There’s something about Lindisfarne, Norway and Ireland that connects all three in history, art, and memory. And faith. Cuthbert (634-687) was an Anglo-Saxon shepherd boy trained by Irish monks from Iona, who accepted the decision at Whitby to go with Roman customs, and whose remains were troubled by Viking raiders, whose Danish descendents in the Danelaw, later Northumbria, eventually honoured him as their patron saint. Life is indeed strange. Over thirteen centuries later, a descendent of Norwegians, I arrived by foot at the cave of St. Cuthbert, accompanied by my Northumbrian friends Chris and Clare, after having marveled at the intricacies of Viking art and archaeology in Celtic Dublin and walked through Norway’s St. Olaf Way, to pay my respects at one of the resting places of an Anglo-Saxon saint.
Mostly that morning I’d been worried about keeping up with Chris. His lanky frame and long legs, combined with a love of walking, an interest in history and an excitement for the path ahead, mean that he is a wonderful pilgrimage partner – when he doesn’t mind slowing just a bit. In any case we had to slow to find the place. The signs to Cuddy’s Cave, as it is sometimes known, were not all that clear. The property is managed by UK’s National Trust, but unlike some of the Trust’s other locations there is little infrastructure – just the sandstone rock formation, stairs cut into the rock on either side, some blackened soot on the cave wall from someone attempting a campfire, and the cave itself. Standing in the cave, it’s hard not to feel the weight of the rock overhead. Here, according to which report you believe, was where St Cuthbert actually lived for a short time as a hermit seeking even more isolation than Holy Island could provide, or where centuries after his passing the monks of Lindisfarne hid out from the Vikings with the coffin of the unfortunately mobile saint. Or both.
Both Chris and I are in our 50s. When he was in his early 50s, St. Cuthbert realized that death would soon be on him, and left his post as Bishop and Prior of the active monastery at Lindisfarne/Holy Island to die in his hermit’s cell on Inner Farne Island. He left specific instructions that he did not want to be buried at the monastery because he did not want the monks to be bothered by all of the pilgrims he knew would come to his tomb. But his friends insisted and so that is where he was first laid to rest.
It was almost as if Cuthbert knew what would happen. Centuries later, the vikings raided rich Lindisfarne and laid it to waste. While the sea marauders were not interested in the saint’s spiritual blessings, they were very interested in the kinds of riches that typically adorned saints’ tombs. So the monks fled with the coffin of the saint, and wandered the countryside for seven years before eventually being led by a dun cow to the site of what became Durham cathedral.
Caves are places of shelter, life and death, despair and fear, and hope. The ferns along the path nodded at the lightest touch of a warm wind, and cicadas started up here and there in the trees to accompany our bright and lazy afternoon. As we shared a cup of tea I tried to imagine Cuthbert right there, where our packs were set against the sandstone. An ancient saint, rocks more ancient still.
In his early 50s. The nature of shrines is that we all carry something not only to, but also past such a place. I hadn’t quite finished my tea but Chris was pacing. I got up, brushing the crumbs of cake off my chest. What do you think, I asked him? Can we still make it before sunset?
6 replies on “Walk Past”
Always enjoy reading about your adventures.
Thanks Gary! I’m hoping to put up a few posts about this last summer’s travels soon. Maybe some Ireland stuff at some point too?
Okay, that gave me a lump in the throat … *Can* we still make it before sunset? Seems like hope and faith circle round that question … (and love, too)?
Yes…..there’s always a sunset, and can we make it. We did (to Holy Island, at least). Or maybe, like Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways, the point is never to bother with the last few kilometers and then to make every in-between point so vivid and real and lived it becomes the destination. That way you’re never done.
“You’re never done” reminds me Gregory of Nyssa’s notion of the infinitude God (see his notion of epektasis). Or gain, of this, from a book of conferences for Carthusian Novices, for the monk in all of us:
“One of the most beautiful definitions of a monk is that he is a man of desire. This restlessness does not allow him to be content with what is created; the thirst for the absolute, this hunger for love, is the wellspring, the impetus for his search for God. The day when he feels full to overflowing, he ceases to be a monk – and is living an illusion. God never surfeits us with the gift of himself but creates in us an ever larger capacity for love and, having done this, he replenishes us with a desire, a thirst, more ardent still. And it will always be this way with god for eternity without end, because God is without end. If we arrive at the end, it is not God.” The Way of Silent Love – Carthusian Novice Conferences (Anonymous, Cistercian Publications, 1993, 28.
Yes: with our God, you’re never done.
I like this comment, very much. Thanks Sara!