Meeting Saint Clare on the way to Holy Island

I just posted the second episode in my podcast series “Pilgrimage Stories from Up and Down the Staircase”! In these 20 minutes you come along for the first part of the walk along the St. Cuthbert Way from Melrose Scotland to Holy Island, England. You’ll meet Chris and Clare, and find out why she’s Saint Clare, to me. I hope you enjoy the show, which you can find on Podbean here, and on Apple podcasts, here!

walking to Holy Island


Walk Past

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?

carrying St Cuthbert statue



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