One of the great beauties of making a pilgrimage is that the interior journey continues long after the physical one has ended.
Case in point: A friend who read The Geriatric Pilgrim: Tales from the Journey, emailed me that while he liked the book, he wanted to know more about the last leg of our walking pilgrimage along St. Cuthbert’s Way to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, where Mary Lee and I walked to the island at low tide in our bare feet.
Replying to Finlay led me back through photographs, my travel journal, and books I’d read at the time, walking in my mind once more across the sands and mud to the Holy Island, seeing some things for the first time.
For new readers or as a reminder to old ones, St. Cuthbert’s Way is a 62-mile walk from Melrose. Scotland to Lindisfarne, off the coast of England, supposedly in the footstep of St. Cuthbert, who in the year 651, received a vision that propelled him to walk from Melrose to the Holy Island to become prior of Lindisfarne’s monastery, which had been founded by Saint Aidan of Iona in 634.
The island itself is 8 miles around the perimeter, which is shaped like an axe. Its most imposing (and photographed) feature is a castle, which looms against the horizon like something from Middle Earth, especially at sunrise, which is when I first saw it.
Twice a day for 5 hours, the island is completely cut off from the mainland, and you need to plan your walk around the tides—the best time being during a four-hour period before and after low tide, which when Mary Lee and I did it, was around 8:00 a.m.
As I recall, we left our B&B in Fenwick (“Fen-ick”) around 5:00 a.m., walking two or three miles through coastal pastures. I also remember crossing a high-speed railroad line, where you have to use a yellow phone to speak with the signalman before crossing, and passing I don’t remember how many anti-tank blocks from WWII. Along the way, a flock of over 70 sheep moved towards us, herding us on our way to the causeway between the mainland and the island. At some point, the sun rose above a line of clouds over the ocean to our right like a pale pink balloon.
There are two ways to cross to Lindisfarne: a causeway for cars or for walkers who don’t want to walk barefoot or in mud boots, and the Pilgrim’s Path, a 2.3-mile journey across the floor of the North Sea through sands and mud, marked by wooden poles, two with refuge boxes at the top, just in case you’re caught by the surging tide. (And it does surge. Every year, people must be rescued by boat or helicopter.)
We walked to the causeway and down onto the beach. At first the sands were like Maine beaches at low tide, light brown and rippled and firm underfoot. Mary Lee had tied her hiking boots to her backpack so she could use her hiking poles, but at first, I carried my boots in one hand and my poles the other.
I remember a sense of triumph—we’re almost there!—and exhilaration. A stiff breeze blew against our faces and the air smelled of salt and something else: fecund and primordial. Besides walking barefoot, Mary Lee had her blue hiking skirt and I’d put on shorts, which added a touch of titillation to the experience.
Until the brown sand turned to brown mud and then to something the color and consistency of cold tar. Nothing I had read prepared us for this. I, too, tied my boots around my neck and grabbed my hiking poles. At one point, I went into the mud over my ankles, leaving my feet and lower calves coated in black. I was doubly glad we’d left our legs bare.
But that stretch really was short lived and soon we were back on the sands, splashing through a shallow tidal stream to wash off the mud. Clouds reflected in the water, and along with the sound of the wind whipping the air, I heard a chorus of seals cheering us to our destination.
And lo, there was the beach at Lindisfarne, with the church and ancient priory peeking over a bank of seagrass. We sat on a bench in front of the bank and looked back, not only at the channel but at the entire pilgrimage. Rejuvenated (which I always am when I look back and see how far I’ve come), we put on our hiking boots and set out to explore the Holy Island.
I’m writing this at the beginning of Lent, which, as I think about it, is sort of like the low tide of the Christian year. It’s a time of emptying out, on deciding on what’s important in my life. A time to practice trust that, as one of my spiritual mentors wrote, “All will come of its own accord in good time and with abundant fullness (I’m suddenly thinking of the surge of the North Sea), so long as one does not attempt to hoard or cling.” I’m good at hoarding, whether it’s having too many hats (most of which I don’t wear), or too many habits (I must have my hot chocolate every morning), or too many doubts and prejudices (far too numerous to list). Lent is a time to let the tide take those away.
In Lent, I remember that most of what I euphemistically refer to as my “spiritual life,” has been about emptying out, a process that began over thirty years ago, when my daughter died from cancer. After a year of raging at God, I decided to shut up and listen to what God had to say. Which led me to Centering Prayer meditation: emptying myself of thoughts. I also remember that emptying myself of thoughts produced what an early spiritual advisor called an “unloading of the unconscious,” which, I’m realizing, was like mentally walking through noxious black mud, but which I had to do before I could reach the other side to acceptance.
I’m also aware that I am nearing the end of my earthly journey, one, as I wrote in the last blog, to what I sometimes visualize as an island. Even without Lent, I, by necessity, am “self-emptying,” losing vitality, agility, libido, short-term memory, but I’m also finding it easier to empty myself of judgmentalism, fear, co-dependency. So far, the journey has been across relatively smooth sands, but I’ve no doubt they’ll be some mud holes ahead. Still, I’ve slogged through a few of those before, and it’s helpful to stop and look back and see where walking through them has led me. Especially when I’ve kept my eyes open for the guide poles and rescue houses of grace along the way.