The feature of the island that you can see from the train are two outcrops of dolerite rock. These are the Heugh which shelters the village from the south, and Beblowe Crag, which now supports a small castle. Inland, quite a bit of the land is given over to farm land, and the inhabited part of the island is a little hamlet in the southern part of the island, where a cluster of houses gather around the ancient Benedictine ruins, and St.Mary’s Church.

It was into this little hamlet that John and I drove, and I enjoyed a welcome cup of tea in our rented Cottage. I remember my impatience, longing to see the island, and so straight after tea, before it became dark, we did some exploring. We walked down past St.Mary’s Church to ‘Cuddy’s Isle’, the island that is almost like a miniature Lindisfarne. Like her mother she is a tidal island, and it was on this island that Cuthbert would love to go for prayer. Here, when the tide came up, he would be secluded from the others on Lindisfarne, and he would pray and listen to God. I felt inexorably drawn to this little island, which some how felt seeped in the love of God. At low tide, you get there by stumbling across slippery rocks, and then climb up the dark rock of the island which is mostly grassed over. Right at the heart of Cuddy’s Isle is the few remains of a tiny chapel, and a large cross stands high within it. In all my visits to Lindisfarne, I would spend long periods of time on this little island, watching and praying.

We also had time to explore the ruins of the old Benedictine Monastery. The Benedictines arrived after the Norman conquest in 1066 and lived there until Henry V111 abolished the monasteries. I couldn’t help feeling a bit sad that all trace of the Celtic monastery had been lost. The Celts, in their simplicity, only built with daub and wattle, and had no interest in building grander buildings. Their community was eventually destroyed by the Vikings in the 9th century. The Celtic way started to decline after the dramatic Synod of Whitby in 664AD, and it was the models of Christianity based on adapted models from the Roman empire that slowly took its place. The large Benedictine Abbey, though impressive, is of a style in marked contrast to the values of the vulnerable Celtic Community. As you leave the monastery and walk back towards the houses, you are reminded again of the Celtic community in the form of a wonderful statue of Aidan.

The statue of St.Aidan is 11ft high, and was made by a local sculptress Kathleen Parbury . She visited the island for 30 years, and lived there for 10 years. She built the figure of Aidan in clay and then took moulds form the clay and cast them in concrete. She used red stone as an aggregate to tone in with the red colouring of the Priory Church ruins. I was overwhelmed by this statue. I had read so much about Aidan, and I loved what I read about him. When King Oswald asked for an evangelist to be sent from Iona, he was sent a certain Corman, who was, according to Bede a man of ‘austere disposition’. His mission was a complete failure, and after only a short time of attempting to evangelise the English, he returned to the mission base at Iona and complained that the English were an ‘ungovernable people of an obstinate and barbarous temperament’.

I often imagine the despondent Corman gloomily giving his report to a gatherering of Iona monks who began to wonder what to do next. Then the bright Irish monk, Aidan, speaks up and says, ‘Brother, it seems to be that you were too severe on your ignorant hearers. You should have followed the practice of the Apostles, and begun by giving them the milk of simpler teaching, and gradually nourished them with the word of God’. I am sure, as Aidan spoke, a hush descended on the group, and the gathering sensed that Aidan was not just offering an opinion, but he was speaking from a call in his heart to go the English himself carrying a gentle gospel. He was duly consecrated bishop and went with his small mission team to meet with the Northumbrian king, with whom he developed a very close friendship.

Kathleen Parbury’s statue manages to capture Aidan’s gentleness and strength. He stands tall and confident, holding forth the torch of the gospel, yet at the same time cradling the bishop’s staff to his breast. He had that unusual combination fiery evangelism, and tender pastoral care. It was this that so impressed Oswald, and the English people. When I first saw the statue of Aidan, I felt terribly moved. I could not help feeling that this was the kind of model of evangelism that our rather lost and wounded nation needs now. We do not need bullying evangelists who have no love or care for people; neither do we need the pastoral care without the fire of the gospel. Anyone who visits Lindisfarne, finds themselves inexorably drawn to this statue, and you just have to spend time there, reflecting on this gentle man who loved so many into the Kingdom of God. I remember so well that first evening on Lindisfarne, spending time by the statue of Aidan, while the sun went down and the sea gradually enfolded the island, the road was covered and no one could come or go from the island.

It is hard to explain the feelings you experience when the tide comes up. The waters mean that you cannot get off the island for several hours. You have to stay there no matter how urgent outside appointments are, you have to remain. You have to slow down, become still, rest. The whole island becomes quieter. And just us you cannot get off, so no-one else can come on to the island. You notice it especially in the summer when there are so many tourists and pilgrims. But when the tide comes up, no one else can come on to the island. There is literally no more coming and going. One of the great gifts of this island, therefore is the twice daily enforced peace, not created by human devices, but given by God through his creation. Aidan and his fellow monks delighted in this. It gave their lives and ministry a rhythm of withdrawal and engagement. At high tide, when the island was cut off from the mainland, the community could become still and reflective, worshipping God and attending to the needs of the community. Then, when the waters receded, they could go out on their mission trips to the mainland. On my first night on Lindisfarne, I was almost overwhelmed by the sense of tranquillity in those hours of withdrawal when the sea enfolded the island.

The following morning brought storm force winds and rain. The themes of tranquillity and gentleness were replaced by the wild forces of nature. The wind and rain remained for the rest of my time on Lindisfarne. I refused to stay indoors, so John and I went for several walks in the driving rain. We made our way to the North East coast, and I remember so well being buffeted by the fierce gale. Yet strangely, the storm did not seem hostile. Yes, it was a wild storm, but it was not designed to destroy. It was designed to stir, and I remember well how John and I felt so stirred to pray.

We recalled how Chad, trained as a young lad on this island, and later serving as a Bishop in Lichfield, would feel inspired to pray when a storm arose, and the stronger the storm, the more fervent his prayers. We too felt such prayer stirring within us. We also felt the prophetic spirit, so strong in those early Christians, rise up in us, and we found ourselves speaking words of blessing and hope for the lands of Britain and Ireland. We felt our prayers being gathered up on the winds and taken to heaven. We felt like Cuthbert, who when stranded on a small island further north of Lindisfarne, called to his friends, “Let us storm heaven with our prayers”.

During those two days I also made regular visits to St.Mary’s Church. Lindisfarne is currently very fortunate to have as its Minister, Canon David Adam, who is a very popular speaker and writer on Celtic Christianity. In fact the island is currently rich in Christian resources with three churches, a retreat house (Marygate House), and Revd Ray Simpson, Guarding of the Community of Aidan and Hilda, also lives here. Each time I have visited the island, I have appreciated these resources very much.

The Community of Aidan and Hilda developed soon after my first visit to the island. There were seven of us involved initially, and we decided to meet together on Lindisfarne for a couple of days one summer. The purpose of this time was to pray and plan, and also to make a visit out to the Farne Islands. It was to these islands that Cuthbert would make regular visits when he wanted to go for prayer and retreat. The Farne Islands are a group of about 25 lumps of black rock thrusting out of the North Sea about two miles off the Northumbrian coast. The largest of the group, and the nearest to the mainland is Farne Island itself, which is usually known as the ‘Inner Farne’. It is about 16 acres at low tide, about a third of which is covered in maritime grass covering a thin layer of peaty soil. The west and south sides of the islands have precipitous cliffs rising to 90 feet high. On the east coast of the island, there is a little bay which is just about suitable for boats to land. Nowadays there is a little quay for the boats that bring visitors.

This was the island on which Cuthbert chose to dwell for 10 years. It was, initially for Cuthbert a place of fighting the devil. It was like Our Lord’s wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan. Cuthbert here was in the tradition of the Egyptian monks who went out into the desert to fast and pray and engage in spiritual warfare on behalf of the church. Here Cuthbert built a little hermitage which included a dwelling place, an oratory and a latrine. By digging deep he found a fresh water supply, and he farmed what little land he had for food, supplemented by supplies brought by his brothers from Lindisfarne. There is a sense in which this became an intensely spiritual place, and visitors today still feel this.

Our group of seven adults and several children were very keen to visit there, and we arranged a trip with a local fisherman who, for a price, took us out in his fishing boat to Farne Island. When we arrived we discovered that the island was well guarded by staff of the National Trust, a British Organisation that cares for, among other things, places of natural beauty and wildlife. We were told that a boat of our size was not permitted to land on the island, unless it was one of the ones officially approved. He added though that small dinghies were allowed to land. We put down anchor and ate our lunches feeling tantalised and despondent. Then we noticed a nearby boat had a dinghy. We asked the owner, a Dutch man, if he would take us over to the island in his dinghy. He was only too pleased, and we all piled into this tiny dinghy.

On the way over we noted that there were twelve of us in total in the little boat, the number that Celtic mission teams often had. The sun beamed warmly down on us as we chugged up to the little beach and disembarked on the island, this time welcomed by the National Trust staff. But there was another hositility awaiting us, and this time it came from the sky. Farne Island is home and sanctuary for thousands of birds. There are colonies of Shanks and Cormorants, Guillimots and Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Fulmars, Eider ducks and Puffins. But the most aggressive are the terns, and they swooped down upon us, literally pecking our heads. We made our way up the narrow path, ducking a bobbing, avoiding our aggressors. We visited the small chapel on the island which dates originally from 1370, but was renovated in the last century.

Once we found a way of defending ourselves from the terns, we loved the time we had on this little island. We looked down from the high cliffs and saw the white surf breaking against the ancient rocks. We also found a patch of grass where we settled for a communion service. By now a few other visitors had arrived on the island. When we started our communion service a small boy came up and sat with us. He did not say anything, but just enjoyed being in our company. The moment we finished he got up and left. Later we looked for him, but could not find him anywhere. We often think back on that incident and wonder if we were actually visited by an angel in the disguise of a child, who was present with us to bring God’s blessing.

That day with the visit to Farne Island was a most special occasion, and I remember the late evening walk we took, when we scrambled over the rocks to get to Cuddy’s Isle, and the whole world seemed settled in deep tranquillity, and all we could hear was the sound of the sea birds, and curious noises made by the Grey seals who played together in the sea not far from the coast. All of us fell silent and motionless in the ethereal atmosphere. Later that night, after I had settled my young children for the night, I heard my eight year old son saying to his sister, “When I die, I would like to be buried here”. He had sensed how sacred the land felt, and how in many respects Lindisfarne really is a ‘thin place’. The veil between this world and the next is very thin on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, and there are moments that it is so thin, you can see glimpses of the glory that is to come.

As the train sped north, I looked longingly at Lindisfarne through the train window, and slowly it disappeared from sight, as the railway line took us along a most beautiful stretch of coastline. Just the glimpse of this holy island had done my soul good, and the memories of my visits there warmed me. I remembered a poem, that Stewart Henderson, good friend of mine wrote, after he and his wife had joined us one summer on Lindisfarne. Like me, he was captivated by the sense of the presence of God on this island, and he wrote this poem after enjoying some moments of stillness he had enjoyed in the Abbey ruins.

Lindisfarne Priory, Summer Evening.

For now,
God is still with himself
and he smells old and wise
and full of grief,
as the brilliant window
with too many stories
illustrate this moment.

Outside, a curlew
ripples her throat
like a waterfall;
singing, as she always has,
gathering songs of baptism.

Revd Michael Mitton is an Anglican Priest and Deputy Director of the Acorn Christian Healing Trust. He is author of “Restoring the Woven Cord” (DLT), published as ‘The soul of Celtic Sprituality’ (Twenty Third Publications) in the USA. He lives in Derby, UK.

© 1999 by Michael Mitton
Article written for Thin Places website. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

The poem, ‘Lindisfarne Priory’ © Stewart Henderson, ‘Limited Edition’ Plover Books 1997. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


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