Following 9th century monks as they flee from invading vikings with the body of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels – and undertake a momentous journey that helps shape England
“Cuthbert was wont to preach in those villages that were far away on steep and rugged mountainsides, which others dreaded to visit and whose poverty as well as ignorance prevented teachers from approaching them. He would often not return home for a whole week, sometimes, even for two or three weeks, and even occasionally for a full month, but he would tarry in the mountains, summoning the rustic to heavenly things” (Bede).
On occasions Cuthbert went with others, for they told of his manner and his miracles. But it must be assumed he was often alone. After all, Cuthbert said he preferred the monastery to the world, had lived as a hermit in a cave on Doddington Moor, and then, because that wasn’t remote enough, chose a tiny uninhabited island in the North Sea.
Cuthbert, like Christian monks before and after him, was taking inspiration from the Old Testament, where God kept his people wandering in the desert for forty years before allowing them to find their chosen land. Separation from worldly affairs, whilst living a frugal and hermetic life centred on devotion and prayer, drew people closer to God. But Cuthbert’s retreat from society wouldn’t have been entirely similar to those living the desert spirituality of the early Christian years. The deserts that lie between the Nile and the Euphrates were instrumental in the formation of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And the silence there, in such beautiful and harsh lands, is all-pervasive.
Sara Maitland, in ‘A Book of Silence’, describes her time in the Sinai desert as follows:
“This part of the Sinai had a harsh, even cruel, beauty, ‘a dry weary land without water.’ At first it seemed completely barren, even dead – but each morning in the smooth sand there would be tiny footprints running often right up to my sleeping bag: scorpion tracks; they were there though I never saw one. Here I sat each day perched up on the escarpment, in a cleft in a rock, almost a cave, for protection from the sun, looking out over the desert and thinking about silence and prayer. Below me was a long view of the flat desert floor, and the sharp cliffs of rock seemed to rise directly from the sand and ascend vertically. I saw a single bedu, in long dark clothes and a black head covering, appear at the furthest limits of my view, probably over three miles away and walking steadily. He had the quality of a dream and may indeed have been one. Once I saw a crow floating effortlessly over the camp, watching sharply; very occasionally there were tiny birds, swift and eager as swallows, which flew with sudden grace through the broken rocks. Apart from that there was nothing; a huge hot nothing. It was the deepest silence I have ever known. There was nothing to hear.”
Life on the island of Inner Farne could never have compared. At times the roar of the waves would have been thunderous, the North Sea winds relentless. These days the Farne Islands are home to more than one hundred thousand pairs of breeding seabirds and there are thousands of grey seals too. It’s not known if the islands were as busy in Cuthbert’s time but what is known is that he took great joy in nature, whatever the season. Eider ducks are still known as Cuddy Ducks in Northumberland, after Cuthbert issued regulations for the protection of them. And when visiting a monastery up the coast at Coldingham, a monk secretly followed Cuthbert who had taken to leaving for the whole night. “Going into the deep water until the swelling waves rose as far as his neck and arms, he spent the dark hours of the night watching and singing praises to the sound of the waves,” wrote Bede. Then, when he came out at daybreak, “otters, prostrate before him on the sand, began to warm his feet with their breath and sought to dry him with their fur, and when they had finished their ministrations they received his blessing and slipped away into their native waters.”
This wonder at the creation of the natural world must have held a great pull on Cuthbert. When approached about coming back to the mainland as Bishop of Lindisfarne he refused, and although he eventually gave in to the pleading of King Ecgfrith and senior members of the church, it’s said he was led onto the boat in tears.
More than twelve hundred years later, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Christopher McCandless graduated with high honours from University in Atlanta, Georgia. Christopher came from a successful and wealthy family, was popular with other students and excelled at sports as well as academia. In short, he had it all – or so it must have seemed from the outside. But shortly after he graduated in 1990 he signed a cheque giving Oxfam all his savings, and without telling any of his friends or family, he left everything behind and embarked on a journey of his own. He went West, like those original pioneers searching what they claimed was new land from the 1700’s onwards. When his old car broke down he continued on foot, and then via kayak, evading the river police and ending up in Mexico, swayed by sheer delight and determination that he could go anywhere, that the natural world was there to explore. For two more years he travelled, thumbing lifts and treading mile after mile after mile of dusty earth. At times it seemed he might have found what he was looking for; the friendship of others who also refused the material world and the love of a beautiful girl in a remote but harmonious community called Slab City in the Colorado Desert. But inside him remained this desire to journey further and further into the wild. His family must have been mystified as well as terrified, for he never contacted them once to let them know where he was, or even that he was still alive. Frantic, they hired a private detective, but whenever a rare lead turned up, Christopher was many miles away, like Cuthbert, marvelling at the wonder of nature and yearning for increased isolation.
Christopher was like Cuthbert in another way too; afraid of succumbing to the trappings of wealth. His family were rich, very rich, but in his parents he saw emptiness behind material possessions, lies and shameful secrets behind expensive and so-called tasteful facades. He revelled in the hard physical labour that earned him enough money to keep travelling, then off he went, leaving those that became attached to him, journeying more than eleven thousand miles in two years. Perhaps there was a youthful naivety within him. But if there was, it was mixed with anger about the world and how cruel people could be.
It’s been maintained by some that his next decision was borne of stupidity rather than simple naivety. After two years, he went to what is arguably the wildest place on the American continent. With a backpack, a 22 calibre rifle and a book on foraging for edible wild plants, he hitched a lift from a truck driver and, ignoring the advice of the man who’d taken him there, set off walking into the frozen tundra of Alaska. Into the wide open plains he went, Yukon Territory, surrounded by vast mountain ranges that jutted and cragged their way up to the heavens. He waded waist deep through the river and set up base camp in an abandoned bus. From the diary that was found four months later, we know his exuberance faded when he mistook an edible plant for one that looked similar but was actually poisonous. And we know he tried to cross back over the river in a desperate bid to regain contact with society. But the spring warmth not only brought forth the beautiful growth of nature he took delight in, the moose that came north as the landscape came alive again, the sprouting of green shoots through softening snow and ice; for the melting mountains he looked at with awe caused the river to surge through the land, making his journey back completely impossible…
Before continuing, I’d like to invite you to listen to this song, taken from the film about Christopher called ‘Into the Wild’, directed by Sean Penn, with a soundtrack by Eddie Vedder.
After two years as Bishop of Lindisfarne, Cuthbert received his wish and retired once more to Inner Farne, this time to spend the last stage of his life; completely alone, a symbol of austerity and compassion, his little island visible from the lofted position of Bamburgh Castle, where the throne of kings, often bloodthirsty and desperate for power, and the trappings of wealth, looked out upon the land.
Alone, and yet not – for he was with nature and he was with God.
If Christopher had a map, or better knowledge of the area, he would have realised he was only six miles from salvation, if he’d ventured in the opposite direction. And if he’d continued downstream he would have come across a shack, would have encountered trappers and hunters there that followed the moose and the sunshine. As it was, his death in the bus must have been slow and torturous, and wracked with stomach cramps as his heart pumped poison around his body and he slowly starved to death, aged twenty-four. Perhaps, from where he lay, he looked out to the sky with regrets, for the way he’d scorned his family, whatever their inadequacies, for his adoring little sister and the girl at Slab City who fell in love with him. For all those who recognised he was something special but worried their hearts when they realised just how far he was planning to venture on his own.
One of the heart-breaking things about Christopher McCandless is that, because of his intelligence, his power and insight, he could have done so much in this world. He could have changed lives. He was a clever boy, with an A in Apartheid in South African Society and an A- in Contemporary African Politics and the Crisis in Africa. But who are we to judge? For in just a few short years, Christopher McCandless lived much more than many of us could ever live.
St Cuthbert escaped from society too, to be alone with nature and with God. But his time had come and he was ready to meet his God. He made a difference before he escaped. In his mind, and in the minds of others, he had earned his escape to the solitude of Inner Farne. And that, in my humble opinion, is all we can hope and strive for; to make a difference, on whatever scale we can, before our time on earth is called.
This was a thought provoking and poignant piece. The landscape of Northumberland – particularly the coast – has always had such presence for me, that Cuthbert’s decision to retreat there for solitude has often seemed rather odd: it’s such a vocal, visceral, vivid landscape. The idea that he was ‘alone, and yet not’ was a wonderfully simple way to capture that for me!