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

 

Those Surprising Vikings

At the Anderson family reunion I attended years ago, when the heavy-set, ruddy blonde prairie farmers I’m from passed me a 24 of beer and told me I have Viking blood coursing through my veins, I don’t think they realised how confusing that could be. Now, having fought my way through several books and a couple of BBC documentaries on the subject, I’m less sure than ever.

 

What’s a descendent of those who were the scourge of Europe through the not-so-dark Dark Ages to do? We’re having a full-blown identity crisis. The wonderful, recently released History channel series “Vikings” takes some of the usual turns (rough and ready adventurers with lots of facial hair – at least, the men. Blood and gore. Plenty of sex). And yet, despite some caricatures, the greater truth the series portrays is this: it turns out that being a Viking meant above all being, believe it or not, complex.

 

If only we’d thought about it, we’d have suspected the former “pillage and plunder” paradigm too simple to be true. How could a small band of tattooed berserkers really be responsible not only for the sack of monasteries and cities all over northern Europe (and as far as Byzantium), but also for positive changes: the design of beautiful and advanced sea- and river-craft, the exploration of waters as far as North America, a fashion craze in costume jewelry – then, not now – the minting of coinage, and a process of urbanization that led to the establishment of quite a number of NEW cities? And why should small farmers who only wanted gold and slaves have become quite so good at setting out grid-lines and building churches? It may be a surprise to the neo-pagan “revivalists” to find out – should they ever care to – that the various hyphenated Scandinavians of the British Isles and Normandy were in part responsible for the 11th century re-flowering of Christianity.

 

My Norse relatives will hear more about this as I travel through Ireland and Norway on pilgrimage this summer. But the first to be surprised is me: I thought I had my ancestors pegged. It turns out they were more than just a hardy lot. They were often violent warriors of fortune, yes. But just as often, many of them were travelers and settlers, artists and urban planners, the pious and the pilgrims of their days. Learning as they traveled. That latter part doesn’t just sound like a heritage. That sounds like a plan.

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