Friday, September 2, 2011

Tidal Treacheries

The Romans invaded the Island of Britain in the first century, and Christian soldiers were among the first English to found churches in Kent, as early as the 2nd century.  But as Rome weakened under Vandal invasions its ability maintain control of its far-flung provinces waned.  In the 5th century the Romans pulled out leaving behind a few scattered Christians and a bunch of building projects made of stone.  In the 5th and 6th centuries on the northeast coast of England, in an area known as Northumbria, Angles and Saxons invaded, driving the Britons back down into southern England on the heals of the retreating Romans.  They were of Germanic stock, and, melding with the Celtic Briton's and Picts, came to be what we now know as the English.
In the 7th century the crown prince of Northumbria, Oswald, was spirited away to Iona for safekeeping during internal strife in the kingdom, where he was baptized a Christian.  When all was said and done Oswald became king.  He sent to Iona for missionaries to convert his pagan people.  Earlier attempts by the more Roman church to the south failed, but Aidan's Celtic practice and mild and humble ways commended themselves to the English. In typical Celtic style, instead of setting up a cathedral church in a town, he selected something more monastic and more rustic, the island of Lindisfarne.

Well, it's sometimes and island and sometimes a peninsula.  There is a great tidal flat between it and the mainland, cutting it off for several hours out of each 12 at high tide.  Best to watch the tides, too.  They are high and they are a force to be reckoned with.  What is clearly a dry road during low tide is covered by enough water to flood your car and wash it off the pavement.  If there is anything worth retrieving afterwards you are just darn lucky.  And afoot it is no better.  There is a "pilgrim's path" marked with high poles visible even at high tide.  Best stick to the markers because changing quicksand lurks beyond.  We heard a haunting tale of a mother with children who went out to dig clams.  Caught in quicksand, the incoming tide drowned them all before they could be pulled to safety.  Drivers are warned over and over again not to attempt to cross except during low tide.

And these were not the only dangers.  Kings of Northumbria built castles along the coast, from point to point, creating a visual link all along the coastline to guard against Viking invasions in the 9th and 10th centuries.  One such castle inhabits another corner of Lindisfarne Island.  They were not entirely successful at their task however.  Lindisfarne was sacked by the Vikings more than once.  Most of the monks fled to Durham, inland, taking with them the Lindisfarne Gospels, a richly decorated book done in wonderfully ornate Celtic style, reminiscent of the Book of Kells.  The Priory Church, however, was reduced to ruin.  Rebuilt, it suffered like most monasteries under King Henry the VIII and was suppressed.  The only surviving building that is in current use is St. Mary's Church of England Parish, which is built on foundations dating back to the 8th century and has parts of its upper structure from the 12th and 13th.  The Priory Church and its compound itself, standing just yards from the parish church, is one magnificent sandstone ruin.

What drew these ancient Celts to such dangerous places?  One of Aidan's disciples, Cuthbert, chose another island 10 miles to the south, separated by a mile from the shore, with steep rock sides and nothing but seals and sea-birds to build a hermitage and pray.  Perhaps here is the answer.  Legends tell of the sea-birds and seals bringing Cuthbert fish to eat.  One story tells how he dug a hole in the rock, prayed, and in the morning it was full of fresh water.  From then on it was never dry, but always provided the saint with water.  Perhaps they sought to live out what St. Paul meant when he wrote, "I will glory in my weakness."  When we are weak the opportunity for grace to excel is made more obvious.  When these Celts meekly and humbly put themselves in such harsh and inhospitable places they found it easier to see the hand of God providing and protecting them.  Cuthbert was supposed to have passed many a night's vigil submerged up to his neck in the cold north Atlantic waters to mortify the flesh and vanquish his fleshly desires.  Again, making himself weak, God could be strong in him.  Tradition has it that when his body was taken from Lindisfarne to its final resting place in the Cathedral in Durham 150 years after his death monks opened the coffin to find that his body lay just as it was when first buried, "uncorrupt"--a testimony to his great holiness.

Perhaps it was fitting that the day Landon and I spent there it rained all day!

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