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

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