Monday, May 18th, 2020. Today we arrive at the principal destination of our pilgrimage. It is an island off the Northumbrian coast, connected to the mainland by a causeway that is passable twice a day at low tide. There are frequent tales of motorists taking a chance of getting across at the last possible moment, forgetting that the water comes in very fast. There are refuges built up on stilts at intervals, where the unlucky drivers can sit out the next four hours contemplating the fact that, though they will get back to their car when the tide goes out, their car won’t be going anywhere quickly.
The reason for our overnight stay in Bamburgh was to allow us to make the crossing well before the latest time of 11.25 a.m. You can always check the crossing times on the Holy Island crossing times website.
Holy Island gets lots of visitors in the tourist season. It is at its loveliest during high tide, when many of them have hurried back to the mainland, leaving a quieter place for those who are lucky enough to be staying. We are staying at The Open Gate, the main house of the Community of Aidan and Hilda, who run retreats and conferences there, and provide accommodation for visitors at other times. When we’ve checked in, found our rooms and taken up our suitcases, we head off for a walk to the north shore.
The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is shaped like an axe, and legend has it that when there was war in heaven (Revelation 12.7) and Michael and his angels fought against the dragon – that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan – and the devil’s battle-axe was struck from his hands and fell into the North Sea, forming this holy island as a constant reminder that the evil one is defeated.
It is one of those sacred places that draw down the presence of God: ‘thin places’ they are called, like Iona, Skellig Michael, and Bardsey Island. Here St Aidan founded Lindisfarne Priory. And here, on June 6th 793, one of the first Viking raids on England took place. The raiders were astonished by the monasteries they found scattered along the coast in sparsely populated places. Full of wealth and extraordinarily precious works of art, and inhabited by peaceful people who bore no arms and were unable to resist.
Walking on the sand, we reflect on how our 8th century Christian forebears must have thought about these events. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:
In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, [a scribal error?] the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.
And St Alcuin wrote: Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race … The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.
A new unknown terror was unleashed upon them. Perhaps it seemed to them something like 9/11 has seemed to us, or the numerous terrorist attacks of our times, or the COVID-19 pandemic. For the monks of Lindisfarne, the arrival of the Vikings was not a looming uncertain anxiety about what might happen. It was about certain death: perhaps even more terrifying than the experience of the most seriously ill patients of our own times when they are rushed into hospital, treated by masked and gowned strangers, intubated and sedated and attached to ventilators.
I have wondered often, during these days, about what it is like to face death so immediately, to know that one is dying. And I come back to what I think is one of the most brilliant imaginings of it (for none of us can know) in Christian writing. It’s in C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Chapter 31. The devil Wormwood’s Christian ‘patient’, serving as an air raid warden, has just been killed in a World War Two air raid. The senior devil Screwtape writes in rage, threatening the most terrible retribution and describing the patient’s experience of death, as his eyes are suddenly opened and he sees not only his angel guardians, but also Christ his Lord:
Did you mark how naturally – as if he’d been born for it – the Earth-born vermin entered the new life? How all his doubts became, in the twinkling of an eye, ridiculous? I know what the creature was saying to itself! ‘Yes. Of course. It always was like this. All horrors have followed the same course, getting worse and worse and forcing you into a kind of bottle-neck till, at the very moment when you thought you must be crushed, behold! you were out of the narrows and all was suddenly well. The extraction hurt more and more and then the tooth was out. The dream became a nightmare and then you woke. You die and die and then you are beyond death. How could I ever have doubted it?’
As he saw you, he also saw Them. I know how it was. You reeled back dizzy and blinded, more hurt by them than he had ever been by bombs. The degradation of it! – that this thing of earth and slime could stand upright and converse with spirits before whom you, a spirit, could only cower. Perhaps you had hoped that the awe and strangeness of it would dash his joy. But that is the cursed thing; the gods are strange to mortal eyes, and yet they are not strange. He had no faintest conception till that very hour of how they would look, and even doubted their existence. But when he saw them he knew that he had always known them and realised what part each one of them had played at many an hour in his life when he had supposed himself alone, so that now he could say to them, one by one, not ‘Who are you?’ but ‘So it was you all the time’. All that they were and said at this meeting woke memories. The dim consciousness of friends about him which had haunted his solitudes from infancy was now at last explained; that central music in every pure experience which had always just evaded memory was now at last recovered. Recognition made him free of their company almost before the limbs of his corpse became quiet. Only you were left outside
He saw not only Them; he saw Him. This animal, this thing begotten in a bed, could look on Him. What is blinding suffocating fire to you is now cool light to him, is clarity itself, and wears the form of a Man.