St Barnabas Retreat to the holy island of Lindinsfarne
My search for buried treasure – by Susan Chin
It started with a coincidence. I had just received an unexpected gift of £200 from my mother from the sale of some unwanted furniture and there it was in the St Barnabas pew sheet – an invitation to join a weekend retreat to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne at the end of September, anticipated cost … £200.
Lindisfarne sits a few miles off the Northumberland coast and is known as the ‘cradle’ of English Christianity. Given in 635 to St Aidan by King Oswald as a base from which to convert the pagan Northumbrians, it became closely associated with Saint Cuthbert and with the development of Celtic Christianity. Its ancient spiritual roots are still very present in the high arches of the priory ruins, the stone remains of St Cuthbert’s hermitage, and in the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels (a digital copy of which can be seen in the Heritage Centre). Holy Island is linked to the mainland by a causeway which is covered by sea twice a day. A line of poles marks the ancient Pilgrim’s Way along which people walked over many centuries across the muddy flats at low tide to reach the island.
So there I was on the train heading north. I was hoping for a space in which to let go of the ‘ten thousand things’ which press into my days as a working mother; a little clearing in which to be and to listen. It was time to reconnect to something essential in me which had got overlaid like a shell half buried by the tidal rhythm of sands moving over my life. There were six of us making this journey. Some knew each other well, others of us were familiar faces in church but otherwise mostly unknown. What struck me as we travelled together was how quickly this ancient and beautiful landscape, and the presence of the island, bound us together in friendships which felt natural and effortless. We were guests of Marygate House, a small Christian community who offer simple accommodation and delicious home-made food to groups such as ours. We occupied a lovely village house with tall windows framing on one side the open skies towards the coast and on the other the brilliant green lawns of a spacious walled garden. Our meals took place in a small panelled library surrounded by a feast of books and we finished the day with evening prayer and a short reading from Bede’s ‘Life of St Cuthbert’.
Now the idea of a parish retreat may conjure up images of abstinence and piety, of serious conversations on matters of faith and of solemn worship and prayer, and in many respects this held true for us on Lindisfarne. We retreated from phones and television, from clocks and emails and ‘to-do’ lists. It was impossible not to be affected by a sense of wonder and reverence in the presence of this extraordinary wild and beautiful place with its huge skies and intricate rock pools. There were so many magical encounters – with seals, rare birds, a long eared owl and even a busy little hedgehog ! There was ample time for quiet reflection and prayer – in the deep stillness of the little stone crypt, in the joyful celebration of Harvest Festival at St Mary’s church, or just sitting on a bench under the stars overlooking the wild coast illuminated by the light of a full moon.
But what was perhaps an unexpected joy for me on this retreat were the many moments of pure fun and mischief we shared. Conversation ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous and we laughed – alot ! There was time just to be together, time for sharing stories with a fire in the hearth, time for simple kindness and care. I was really touched by the capacity for joy which my fellow travellers shared with me and I will long remember this time and this place in which our lives connected on a small island off the coast of Northumberland. On Lindisfarne I found my ‘shell’ half buried in the sand and I came away with so much more, with friendships that were unexpected and new and equally precious.