Yesterday I went with the choristers to the Farne Islands and then to Holy Island. We walked in the steps of the saints to visit the sources of northern English Christianity. If you love Cuthbert as northern people do, then you want to discover the places he loved too. If you had asked him where especially, he would have said: go to the Farne. Imbibe the spirit of that remote place where the North Sea’s cold slatey waters beat against the whin sill rocks, where guillemots, puffins and terns have their island home under the wide Northumberland sky. Who knows where the name comes from? – an old British word farran meaning ‘land’, or faran meaning a traveller, or that the island group was thought to resemble a fern in shape?
Bede says that the Farne ‘is an island far out to sea’; that it was a ‘remote battlefield’, haunted by demons and that Cuthbert was the first person brave enough to live there alone; that he built himself a ‘city’, which is how hermits talked about their cells, consisting of a circular wall cut out of the rock, a shelter to live in and an oratory to pray in. He prayed hard, dug a pit and lo, God turned the solid rock into a standing water whose supply never failed. He built a lodge for guests and cultivated the meagre soil whose first harvest was a good barley crop. When the birds set about devouring it, he told them off. ‘Why are you eating crops you did not yourselves grow? If God has said you can, so be it. If not, be off with you and stop damaging other people’s property.’ Here Cuthbert spent the last part of his life, dying there on 20 March 687. The islands passed to Durham Cathedral Priory which kept a cell of two monks there. Prior Castell built a pele tower while the chapel is probably on the site of Cuthbert’s oratory. Surprisingly, the Farnes remained the Cathedral’s property until the nineteenth century.
I have preached often on our northern saints. They are among our prized gospel texts here in North East England. I put it that way because when the gospel is written on the hearts and lives of men, women and children, it comes alive in a unique way. ‘They being dead yet speak’ says our miners’ banner in the south transept, a quotation from the letter to the Hebrews. The writer wants to inspire his readers to courage in following Jesus, so he lists some of the great heroes of faith in the Hebrew Bible and says: live like them; believe like them, hope like them. We read the passage in that chapel: ‘seeing we are surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith’.
But as I put it in my book Landscapes of Faith, holy people are inseparable from the locations they populated. The places where they lived and walked and preached and prayed have become sacred sites where pilgrims travel to remember how the saints did the work of God and bequeathed their spirit of faith and hope to those who came after them. So places become gospel texts too. Where the Spirit touches the earth, a sacred geography is established, a way of reading ‘place’ in terms of its influence on human beings and their influence on it, and how people of faith have responded to God’s presence in particular places. This place, Durham Cathedral, is a great example: we are sitting within sacred geography. This Cathedral and the city that grew around it, what the monks called an English Zion, only exist at all because of the monks who brought St Cuthbert’s body here a thousand years ago and created a spiritual legacy that has shaped lives ever since.
The Farne is another of these places. So let me ask: what is the gospel written into the old eternal rocks and the deep salt sea that swirls round them? Among many words I hear there is one about creaturehood. I mean that these remarkable islands tell me something important about the natural world and how I must try to find my place within God’s creation. I doubt that this has much to do with the conventional response of saying how beautiful they are. That would not have impressed Cuthbert who built his city wall high enough to stop him being distracted by his surroundings. Moreover, when the sea is stirred and the wind is up and the sky is like gunmetal, their gaunt isolation seems to seize hold of you, and the sense of exposure can be threatening. The thousands of birds wheeling round a vast sky and nesting precariously on the basalt sea-stacks are one of the awesome sights of England; but Cuthbert knew they were not always comfortable bed-fellows.
Yet this numinous quality of nature, ravishing or grim, grasps you. It puts you in your place, reminds you of your own smallness in the face of what can’t ever be tamed. We learn that we are mortals and not gods. The Farne is one of those places where our vision is brought back into focus, where we see what we always were and are, fashioned by our Creator and a part of the same chain of being as the islands, the rocks, the birds and the sea. How important that corrective is for our whole existence as a human race capable of destroying the planet given to us as our home. It keeps us humble to recognise that we must act with courtesy towards all living things, as Mother Julian says, not so much out of enlightened self-interest, as because reverencing God’s world is part of reverencing him for himself. To honour his handiwork in sky and earth and sea ought to teach us to honour one another made as his image charged with the care and stewardship of what he has made.
Reverence for God and courtesy for his fellow beings lay at the heart of Cuthbert’s life on the Farne. He went there, as Bede says, to find solitude and devote himself to prayer. Bede is clear that this was not an act of withdrawal for the sake of gazing out on beautiful sunsets and thinking beautiful thoughts. The hermit saints looked for fierce landscapes where they would not be distracted from doing God’s work of prayer. Cuthbert knew he must focus on this daunting spiritual ordeal, just as Jesus did in the desert. The sea journey our monks frequently made across the sound from Holy Island to the Farne were often difficult under the fierce blasts of wind that rush down from Cheviot. The voyage was its own metaphor of arduous spiritual endeavour. When you step on to the Farne, you are reminded how demanding it is to take up your cross to follow Christ.
Yet we find this tough spirituality sits well with reverence for nature. The solitaries have always been strangely companionable. It is not that they are reclusive; rather that they perceive their friends - humans or birds, animals, plants or rocks - as also belonging to a world that is charged with the grandeur of God. For where our inner noise begins to be stilled, we become open to God in new ways, more responsive to our fellow-travellers and the environments we share with them. So while this Cuthbert vocation is not for most of us all of the time, it could be for all of us some of the time. I’m thinking of how important it is for health of mind and body as well as the soul to find regular times and spaces to be still and alone and prayerful. Whether it is for minutes or hours or days, we can embark on journeys large or small for the sake of travelling more deeply into God and into our own selves. As people of faith, it’s natural to want to imitate Cuthbert in seeking places that would nourish the spirit, as Jesus himself often did when he went up the mountain or in the wilderness to wrestle and pray. In the words of a desert father, ‘go into your cell, and your cell will teach you everything’. So go wherever your soul finds it can drink deep of the Spirit of the living God whose risen Son shows us the Father, and as our way, our truth and our life, looks for human hearts in which to make a home.