Holy Island of Lindisfarne

If you choose to walk over to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne as we did this month, you will come onto the island along the “Pilgrim’s Path”, passing more than a hundred waymarks, 20 feet tall wooden poles set about 100 feet apart. These waymark poles help guide pilgrims across the muddy tidal flats to the island, and are also a lovely picture of a life of faith. We walk together. We walk by faith. But we need guidance placed along our path by those who have walked before us.

Northumbrian Christians often refer to spiritual paths or spiritual disciplines as waymarks of faith. The pilgrims path across the mudflats to Holy Island of Lindisfarne is about 2 miles wide. At low tide, we found ourselves walking through an inch or two of salt water, as well as soft mud and silt. Jumping over one little tidal stream still flowing out, I slipped in the mud and nearly spread-eagled myself in the mud, barely catching myself from sliming my entire body with tidal muck. There is a paved causeway over which most people come by car. I was delighted to walk across to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, having begun our walking pilgrimage 50 miles away in Felton, England, along the pilgrim “Way of St. Oswald”.

During our week on Lindisfarne, we went out daily to explore the island, including the village, historic sacred sites, churches including attending daily worship services, coffee shops and pubs, gardens and farmlands, castle and harbor, as well as dunes and beaches. Lindisfarne, known by most locals simply as “Holy Island”, is just three miles long and about a mile wide, a tidal island that joins with the mainland every low tide, but becomes surrounded with water once again twice a day at high tide. Everything on the island is oriented around the tides. Safe crossing posters are found in every shop with warnings about being caught at high tide. This island receives over half a million visitors every year. The year round residential population is only 120 people, with a dozen or so shops, and two dozen or so places for lodging. We reserved seating at local eating places each night because seats are limited in summer months when the tide is out.

What brings so many people to the Holy Island? Beauty, natural wonders, history, sacred pilgrimage and rest; these are a few of the many attractions drawing people from around the world. The lighting at sunrise and sunset over the island is very special, as one of the only places in all of Great Britain where you can see the sun rise and set over the sea. The island is home to singing seals, rare seabirds (we saw Eider Ducks, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, among others), dunes and farmlands, and a rich intertidal world of wonders. We enjoyed walking the many footpaths crossing the island, to discover natural wonders of wildflowers and walled gardens, dune grasses, and the flotsam washed up at the high tide lines on hidden beaches. We sat in a bird hide to encounter birds in their native habitat along the eastern shores of the island.

Many people come to Holy Island, as we have in part also done, to encounter the historic past, including the cradle of Christianity for Great Britain with the Irish missionary ministry of St. Aidan (d. 651) to the English nearly 14 centuries ago. Holy Island produced the Linsidfarne Gospels, one of the most astonishingly beautiful illuminated Holy Bibles (see previous blog post on Lindisfarne Gospels, as well as two photos of carpets in St. Mary’s Church designed after “carpet” pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels). Holy Island is also the first place the Vikings attacked England beginning their two hundred year reign of terror and power in Great Britain, coming ashore in 793. In 1993, a group from Norway came to Holy Island with a formal letter of apology from the Church of Norway for acts of terror and violence by Norwegian Vikings against the people of Holy Island 1200 years earlier, a letter which now hangs in the chapel of St. Mary’s Church on Holy Island. Holy Island has survived many such threats, including the plague, and the Edict of Dissolution by Henry VIII closing the monastery, among others.

Holy Island has been called a “thin place” by many writers and pilgrims over the years, a place where the veil between earth and heaven is thin, where you can easily connect with God through prayer, pilgrimage, worship, and quiet reflection. Millions of people over the years have come to Holy Island on pilgrimage, seeking spiritual renewal, guidance, and connection with God in this thin place. Following St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert in their prayerful, humble, gentle way, many saints have also served and prayed here on Holy Island in faithful, quiet humility, without any flair or fanfare. Today, Holy Island is home to three congregations, including Anglican, Reformed, and Roman Catholic churches, each of which offer multiple worship services throughout the week. While we were on Holy Island, on Sunday, August 30, 2015, we worshiped at St. Mary’s Anglican Church, on the Feast Day of St. Aidan. Because of this special annual celebration, the Bishop was present and gave the sermon. After worship, the whole congregation went on prayer processional around the village, led by the Bishop and the local Anglican priests (see photos above). We stopped at six locations, singing verses of a hymn, and offering prayers for Christian Unity, for the Island Community, for the nations, for farmers and harvest, for firshermen and seafarers, and for the ongoing spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a prayer offered from a beautiful overlook called The Heugh, a hill overlooking the bay, looking south to Bamburgh Castle on the mainland. The prayer processional was concluded with a beautiful Celtic Christian song led by a husband and wife duo on guitar and tin whistle. Quite a lovely gift to join in this annual processional celebration!

Holy Island also offers pilgrims two Christian retreat centers: Marygate House Holy Island: http://www.marygatehouse.org.uk/Aboutus.html); Open Gate Christian Retreat House operated by the Community of Aidan and Hilda (see https://www.lindisfarne.org.uk/theopengate/) a place where I was on retreat for four days, studying St. Aidan and St. Hilda, in a retreat led by Ray Simpson, one of the co-founders of the Community of Aidan and Hilda back in 1990.

Holy Island is a quiet place, especially when the tide is in, and the multitude of day-trippers have left the island. This happens twice a day. As the tide goes out, the tide of tourists and visitors floods in. As the tide comes back in, the people head to the car park, and go off the island. The times for this change with the tides, slightly different times every day. Today, as I write, it is full moon, meaning the tides are highest and lowest of the month. Back in 635, when King Oswald offered Aidan land anywhere in his kingdom where he would build Aidan a mission center monastery, Aidan chose wisely when he chose Holy Island of Lindisfarne. We all need to be connected to others with our day together; but we also all need time away to be alone with God in solitude. Lindisfarne offers this through the natural rhythms of daily tides.

Holy Island is a parable. Our lives have two great callings. First, we are called to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. We do this best by withdrawing from distractions, from busyness, from noise and clutter. We need places to pray, to rest our souls in God alone, to sit quietly for study of God’s Word, time to think, to memorize Scripture, to pray for others. Holy Island offers this twice a day when the tide comes in. The island becomes quiet as it is cut off from the mainland by the incoming tidal waters. At high tide, we can go out to the shore, sit on a bench overlooking the sea, and offer our soul to God alone, who washes in upon us with waves of grace upon grace.

But second, we are called by God to love others with God’s amazing love. We do this best by allowing others into our lives through hospitality, welcoming the stranger, the guest, the tourist, the visitor, the newcomer, the immigrant, the foreigner, the seeker. We take time to listen to people, discover their story, hear their sorrows and delights and dreams. We take time to remember their names, and call them by name when we see them again. We cross over from our places of isolation into the mainstream of village, town, city, into the lives of people who are hurting, who are crying out for friendship, who are needing encouragement or food or love. In the Way of St. Aidan, we give of our time, talent, and finances with compassion for people in need, offering our lives in love for people we meet daily. Everyday comes into that God-created balance: tide coming in, tide going out; loving God, loving neighbor. This is the way of St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert. This is the way of Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

For more information on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, I recommend two books, both easy to read, and enjoyable histories of this amazing place: Kate Tristam, The Story of Holy Island (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2009); and David Adam, The Holy island of Lindisfarne (London: SPCK Publishing, 2009).