Autumn at Home II: ‘Heritage of our Isles’

As far as dilemmas go, having to decide whether to take a short trip to Grasmere in the English Lake District, or to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria, is a rather lovely one. At mid-point in the teaching semester, the occasion had come my way to venture a little further from home and spend a few days in the North of England. I took a sounding of my good friends on the matter and enjoyed finding out what everyone thought – people have quite clear views about the merits of Lindisfarne, and of the Lakes! As it turned out, I was happy to be able to make a short visit to both. As I am writing it is All Saints’ Day, so it seems fitting to share with you a little of our visit to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne (more of the Lakes later!)

There are strong spiritual and cultural connections between the island of Ireland, and Scotland and England. These can be traced in the lives of saints and scholars whose stories have been preserved and handed down to us in written form. Our time spent on Holy Island, and in the cathedral city of Durham, helped us understand something of this heritage more fully. It helped us to reflect too on the value of writing and education, on our vulnerability as human beings, and, ultimately, on the hope and challenge of the Christian Gospel.

Finding our bearings

As its name ‘Holy Island’ suggests, this windswept piece of land lies some distance from the shore, situated just off the far North East of England. It can, however, be reached via a causeway, depending on the tides. Just a few miles from the border with Scotland, Holy Island has long been recognised as a special place. It has drawn in pilgrims for about 1400 years.

In a sense, our own visit was a kind of pilgrimage. We had to plan it carefully, at a time when crossing to the island was possible, because for several hours each day the causeway is covered by the sea. We were aware that many others had made similar journeys before us; we were following in the footsteps of ‘a great cloud of witnesses’. I imagine that we share at least some things in common with pilgrims across the ages: a longing for healing and restoration in a world of brokenness; a desire to find in the beauty of unspoilt, remote and wild places something that might revive spirits and brighten hearts. Like pilgrims of old, we too seek to know something of God, to become more open to the indefinite possibility that is found in Him.

The tidal causeway at Lindisfarne

We learned during our visit that St Aidan, a Bishop hailing originally from Ireland, had travelled from the island of Iona and settled in Lindisfarne in 635AD, establishing a community of faith there that would become a beacon of the Christian Gospel throughout England. The abbey on Iona had been established by Irish monks, led by St Columcille, and continued to have close links with Ireland. The Kingdom of Dalriada in which Iona was situated, embraced North Antrim, in Ireland, as well as the Inner Hebrides and Argyll, in Scotland. The Irish and Scottish lands that comprised the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada were separated by only a few miles of sea known as the North Channel. The period of Celtic Christianity in which St. Aidan played an important role, predated the Reformation. It also inspired the naming and ethos of the school that I attended as a pupil between the ages of 11 and 18, and where, for a few cherished years after my time at college, I began my career as a teacher.

The current Dalriada School community still values its heritage, highlighting that ‘A special pageant-play called Dalriada written and produced by the English master, Mr G.E. Gordon, later Headmaster, was the inspiration for the school’s present name. The name came from the kingdom of Dalriada, which had its royal seat in nearby Dunseverick.’ The spirit of Dalriada, as I came to understand it, was ecumenical and inclusive. It is an ethos that has influenced several generations, including my own, and is something I still carry with me.

If our visit to Holy Island encouraged me to reflect upon and prize the heritage that informed the ethos of my education at Dalriada School in North Antrim, it also deepened my appreciation of the cost and value of writing. The pursuit of literacy by the communities of faith in the Abbeys on Iona and Holy Island was a vital part of sharing the light of the Gospel. It also preserved the stories of great Christian men and women of centuries past, saints who befriended the lonely, cared for the poor, tended to the sick, and bestowed the gift of learning to generations to follow. The writing down of the Gospel and the lives of these saints has illuminated our own.

We might not have come to know about the pioneer saints of our island heritage if it were not for writers and historians like the Venerable Bede, whose work in hagiography bequeathed an awareness of the life of St Aidan, and also of St Cuthbert whose memory is perpetuated in Durham, in the medieval Cathedral, and in the university colleges. Contemporary writer and poet Malcolm Guite is inspired by St Cuthbert. Reflecting on a remarkable pilgrimage walk that he made in St Cuthbert’s footsteps, Guite notes the spiritual bonds that the Celtic church in Ireland and Holy Island shared. St Cuthbert is remembered also in the work of sculptor Fenwick Lawson , whose sculpture ‘The Journey’ is visible in bronze in the city’s Millenium Sqaure, and, in wood, on Holy Island, inside St Mary’s Church.

Lindisfarne Abbey.

The achievements of both scribes and sculptors require the highest levels of personal dedication, long hours of painstaking labour, and great craftsmanship. In the case of the scribes in places like Holy Island, the materials of making themselves were costly. Manuscripts were a kind of ‘opus Dei’, a careful copying of texts onto vellum, a parchment made from calf skin, with regularly sharpened quills. Precious coloured inks were prepared using organic pigments, some brought from far corners of the globe, others procured locally: black iron gall, orange toasted lead, yellow orpiment, verdigris, the intense blue of lapis lazuli, and, in the case of the Lindisfarne Gospels of Holy Island, a rich purple tincture derived from lichen. Eadfrith, the scribe who copied the Lindisfarne Gospels, is said to have created no fewer than 90 different coloured inks to use in his work. The labour of the scribe was a high calling.

St Mary’s Church, Holy Island; Fenwick Lawson’s ‘The Journey’
The arches of Lindisfarne.

Today on Holy Island, the great arches of the Abbey are still intact amidst the ruins. Close by is the island’s harbour. We saw fishermen at work, surrounded by nets and boats and lobster pots. We saw too the little shelters made from upturned herring boats.

Upturned boat shelter, Lindisfarne Harbour.

They had been coated in pitch, strangely reminiscent of the preparation of the little reed boat in which baby Moses was placed into the River Nile by his mother. These structures by the water on Holy Island have been used by the fishing community as storehouses, but they represent a historic tradition of such vessels becoming homes. One of these features in Charles Dickens’s novel David Copperfield. On Holy Island at Lindisfarne, a place so open and exposed to the elements, these structures assumed, in my eyes, the appearance of icons. They seemed to embody our vulnerability, our need as human beings for shelter – in storms both physical and spiritual.

Contemporary pilgrims to Durham Cathedral will encounter, at the outset of their visit, as we did, just a few days before our visit to Holy Island, the words of the Venerable Bede. Bede was the great scholar and teacher who documented the lives of the saints of Northumbria. His words are illuminated in gilded letters in Latin and English in the Galilee Chapel where his remains have been laid to rest:

“Christ is the morning star who when the night of this world is past brings to his saints the promise of the light of life and opens everlasting day.”

These are beautiful words. They have been set to music by great composers, in an evocative interpretation by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt , and a stirring choral setting by English composer Will Todd who is himself from Durham.

Bede’s words draw on Scriptural imagery, found, for example, in the Book of Revelation Chapter 2 verses 26 – 28:

‘And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end … I will give him the morning star.’

The image of the morning star is one of light. I found much encouragement and challenge in reading the words of a sermon preached by Reverend Canon David Kennedy in the cathedral at Durham . Reflecting on the life of Bede, on his words illuminated in the Galilee Chapel in Durham Cathedral, and on the lyrics of a great Wesleyan hymn, Kennedy points to Christ as Light of the World. The salvation Christ offers brings hope and the promise of a better day to come. Our tired and broken world seems hungry for hope. Christ’s followers are likewise called to shine – as lights in a dark universe. As the Reverend Kennedy put it: ‘as Christ casts his light upon us we are called to spread that light, wherever the night denies it. To carry Christ’s light into dark places. It reminds us that the Light of Christ banishes darkness and that one day God will perish it.’

Visiting Holy Island at Lindisfarne reminded us of the shared heritage of our isles, and of the lives and legacy of the saints of history. With the biblical saints before them, they encourage and challenge us to continue on, day by day, on the steps of our own journey:

'Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,  fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.'  (Hebrews Chapter 12 verses 1 & 2)
Light on the water, Holy Island at Lindisfarne

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