“…Manifest thy light for my regeneration, and let the breadth, height, fullness and crown
of the solar radiance appear, and may the light within shine forth!”
Abbe de Villars, ‘The Comte de Gabalis’
“We’ve just got to the top of the slope by the castle,” said the voice on the phone, in answer to my query. We had been a few minutes late arriving on Holy Island, and our companions had begun to stroll out towards the medieval castle that dominates the island landscape. Having failed to find them in any of the three cafés where we had looked, we had located them by phone and, putting on a bit of a spurt, finally caught up with them. From here we could look back at the beginning of our journey, over the water to Bamburgh Castle, just as the spiritual pilgrim looks back on his inner journey and sees with greater clarity than before, how short was the true distance he had to travel, no matter how difficult and tortuous the route he felt he had to take.
The plan was that we should spend an hour exploring in our own way before meeting for a light lunch and our departure, so while some visited the castle, the rest of us walked back into the village and met the sparrows. Time always makes its presence keenly felt on Holy Island, which is odd, because, in so many ways, it is a timeless place. As you cross the causeway from the mainland, that sense of stepping outside of time is one of the most striking feelings, and, if you remain when the tides come in, flooding the causeway and cutting off the island from the shore, there simply is no time, only the spirit of place. Yet the tides rule all and the clock ticks regardless, and for those who must leave before the waters rush in, time is always limited. The very consciousness of that knowledge makes every moment precious.
When we had gathered once more, we walked over to the ancient parish church, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. In spite of the fact that there have been people on the island since the very earliest of times, this is the oldest building to remain. It is built on the site of St Aidan’s original monastery, founded in 635, and parts of the building date back to that century.
A service had just finished, and we had no wish to intrude, so simply sat quietly for a while, in contemplation. Faith is unique to each of us, no matter by what name we know it or what path we walk. Each of us has our own relationship with something other and greater than ourselves and the simple silence of St Mary’s seems to welcome all those who turn their faces to the Light.
There are beautiful stained glass windows, touching tributes to those who have served in the church and those who have lived on the island and worked with the sea. There are windows that glow with colour and light, a statue carved from elm and called ‘The Journey,’ that shows the monks who carried St Cuthbert’s coffin on its long odyssey, a transcript of the Lindisfarne Gospel… the beautifully illuminated manuscript from the last years of the seventh century, made by a monk called Eadfrith in honour of St Cuthbert.
Fourteen hundred years is a long time for any place to be at the heart of a tiny community, and the church holds that community in its heart.
You ‘may sense the ‘thinness’ linking with the ancient saints who trod the same ground so many years before,’ says the church website. And you can. There is a very real sense of the sacred here, of something older and deeper than the exoteric Church that we know today. It is impossible not to be moved by the echoes of so many centuries of prayer.
In the churchyard, the lives of those who walked here are both remembered and forgotten. The oldest inhabitants have no grave-markers, their names and stories are, for the most part, lost. Only those whose stories were written in the annals of history are remembered by name and deed, and those who lived recently enough that their headstones survive.
Two nineteenth century headstones caught my eye. One was that of a Freemason and soldier who served in India. His affiliation to Freemasonry is not explicitly mentioned in the inscription, but the Masonic Square and Compasses tell their own story. Another local rejoiced in the name of Field Flowers. Time and weather have worn away much of the inscription, but he still rests in the shadow of the Saxon Abbey.
From the church, we walked down to the shore, passing the old well that shelters beneath the walls. I had long wanted to visit St Cuthbert’s Island but on our previous visits, either the tide or time had always been against us.
St Cuthbert’s Isle is a tiny islet just off the island’s shore. At low tide, it is just a short walk across the mussel-encrusted rocks, but to fully appreciate its isolation from the rest of the community,you have to see it when the tide comes in, completely sundering it from the island. We had done so one day, when we had stayed the length of a sea-tide on Holy Island, watching the sun gild a roseate path to the mainland as it sank beyond the hills.
It was to this tiny islet that St Cuthbert would retreat when he needed solitude. He had become a monk after a vision that came to him the night that St Aidan died. he felt called to a contemplative life, but his kindness, charm and generosity, as well as his gift of healing and deep faith, were to take him from his cell and make him Bishop of Lindisfarne and one of the best loved of the early saints.
The little island was his retreat, until in later years he sought the greater solitude of the Farne Islands. Today the foundations of his chapel remain on the islet, marked by a simple cross where pilgrims still leave tokens of respect, and earthworks that may be the foundations of his cell.
I once heard the monastic life described as being ‘in the world, but not of it’. In some respects this relates too to the journey of the spiritual seeker… pilgrims in the land of the living… who embrace the earthly life and its world fully, yet who know that the source of being is not of this world. It was the perfect place for us to end our weekend.
From here we could see the mainland and the dark outline of Bamburgh Castle. We could look back too at the Holy Isle and see the ancient church and the Abbey. Our journey together was drawing to its close, yet our journeys would continue. For a moment, we were once more outside of time and the spirit of place caught at the heart.
“I can hear mermaids singing,” said one of our companions. Sure enough, she was right. Turning our eyes to the sea, we scanned the waves and saw their faces in the waves. It was indeed magical to watch the seals watching us from the sea… playing and diving through the waters with what looked like joyful abandon.
But time touched us even here, and it was time for the weekend to end. Gary read the beautiful Invocation to the Flame from Abbe de Villars’, ‘The Comte de Gabalis’ and Barbara ended the weekend with a poem she had written. Then, with hugs and the knowledge that we would hopefully meet again soon, we parted.
For three of us, there was still a little time. Just enough to linger on the island for a moment or two… long enough to realise that the dark shadow on the sandbanks was not seaweed, but our ‘mermaids’.
The three of us, joined by silence and friendship, watched from afar, listening to their song. Such moments can justly be called a grace.
The sea-song continued, eerie and haunting on the wind as we left the islet and climbed to the Heugh. Sheltering in the lee of the ruined Anglo-Saxon chapel, we watched the seals from afar and saw a heron gliding over the waves.
But although, for once, we were in no hurry, Gary had a long drive ahead and had to leave. We walked the length of the Heugh, looking down into the ruined Priory that was already nearly a thousand years old when the castle was built. Time and distance were about to make themselves felt and it was with a certain amount of sadness that we descended from the outcrop, knowing that the world was about to take us once more by the hand. And that although at such moments we may wish the demands of the world elsewhere, it is right that it should do so. We are born into this world for a reason and to live in it fully is at least part of our purpose.
The weekend held one final and surprising gift though. As we walked across the fields towards the village, we came face to face with the past in the most surprising manner. Our timing could hardly have been more perfect and we watched archaeologists brush fourteen hundred years of earth from the faces of the early monks in the newly uncovered Priory burial ground.
“These men would have known Aidan or Cuthbert,” said the archaeologist, when I asked if it were permitted to take photographs. “Treat them with respect if you use the pictures.” I could not do anything else, for these were the men in whose footsteps we had walked the island, the men who had ‘trod the same ground so many years before,’ and whose faith has made this a place of pilgrimage, both religious and spiritual, for centuries. I may not share their particular form of religion, but we share the essence of faith and, in coming face to face with the past, I came face to face with myself. And surely, that is what any pilgrimage is supposed to achieve?