Following the Saint

following the Dun Cow
Kate Tristram is not the type to be doing nothing on a Saturday afternoon. But when the kind woman at the Museum in Lindisfarne – the vicar’s wife, as it turned out – rang up the former curate, former professor and very present historian to say that there was a man from Canada who had walked St Cuthbert’s Way, had just come across the sands and was interested in talking to her about her book, within a few minutes the 82 year-old was there. She looked at me like a person who decides very quickly if they like you or not. When she took off her jacket and sat down, I took it to be a good sign. But she perched forward, like the points she was making might at any moment lift her off her chair.
Most modern Celtic spirituality is rubbish. Pure rubbish. When I turned 70 I started studying Gaelic up in Edinburgh and they said: the English want our spirituality now, but they can’t even be bothered to learn the language. Those are Celts up there too, just as much as the Irish. One morning I sat in the Dept of Languages office for two hours and five people came in to ask questions and not a word of English was spoken. Devilishly hard.
Had I started my pilgrimage in Old Melrose, she wanted to know? The real location of Cuthbert’s Abbey? No? Too bad…did I know the difference? Did I know about the connections between Lindisfarne and Iona? We talked about theology, and land, and the inner and the outer journeys and how like the paths on the Cheviots the two parts of pilgrimage meet and loop back on themselves and sometimes overlap, sometimes diverge, but always intersect. I thought of the interweaving of the Celtic manuscript borders, or the Anglo-Saxon designs of dogs and eagles biting their tails, or the Viking rope circles, their similarities proof that ideas across the North Sea peoples interwove as much as the pens and paths they inspired.
St. Cuthbert was an Anglo-Saxon, trained by Irish monks in the Irish tradition of Aidan, whose sainted (and probably jewel-encrusted) coffin was then chased all over northern England by the fear of Viking swords, although eventually given a home by a converted Danish-English king. His remains now lie in a magnificent Norman abbey, although the story is that William the Conqueror fled on horseback from the wrath of the dead saint when he came north to open the coffin and see the uncorrupted body for himself.
I’m not sure if I would have liked Cuthbert that much. Aidan seems a more forgiving sort. All the same, after leaving Lindisfarne I followed the path of the wandering monks, down to Durham, arriving just in time for the sung Eucharist in the Cathedral. It must have been a real perigrination – not knowing where they would land – and it was a dun cow that showed them the way to the final resting place for their saint. I sat quite a while in Dun Cow lane, for that and other reasons.
The ending of this pilgrimage surprised me with emotions. Walking across the golden sands to Lindisfarne, the sea warm under my bare feet. Listening to the seals singing to the sunset on the southern banks. Hearing the choir sing the words of Isaiah in the Cathedral. Lighting a solitary candle in the St. Cuthbert chapel, realising that this time I was lighting it not for anyone else, but for myself.
And then, surprisingly, coming across the tomb of the Venerable Bede, and the incredible prayer that someone has stitched for the kneeler before the tomb. Bede the Historian, I discovered, was really Bede the biblical scholar. Like me, he was someone for whom the richness of the Bible was a gift, an ever-surprising treasure to be explored again and again, a rich soil from which perennial growth comes in incredible variety. And he was a chronicler of others, including Cuthbert.
One of the surprises of this pilgrimage was that it started as an exploratory trip and turned into a real pilgrimage. Another was that I was never entirely sure where it ended.
Kate Tristram teased me a bit in that time before she was off again and I was left on my own on Lindisfarne. She looked at my feet impishly. How long did you walk? Four days? You could have come by boat in an afternoon, you know. She has an infectious laugh. That’s probably how Cuthbert really did it…waited for the tide to go out and then just floated down. You could have saved yourself the trouble. But I suppose the trouble’s the point in pilgrimage, isn’t it? She laughed again, a laugh that included me, kindly, in the Holy Island she loves so well, and the saints with whom she seems to have more than a passing acquaintance.

Bede's Prayer


London with the Girls

To walk the sidewalks with two fifteen year old girls, my daughter and her friend, is to see a London I hadn’t experienced: endlessly interesting in its outdoor life, spread out, shimmering hot, bustling and attractive, a city through sunglasses, an endlessly sunny asphalt summer of tube stops and clothes-shopping, gelato and south Asian hawkers selling tee-shirts saying “keep calm and carry on and mind the zombies”.  The girls look older than they are. They fit in well, even better than I thought they would. “I could live here,” says my daughter, looking around as if appraising an apartment. “It would be easy”. I realize I’m taking what she says seriously.


London has become cosmopolitan. With their blond hair and leggings the two girls could be British Poles out after work, or French shoppers, or the North American tourists we are. Famished, we stop at a restaurant in Soho. I’m feeling poor and was thinking something simple and therefore cheap. Once we’re seated I have a good view of the two chefs behind the counter of the open kitchen, joking with their sous-chefs as they hack at lobsters or lay out oysters, their casual chic and the line-up that gathers on the sidewalk both guarantees the bill won’t be what I had hoped. “How about fish and chips?” I ask the girls. The waiter, a dark-eyed, powerfully-chested Brazilian in fitted white dress shirt and black pants, is hanging by our table, chatting them up while I peruse the menu. I have a brother who moved to Calgary, he tells them. Your country is paradise. He kept phoning to tell me in the first few months to tell me that. Then winter arrived, he came home to Brazil. Canadians are wonderful, the waiter concludes, spreading his arms wide as if welcoming us in. The weather, not so much. There is a warm glow surrounding the girls that extends somehow to me. Londoners think they are sisters, perhaps fraternal twins. I catch passers-by smiling at me, the dad, hovering behind or more often forging ahead, wrinkled brow, studying the map on a streetcorner, finding our way through the city where there are no parallel ways and the names change by whim.


We go to St Paul’s Cathedral. On entering the narthex I feel myself relax; I’m on familiar ground. But after a few minutes admiring Christopher Wren’s dome, I’m already annoyed at the awkward theology and evangelicalism of the Dean’s comments on the iPhone guide we’ve been provided. He sounds like a tour guide who’s being surreptitious in trying to get a few words in about faith. A full flow of tourists shuffle by as I listen and look. I’m poked in the back. The girls, sitting behind me, have negotiated the full menu of the device and are ready to go. I realise I’d prefer to see the living congregation. Maybe Quebec has made me more Catholic; I miss the banks of candles and the side altars of Notre Dame Paris, and look in vain on the edges of the huge space for a black-albed sexton or a deacon or anyone churchy with whom to identify. The girls fidget. We join the crowds again, and finally, in the sparkling gold and blue mosaics of birds, high above the quire, I feel something of whatever it was I was looking for.


Then, in the crypt, there is another bonus: a memorial to William Blake. I wonder what fantastical images he might have produced, looking at us now, with our cameras, lined up at the gift shop, calling out to each other in every language under the sun. Making sacred the commonplace is a mystic’s art, but all it takes is a lack of attention, it seems, to make the sacred commonplace.


We exit the church into more of the brilliant sunlight the Londoners are calling “a summer to remember”.  A man in a shirt and tie, jacket in hand, slows slightly to step off the sidewalk around us. He catches my eye and smiles. “Brilliant isn’t it?” he says and I don’t know if he’s talking about the day or being a dad walking the streets with two such teenage girls.Image


The birthing of a pilgrimage

Allen ponderingThis hostel is accredited, begins the promotional blurb for Meso Gård , and recommended by the National Pilgrim Centre. It has met the same requirements, and holds the same standard, as the pilgrim accommodation along Camino de Santiago. But a Spanish pilgrim who comes to Norway will find themselves, not in a bunk room in barren and dusty Castrojeriz, but in a typical sod-roofed, log-cabin style Norwegian hostel in the Rennesbund district along the St-Olaf’s Way, where a river rushes by, birds are singing, mountain flowers bloom around you and everything is green. Meso is a world away from a Spanish albergue. And the differences aren’t just in the lack of Rioja and dust (the first to better deal with the second).

Those who planned the St-Olav Weg have tried to make it familiar. The elements are as standardized as the boarding procedure at airports. There is a passport, obtained from an official pilgrim centre and sized appropriately for tucking into a backpack, local business stamps validating one’s walk along the trail, trail markers along paths and roads and paint slashes on rocks to guide the way, ‘pilgrim meals’ offered at some local restaurants, and several revitalized ancient routes (traceable on a smart-phone app) toward a cathedral city celebrating a medieval saint.

Yet the similarities between the two pilgrimage routes are overshadowed by differences as high as Norway’s mountains. The mountains, in fact, may be the most obvious initial difference, at least from the Camino Frances part of the Spanish trail. It’s been less than two weeks since I walked with five other Canadians from Dovre, in the Dovrefjell district of Norway, 250 or so kilometres to Trondheim. As far as I know, we were the first group of Canadians ever to walk this way as pilgrims. Unlike my experiences on the crowded Camino Frances, there were very few others we met. Those we did echoed our experience of a satisfying but extremely tough walk through conditions more like the high Rockies than the Meseta. In part because of an unusually late, cold and wet spring, we forded swollen mountain streams, jumped from hillock to hillock through kilometres of bog, and in sections of the trail found ourselves going days without seeing other human beings, much less a store to purchase supplies. We fell down, we froze, we saw incredible beauty, one of our group broke her ankle among the endless tree roots. It may be ancient, but it was not an urban walk. Café con leche? Forget it, unless you have a thermos, some farm experience and can catch one of the abundant sheep or goats.

Because it is still early in the redevelopment of the St-Olaf Way, one of the most fascinating parts of the walk, for me, was how we met those still trying to put their mark on how the trail will develop. I felt like we were there at the beginnings of something important. We met chapel builders who want to make sure there will be a spiritual component to the walk, officials who seek the ‘new spirituality’, walkers interested primarily in ecology and environment, and others who are developing their businesses in hopes of increasing numbers of high-tech backpackers showing up at their doorsteps.

All of which raises some interesting questions. What gives a particular pilgrimage its unique character? Is there such a thing as a more or less authentic pilgrimage? It seems to me that the inevitable conflict of values in this birthing of a European pilgrimage route is useful, because it helps bring about something that, however it borrows from the past, is new. As my friend Allen Jorgenson noted, the role of land, and of landscape, is more important than some of us have realized. Maybe we should be talking about pilgrimscapes, and how the outer journey influences the shape of the inner one.

Whatever the medieval St-Olaf route once was, there is now a struggle for its modern identity. It is definitely not the Camino. What it will be remains to be seen.
Alpine shelter