Holy Island: Lindisfarne

Sometime around 640 AD, about the same time that Muhammad’s followers were spreading Islam in the Eastern Roman Empire, where no dark ages had begun, Christians in the west were sending monks like St. Aidan to found centers of education and prayer like the one he founded on Holy Island, better known as Lindisfarne.

The Western Roman Empire had disintegrated into thousands of pieces, and Endarkenment (is that a word?) settled over Europe.  The ethnically Irish Aidan came from Iona Island off the west coast of Scotland to the extreme north of England for his mission. (image wikimedia)


The history is complicated, but Christianity in these lands was a decentralized affair.  The Pope in Rome was just beginning to establish authority and appoint bishops up here, and before a famous church Synod (convention) in Whitby, local congregations and especially communities of monks chose their own bishops and tended to have little hierarchy.

What Holy Island is famous for is are gorgeous Gospel books that date to the late 600 and early 700’s including the Lindisfarne Gospel Book, which still exists in very good condition in the British Library in London.  A monk named Eadfrith did all the calligraphy and paintings, using the characteristic Celtic knots and swirls, Germanic style paintings of birds and animals, and Mediterranean and African renderings of human figures.  Here is the picture of St. John. (image wikimedia)


The monastery fell into disuse after repeated Viking raids.  They were Danish, and took the jewel-encrusted leather cover from the Lindisfarne Gospel book, but left the rest.  The Normans showed up centuries later, and the Benedictines re-established the monastery. They ran it from 1093 until Henry VIII closed all the monasteries and took over their property in 1536.  (Image courtesy of English Heritage, of which we are members!)


The Bishop of Iona had first chosen Holy Island because, for some of the day anyway, it was an island, and attacks were expected from the mainland.  The tides cut the peninsula off from the English mainland for a few hours twice a day, and part of my eagerness to see the place was to see this happen.  So after driving onto the island, we biked back later when the tide was high:


And again, in a few hours, after walking around the church and the village, we returned to see the causeway uncovered again.  The monks must have thought about Moses and the Hebrews being delivered safe across the Red Sea and their enemies washed away in their pursuit.  Unfortunately for the monks, their enemies simply pulled their ships up onto the beach.


The island is very small and quiet.  We had no cell phone reception but did get a wifi signal in the pub where we had lunch.

My favorite thing on the island turned out to be something unexpected, though we’d been prompted earlier in the day.  A campground host named Kirstie, when she heard we were going over to the island, told us to “pile up some rocks on the beach for me.”  I forgot the remark, but Lynnell didn’t, and when we came upon these fanciful cairns of sandstone, we parked our bikes and walked down to the water’s edge to have a closer look.  Some are made with prayers in mind, like votive candles, and some are just artful doodles using the beautiful rounded stones at hand.



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I am the Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, USA., an Episcopal priest, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on amazon.com. I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

3 thoughts on “Holy Island: Lindisfarne”

  1. Thanks for this one, John. I will read it to my 9th grade history class when we talk about the role of the Roman Catholic church in Europe during the Middle Ages.

    It sounds like such an amazing adventure!!!


    1. Lori:

      The idea of you FINALLY teaching WORLD HISTORY to 9th graders makes me smile. They are lucky to have you as a guide!

      Hope all is well at Breck. The adventure is SO worth the years of waiting, and we are having a great time. We spent the day with a friend of a friend who is a historical tour guide in Edinburgh, learning about all the backs and forths of Scottish kings and religion and battles, and about the culture of this place.

      I might update the blog entry in the next few days, so your students will read a better version. It is a public blog, and a lot of my students and advisees are subscribers, so I would not mind your just giving your kids the link. But if you would prefer to read it to them, that’s great, too.



      On Mon, Sep 19, 2016 at 12:20 PM, treesandriversblog wrote:



  2. It is a word, considered rare, and mostly used to describe our present-day infatuation with fantasy and new-age magic as opposed to science and evidence. I like your context better (because things turned out all right after a few centuries, and things aren’t looking so good right now, when kids are being taught that the Earth is 6000 years old).


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