England’s Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne, England (photo by Visit Britain)

In England, the primary pilgrimage site for those seeking to follow in the footsteps of Celtic Christians is Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island. Located off the coast of Northumberland in the north of England, Lindisfarne was founded in 635 by the Irish monk Aidan, who had received his religious training on Iona. The monastery rapidly became a renowned center for learning.  In 698 the body of St. Cuthbert was enshrined here, making this an even more important spot for pilgrims.

St. Cuthbert was a beloved figure in the early Celtic church. He served as prior at Lindisfarne for a number of years before withdrawing to the nearby tiny island of Inner Farne, a place where he could escape from all worldly distractions and temptations. Though he loved his solitary life, he was persuaded to return to Lindisfarne as bishop in 685. There he pursued an active life of pastoral care and constant journeying around his large diocese.

A number of wonderful legends are associated with Cuthbert, many reflecting the Celtic love for birds, beasts, and the rest of the natural world. One of my favorites explains why the saint is frequently depicted with otters. The story is told in a biography of the saint written by Bede, an eighth-century church historian. Cuthbert would often disappear from the monastery to spend the night in prayer by the seashore. One night another monk followed him and watched as Cuthbert waded into the water and stayed there for hours, praising God. At dawn Cuthbert returned to the shore, fell to his knees, and began to pray again. While he was doing this, two otters came out of the sea and breathed upon his feet, rubbing them with their fur to warm them. After Cuthbert blessed them, they returned to the sea, and ever since the saint has been associated with the animal.

When Cuthbert died, he was buried near the altar in St. Peter’s Church on Lindisfarne. Eleven years later, monks disinterred his body to transfer it to a new shrine and discovered to their surprise that his remains had not decayed or crumbled. Taking this as a sign of Cuthbert’s saintliness, the monks reburied his body in the floor of the church, and Lindisfarne became a focus of pilgrimage for those seeking his relics. The Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript created about 698, gave the settlement additional fame.

Over the next century Lindisfarne grew in wealth and influence as pilgrims poured onto the island. Kings and noblemen donated land as well as money and precious objects. It was inevitable that the isolated, wealthy settlement would become the target of the Vikings, who sacked the island in 793. Some said that it was a judgment by God against the luxurious lifestyle of the monks and the ways in which they had fallen away from the holy path. News of the disaster spread as far away as the court of Charlemagne, the greatest ruler in Europe. Within a generation the monks of Lindisfarne had left Holy Island, eventually taking the remains of Cuthbert to the Cathedral at Durham.

Cuthbert continued to be a much-revered figure in the north of England. Both Lindisfarne and the island of Farne were often visited by pilgrims, and some monks chose to follow in his footsteps by becoming hermits at these sites. During the twelfth century, the church on Holy Island was reconstructed and other monastic buildings were begun. The church had a presence here throughout the Middle Ages, until Henry VIII dissolved the monastery system in 1536. Lindisfarne continued to be a place of prayer and retreat, however, and its village church has served as a focus for worship for many generations.

Because Lindisfarne is an island at high tide, pilgrims need to time their visit to when the road leading to it is free of water. Travelers can wander amid the ruins, tour Lindisfarne Castle, visit local churches and a museum, and walk along the shore as St. Cuthbert did so long ago.  Appropriately enough, part of the island is now a nature preserve—something that would undoubtedly have pleased Cuthbert. A variety of retreat options exist on the island, including The Open Gate, which is part of the Community of Aidan and Hilda, a world-wide fellowship inspired by the traditions of Celtic Christianity.

See the Holy Island of Lindisfarne for general travel information.

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