There is no escaping from the influence of the sea here. Holy Island, Lindisfarne, off the east coast of Northumberland, is dominated by the rhythm of the tides as they ebb and flow. Nearby are the Farne islands with their colonies of seals and sea birds. When the day tourists have left and the causeway is covered by the sea the island is again cut off from the mainland. The noise and bustle of ‘civilisation’ seems a million miles away and Lindisfarne is left to the wind, waves, the gulls, and other sea birds and the few local residents. Here, in this quiet place, surrounded by the sea, yet linked to the mainland between tides, it is no wonder King Oswald called the monk Aidan to come from Iona to found a monastic community on the island. The king had recently become a Christian and he wanted to bring that Faith to his Northumbrian people.
Simple Lifestyle, Profound Faith
One wishes there were more historical records of the lives of these early Celtic Christians. There are several folk stories but little accurate information, but we know enough to get a picture of the simple yet profound faith of these early English Christians.The community here influenced not only the people of the local area, but also much of the rest of England leaving us the Lindisfarne Gospels and the legacy of notable figures like Cuthbert and many others. Missionary monks were sent out from Lindisfarne, including Cedd going to the Saxons of the East coast and Chad to the kingdom of Mercia. Despite the Viking raids that ravaged the community in the 700s the island has had a huge influence upon English Christianity.
‘Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.’
From ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ prayer
In their characteristic way the Celtic Christians would invite God into all the activities of the day, from dressing in the morning, to going to sleep at night. Everything was sacred and Christ was to be experienced in every part of the day.
Many of us today find their spirituality very refreshing, encouraging a return to a more profound faith and a simpler life style. Like the symbolic interwoven design on the typical Celtic cross, the all embracing presence of God was the inspiration of these deeply spiritual people.
‘Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small..’
This quote from an Old Breton fisherman’s prayer, turned into a poem by Winfred Ernest Garrison, was inscribed on a block of wood given to President John F. Kennedy who loved it and always kept it on his desk in the Oval Office.
The Brendan Voyage
In days before proper roads, the sea was the main thoroughfare of the day, and our Celtic forbears were a sailing people.
Some time ago I read the book ‘Brendan Voyage’ by Tim Severin. It is the account of an exciting re-enactment of an historic sea journey from Ireland to Newfoundland that is said to have been made by the Celtic saint Brendan in the 7th century.
Tim Severin and his brave crew sailed in a very primitive sailing boat across the wild northern Atlantic Ocean, encountering storms, whales, cold, hunger, and the peril of icebergs.Throughout this courageous journey our intrepid Twentieth century sailors were increasingly impressed by the faith and courage of those much earlier Celtic venturers who had, centuries before, sailed into the unknown, trusting in God’s guidance and protection. It is a story that helps us get a bit closer to our Celtic Christian forbears, to whom we owe so much, in that they were the some of the first missionaries to bring the gospel of Christ more widely to this land.
To get a better picture of the faith of these men and women, I recommend the books of David Adam, who was Vicar of Holy Island for 13 years, and also the excellent collection ‘Celtic Daily Prayer’produced by the Northumbria Community.
Names are Special
In one of his poems, Malcolm Guite describes looking at the names of the fishing boats moored in the harbour at Amble on the Northumberland cost. He lists: Providence, Bold Venture, Star Divine, Fruitful Bough, Orcadian Mist and Sacred Heart.
The poem continues:
‘their names are numinous, a found poem.
Those Bible-burnished phrases live and lift
into the brightening tide of morning light
and beg to be recited, chanted out,
for names are incantations, mysteries
made manifest like ships on the horizon.
Eastward their long line tapers towards dawn
and ends at last with Freedom, Radiant Morn.’
From ‘Saying the Names’
It’s good to see that there are still sailors in these parts. I like the well- chosen names of their boats and hope these fishermen also share the Christian Faith of their early Northumbrian forbears.