I found a small pottery shard that looked like a monk on a sea glass beach at Lindisfarne last month – and I imagined that it was an image of St. Aidan – one of the patron saints of Lindisfarne, and the founder of the first monastic community there.
Lindisfarne – Holy Island
Lindisfarne is a tidal island in the North Sea off the coast of Northumberland that is completely separated from the mainland twice a day at high tide. At low tide cars and walkers can make their way to island via a causeway and pilgrim path. It is also known as Holy Island and has been drawing pilgrims to its shores for 1400 years. And the magnetic pull of the spiritual seeker is still strong. One can’t help but feel holy on Holy Island.
Coming on to Holy Island – crossing that causeway knowing that the road you’re on will be covered in a few hours by the North Sea in just a few hours – is a mystical experience full of anticipation. Author and former Rector at Holy Island, David Adam says this about the island:
“…twice a day, for two spells of five hours, Lindisfarne is completely cut off and the only way you can get to it is by boat from Seahouses. Then it takes on a stillness and a brightness that can almost be felt, with the sea all around increasing the amount of light through reflection.” ~The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, David Adam, 2009
Rev. Adam also quotes Aethelwulf, a ninth century monk at Lindisfarne: “…where the waves are eager to curl over the shores with grey water: but rush to lay them bare as they go to their backward course, and the blue depths encircle a sacred land, and afford a ready journey when they lay the shores bare.”
Lindisfarne – It’s About the Monks
Holy Island is most known for its monks. In the 7th century when the strict rule of the Roman church hung heavy on southern England, Oswald, the king of Northumberland wanted a gentler conversion for his pagan – sometimes wild – subjects. So he asked the monks of Iona to send someone to bring the loving light of Christ to his people. The monks sent Cormán who ended up being harsh and rigid and nearly got himself killed on his retreat back to Iona where he proclaimed that the Northumberlanders were too stubborn and violent to receive the word of the gospels.
But a humble little monk named Aidan spoke up during Cormán’s proclamation. In a gentle voice Aidan said, “Perhaps you tried to give them meat when they were only ready for milk.” Soon after that, Aidan was dispatched to the wild Northumberland region to do what Cormán was unable to do – convert the pagans.
St. Aidan seemed a perfect fit. He was humble and loving and spoke to Saxon lords and nobility with the same compassion he demonstrated with commoners, peasants, and slaves. He focused on practical works of mercy and servitude rather than preaching and teaching Christian ideologies. He led by example – never riding a horse, breaking of silver plates and giving the pieces to the poor to sell for food.
There are so many Aidan stories about his love, benevolence, and spiritual leadership. He loved his people and practiced great acts of charity. He is said to have died standing up in a Northumberland village – leaning against a church … a true soldier of love.
The monks of Lindisfarne stayed on Holy Island until Viking raids in the ninth century forced them out. There are graphic tales about the monks that were slaughtered by Vikings on Holy Island. The stories include the Vikings pouring the blood of the monks around the altar and trampling the dead bodies as they marauded, pillaged and burned the village.
12th Century Priory Ruins
In the twelfth century, the monks returned, this time it was the order of St. Benedict. The old priory sat where the current St. Mary’s church is located, and St. Aidan is believed to rest in peace on that spot. The Benedictines built a new priory closer to the shore and the remains of that settlement – including the famous “rainbow arch” are still present on the island. Visitors and pilgrims walk silently through those ruins with a natural reverence that the site seems to silently require.
The Sea Glass Beach – finding objects that speak
An islander told me that a particular beach is the site of a former refuse dump. It’s the beach just past the old monastic ruin. Beach combers can always find bits of pottery, sea glass and beautiful stones along this beach. Twenty years ago, I found a red sandstone that had a perfect cross on it. Two years later, I returned to the same beach with my husband, Dan and he found a handful of pottery shards. We had no money that Christmas for gifts, so Dan made me two garden stepping stones with a mosaic of Lindisfarne pottery shards pressed into the stone tops.
Twenty years ago, I was walking the beach with a local islander and we were talking about St. Aidan and faith and Holy Island and how it draws people here. He said to me, “Sometimes I don’t know what I believe. Is that wrong? To admit that maybe you don’t believe – might not believe?”
I remember saying that it really doesn’t matter. Only God judges the heart. Then I admitted that I often had doubts…but when I’m most doubtful something will happen and I’m given reason to believe again – or at least hope in believing.
Just after saying that, I stumbled and fell. I wasn’t hurt, but in the fall my hand found a perfect grip on a large piece of red sandstone. As I got up I had that stone in my hand. I turned it over and it had a perfect cross on it. I took kit home with me and it still sits on my office windowsill reminding me of that day and that conversation.
Gifts from the Sea Glass Beach
Two years after that fall and finding my red stone, I returned to the same beach with my husband, Dan.We had stayed overnight on the island and were walking the beach early in the morning. Dan found a handful of pottery shards scattered across about a half mile. That year at Christmas we had no money for gifts, so Dan made me two garden stepping stones with a mosaic of Lindisfarne pottery shards pressed into the stone tops. They’re still in our garden.
St. Aidan in the Shards
This year on my visit to Lindisfarne, I walked the Sea Glass beach and looked out over Cuthbert’s Isle and spent time imagining the past – what the monks saw… how it must have felt to live on this island – together in a community. I wondered about Aidan in particular and wondered if he ever stood in in the same spot and viewed this same horizon. I looked down at my feet and there was this white shard of pottery. It was pretty large as shards go – about 2 inches. When I picked up I noticed that it looked a lot like the profile of a face with a hood – kind of like a monk. found some glass, pottery and heart stones.
Another inspirational find at the sea glass beach on Lindisfarne.
There is a pull to Holy Island – something that draws and then gives back – like the ebb and flow of the sea.