Sacred Places Journal
8 October, 2001: The Holy Island of Lindisfarne: An Instrument of Blessing
"Safe arrival on Holy Isle," Donald, the priory Guestmaster says as he sees us off at the Durham train station. Later I ponder whether perhaps his blessing was instrumental in our achieving that goal.
From the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, its streets tactfully flying crossed flags of the English St. George and the Scottish St. Andrew, we take a coach to Beal, then shelter from the rain in a 19th-century coaching house as we await the bus for the final five miles of the journey across the causeway to the island. In spite of the posted schedule we begin to wonder, so Elizabeth enquires. "Is this where we catch the bus to Holy Island?" (Take a virtual tour)
"No buses to Holy Island, luv. Only on Saturday."
The causeway to Lindisfarne
Aghast, she turns to a young couple who have just happened to stop for petrol although they didn't really need it. "Would you happen to be going to the island?"
"Sure. Of course you can have a ride. No problem."
We whiz over the seaweed-strewn causeway, past the tower where anyone cut off by the rising tides can take refuge, and past the row of tall stakes marking the mile-and-a-half pilgrim route across the sand. Awareness of tides, which come in in a tricky way, is the essential thing about visiting Lindisfarne-or even for living there, it seems. Last week, we are told, three islanders were stranded by a tide that came in 25 minutes ahead of schedule.
Tower for refuge from the rising tide, along the causeway to Lindisfarne
After settling in at The Open Gate retreat centre run by the Community of Aiden and Hilda, we set out in driving rain to the Heritage Centre to study the Lindisfarne Gospels, the amazing book made on this island to honor St. Cuthbert after his death in 687. This intricate work of art was produced for ceremonial use as concrete representation of the splendour of God's Word and the Christian religion. Incredibly, the entire book is the work of a single monk-Eadfrith, who later served as bishop here (d.721).
Next we turn to the ruined priory and museum to learn the history of the island. Aiden, the missionary brought from Iona by King Oswald to Christianize Northumbria in 634, chose Lindisfarne for his monastery. Cuthbert was still a young lad tending his sheep on a Northumbrian hillside when he had a vision of the soul of Aiden being taken up to heaven. He understood this as a call to become a monk. He was prior of Melrose Abbey, and then became a hermit seeking seclusion on the island of Inner Farne. His reputation for holiness and devotion became widespread. His love for people and for animals, especially his beloved seabirds and otters, followed closely his love for God. In 685 he was persuaded to become Bishop of Lindisfarne. He spent two years striving to bring a new unity to the Church in Northumbria, then returned to his cell on Inner Farne where he died of tuberculosis. His body was brought back to Lindisfarne and was buried here for a time.
The Open Gate retreat centre, Lindisfarne
On 7 June, 793, viking raiders attacked Lindisfarne, and the monks subsequently fled with their treasures, including Cuthbert's body and the Lindisfarne Gospels. After the monks' departure the island remained uninhabited until 1082, when a medieval monastery was built here and Lindisfarne was renamed "Holy Island."
Soaking wet, we return to The Open Gate, where Jean, our hostess, tells us that the war has started. We are stunned. We had been isolated from the news in our priory in Durham. "Yes, they began air strikes yesterday-the Americans and British. There are riots in Pakistan." She offers to turn on the telly for us.
Ruins of Benedictine Priory on the Holy Island
We decline. Instead we make our way to the parish church for Evensong. Incredibly, the sun comes out. The Psalm is 124: "If the Lord had not been on our side when men attacked us, when their anger flared against us, they would have swallowed us alive."
One would think such an isolated place might be untouched by world events, but our host tells us of retreat cancellations: The family whose home near the Pentagon was seriously damaged, the couple whose son was called up, the teaching nun from New York with four students who were bereaved-all had made plans to be on Holy Island now.
We go to night-time prayers with the Community of Aiden and Hilda in a warmly lit chapel fashioned from a basement storeroom. The heavy wooden cross, icons and Holy Spirit banner glow with candlelight. This is a compline service of Celtic prayers: Compline, the monastic office that completes the day, together with Celtic prayers, which always make reference to nature and the natural order and are always strongly Trinitarian. And so tonight, "I place my soul and body under your guiding this night, O God, O Father of help to frail pilgrims, Protector of heaven and earth."