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31/07/2016

A Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne

It's the start of the summer break for me. Time to spend extended time away from the day job. I'll be returning in September potentially to new challenges, having had an offer (possibly two offers) to return to university and continue my studies. In some respects I am at a crossroads, having to weigh up what is important to me (and those closest to me) - having to think long-term and short-term at the same time, which is difficult.

For now though, I intend to switch off a little - allow the quiet to make things clearer.

The first stage of this was a camping trip to Northumbria. I have long held on to a wish to visit Lindisfarne - also known as 'Holy Island' - and last week this is what I did, taking in a number of sights and walking the 'Pilgrim's Way' with my youngest brother.



The 'Pilgrim's Way' is a 5 mile long route  across an expanse of sand dunes (only accessible at low tide) between the British mainland and Lindisfarne - a 10 mile round trip in total. In places it is muddy, hard-going and desolate - it is also apparently dangerous in places, should you end up too far away from the ancient wooden posts marking the way and end up in a patch of quicksand. But to be walking a route used for time immemorial provides a sense of significance.


The island settlement itself is also fascinating - not least the fact it faded out of religious significance and served primarily as a fishing village for the past few centuries. There's something inherently intriguing about British island communities, I find. Perhaps it's the sense of slight detachment - they're linked to the British mainland but not as easily caught up in our culture, a natural haven for dissenters I would think.


Aside from musing at island life, a big highlight on Lindisfarne was visiting The Parish Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, which sits next to the old priory ruins and celebrates many of the pioneers of the ancient English church. What strikes me is the fact that whilst the early pre-Roman church had strong roots in Northumbria, casting 'downwards' across northern England, it was nonetheless very much a decentralised and organic movement - and diverse in the sense it brought together Celtic and Anglo-Saxon believers. This was followed later by centralisation and institutionalisation brought about by the coming of the Roman Catholic church to Kent, casting itself 'upwards' across England, culminating in the 664 A.D Synod of Whitby which brought Christians together essentially under one church roof. Of course, going on a thousand years later we then had the Protestant Reformation which brought about a whole new diversity of Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers and Unitarians, amongst others - these in turn became institutions in their own right and now face decline, extinction even.

This reminds me of James Martineau's observation in 'New Affinities of Faith' that the Holy Spirit appears to go through cycles, of upsurge and fossilisation. It makes me wonder about what will become the Movement(s) of the Spirit for today's world? Maybe it is already happening, and I just haven't recognised it?

What also struck me - on a much simpler level - was the way the tourists visiting The Parish Church of Saint Mary the Virgin seemed inclined to just sit and pray in the pews. Others had taken to writing prayers for the evening service - one had written in the visitors' book how they had driven there six years ago, sporadically in a fit of despair, and felt the visit triggered a turning point. It was an experience unlike the many other old churches and cathedrals I have visited where tourists spend most of their time looking through the lens of their camera phones. Maybe this part of the world is truly a 'thin place', a place where God's presence is somehow most keenly felt, having been a focus for pilgrimage and prayer for so long?

Whilst on the island, looking out back to the mainland, myself and my brother both commented on the relatively faint yet strange howling, almost singing, that appeared to be travelling in on the sea breeze. We assumed it was something to do with the currents of air whirling their way over the sand dunes. However, on our return trip, we observed the sound was emanating from a few hundred moving black dots in the far distance - it turns out Lindisfarne is routinely serenaded by a choir of grey seals! 

I have little else to say about this trip other than it was everything - in my holding on to that wish to visit - that I hoped it would be. I haven't come back in any sense particularly more enlightened but I have come back a little bit more enriched...

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