Taking the Waters

Imagine being a homesick Roman soldier, yearning for the sunshine and warmth of Italy. Serving the emperor on the edge of the empire (Britain), you are cold, wet, and sick of the dismal gray days. About 97 miles west of Londinium (London) you come across a source of bubbling, hot water, pouring out of the ground — a natural hot spring, the only one in Britain! It would seem like a gift from the gods — or more precisely a gift from Minerva Sulis, the goddess of wisdom to whom the hot baths and temple complex that would be built was dedicated.

Today we call the city that grew up around this natural hot spring, Bath. Of course.

I last visited the museum of the Roman Baths in 2000. Since then it has been completely renovated. You can walk through a well thought out route with a fascinating audio-guide that takes you through the entire archeological complex. I saw many interesting models of the baths and temples as the Romans would have experienced them. I walked through the actual temple site, including altar stones, as it has been excavated, as well as the elaborate series of baths. The baths would have started with tepid water, moved on to hot water (or a sauna like room), and ended with a cold water plunge, if the ancient Roman dared! As the guide said, the entire area was like a recreation center (or health club) and a large cathedral (or mega-church!) combined, with probably hundreds of people of all ages visiting each day.

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 15 September 2005. Main bath at Roman baths in Bath, UK

Since one of my themes for this blog in 2017 is living water, this exhibit was fascinating! The hot water still pours out at a huge volume here in Bath — you can still see the original hot spring area as well as watch the water pour through drains the Romans created to channel the water back into the river Avon. I even dared to drink some of the waters, thought to be so healthful for thousands of years!

Of course, this is the same natural hot springs that made Bath a destination, especially in the 18th and early 19th century, for those suffering from any health issues. People would come and “take the waters” which included both bathing in them as well as drinking them!

Unlike Winifride’s Well in Holywell, Wales, Bath was never taken as a Christian holy site. The most common pilgrims here in Bath are Janeites — or those peculiarly obsessed fans of Jane Austen who come to walk the streets where Jane walked and find the many places in Bath that she mentions in her novels!



Out of the Ashes — Hope and Reconciliation

On our way to Cambridge we stopped off for a tour of Coventry Cathedral. We’ve already seen many cathedrals in our almost four weeks here, each one being truly unique. But Coventry (or the Cathedral Church of St. Michael) has a powerful message of reconciliation built into the very stones, stained glass, sculpture and other art that comprise the sacred space.

The present cathedral was finished in 1962. It is the third cathedral to stand in the general vicinity. The first one was associated with a Benedictine monastery and endowed by Leofric and his perhaps more famous wife, Lady Godiva in 1043. By the middle of the 13th century, a much larger cathedral had taken the place of the smaller one. This building remained one of the largest parish churches until it was bombed during the blitz of Coventry during World War II.

Our guide told us a very dramatic story about the November night in 1940 — the four wardens on the fairly flat roof of the cathedral, trying to throw the incendiary devices off using only garden forks, or covering them with sand if they caught fire. After hours of this futile work, they had to abandon the roof and the cathedral to its fate.

All that is left today are the ruins of what was once a beautiful midieval church — and contemporary monuments to the Christian concept of reconciliation.


After the blitz, in the burnt rubble, a stone mason found two charred beams of the midieval roof that had fallen in the shape of a cross. He attached them together. Immediately the bishop ordered a new worship space to be made amidst the ruins, with the Charred Cross standing behind the altar itself. Engraved on the old stone walls, now stained with smoke, are the words, “Father, Forgive.”

Of course these words are an echo of Jesus’ dying words from the Cross in Luke: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23.34). The bishop deliberately shortened the quote to remind all who read the engraved words that each one of us, not just our “enemies”, are in need of forgiveness. This was a bold and courageous statement to make during time of war.

The new cathedral was designed by Basil Spence and stands adjacent to the ruins of the old one. Especially effective for me was the western window, known as the “Screen of Saints and Angels.” Figures of saints and angels are engraved on the window, creating images that you look right through. When inside the cathedral, you look through the saints and angels to see the ruins of the bombed church, as if to see the “cloud of witnesses” that worshipped through the ages in this location. When you are outside you can more clearly see your reflection, as you look into the sanctuary. As you see your own reflection you are placed in the midst of the saints and angels! What an effective reminder of our place in God’s Kingdom and our role as ambassadors of the reconciliation this Cathedral so effectively embodies!

Surrounded by Water


“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink…” so says S.T. Coleridge in his poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The speaker is on a becalmed ship running out of potable water, surrounded by salt water that, of course, cannot be drunk.

In my post of August 19, Living Waters, I mentioned clean, fresh, drinkable water as a concern in many places in the world. Little did I know that we could add Houston and the entire state of Florida to that list after the recent horrendous hurricanes. Many residents of those states know what it is like to be surrounded by water yet worry about finding safe water to drink!

Here in the U.K., we are constantly surrounded by water — Edinburgh is a port city at the mouth of the river, Firth. Holy Island is a tidal island, cut off from the mainland by tides several times every 24 hours. Durham is a city originally built on the curve of a river so surrounded on 3 sides by the river Wear. The Lake District is, well, just what it says — a spectacular area of England where rivers, springs, and lakes, large and small, glisten between high mountains or fells. Water, water, everywhere….

Lake Windermere

Water also falls down from the sky with alarming but constant irregularity! It rained every one of the four days we spent in the Lake District. Here are my notes on a pretty typical morning here in Wales:
7am overcast and gloomy
8:15 sun breaking through clouds
9:00 pouring rain
9:45 mist
10:15 sun breaking through
10:30 drizzle
11:15 brilliant sunshine

All this rain keeps gardens vibrantly green, grass growing, and sheep happy as they graze on the hillsides! But it can be a challenge for people walking or hiking. I set out this morning for a walk in bright sunshine. Within 5 minutes, it was raining. The skies looked gray and threatening — perhaps I should turn back as this rain shower might turn into a downpour. By the time I returned to Gladstone’s Library, where we are staying here in Wales, the sun was shining again (as it is while I write this…).

Rain keeping Bodnant Garden, Wales, beautiful

Yesterday many of the students (and Dan) made it to the summit of Llanberis, or Mt. Snowdon, the highest peak (1,085 meters) in the British Isles outside of the Scottish Highlands. As we started out the sun was shining and stunning cumulus clouds sailed with the wind. As we got closer to the halfway point, the mist was descending from above as we tried to ascend. I decided I would like to stay warm and dry so headed back to the village for lunch (and lemon cake later in the afternoon!!). As the brave climbers approached the summit, they were pelted by heavy rain for about an hour. I have yet to talk with anyone who has actually seen the spectacular views from the top of Mt. Snowdon….

Rain ahead, mist descending, as the brave hikers head towards the summit of Mt. Snowdon

In Garrison Keillor style, I like to think that weather, real weather such as we have here in the U.K. or in Minnesota — unpredictable, changeable, annoying, disrupting weather — builds character! Just a reminder of how little in our lives is really under our control, although we convince ourselves otherwise.

But the recent hurricanes have been a tragic reminder of this lack of control, even over prediction models.

So I sign off from this green and pleasant isle, kept that way by unexpected and frequent showers, with prayers and love for those in Florida and Texas who are dealing with the destructive fury of too much water.


Posthumous Journeys of St. Cuthbert (or how he ended up in Durham Cathedral…)


Over the weekend, we were in Durham, residing at the Castle (!), enjoying the town, and touring the Cathedral. Behind the main altar of the cathedral is a shrine to St. Cuthbert, the humble, gentle monk who served as bishop of Lindisfarne and died there in 687.


The two saints most closely associated with the Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, are Aidan and Cuthbert. One could say that Aidan called Cuthbert to follow the monastic life. One night, when Cuthbert was tending sheep, he had a vision. He saw far in the distance bright lights that he interpreted as angels accompanying a soul to heaven. He later found out that very night Aidan had died — almost as if Aidan had sent out a call to this young man to follow after Aidan in ministering to the people of Northumbria (now parts of Scotland and the north of England).

After living in the great monasteries of Melrose and Ripon, Cuthbert was sent to Lindisfarne as prior. The monks there were not quick to accept him. Some scholars guess that Cuthbert wanted to tighten up aspects of monastic life that had gotten lax since Aidan’s death. Or maybe they just saw him as an Anglo-Saxon outsider. Cuthbert would hold meetings with the monks that would turn contentious and even personal in their attacks. When this happened, Cuthbert would quietly leave the meeting but always return, without comment, for the next one. Gradually he won over the most hard-hearted monk by his humble persistence.

Like Aidan, Cuthbert traveled the countryside ministering to the rural poor, preaching and administering the sacraments. He was generous to all, known as a loving pastor, had a reputation for both healing gifts and gifts of special vision or prophecy.

When he died, he already had quite a following of people from all parts of society. He died as a hermit on an island a few miles away from Lindisfarne. Then began the incredible journey of his earthly remains.

His body was first brought back to Lindisfarne and buried there. The monks had the custom of exhuming the body of their “saints” at the anniversary of death. So on the 11th anniversary, Cuthbert’s coffin was opened. His body was found to be entirely intact, with no decomposition! This, of course, only popularized his relics even more so many pilgrims came to Lindisfarne to be near Cuthbert’s body.

With the Viking invasions of the mid-9th century, the monks carried Cuthbert’s body off the Island all the way to Durham for safety. There a church was built to honor St. Cuthbert.

Topiaries in the shape of the pectoral cross found on St. Cuthbert’s body

Later, after the Norman Invasion of 1066, the new rulers, the Normans, decided to put their stamp of power and authority on this northern area of England by building a grand cathedral for Cuthbert’s remains. There his body remains today, after being exhumed at least two more times!

What to make of these stories of bodies exhumed and relics honored?! So foreign in many ways to my Protestant sensibilities! What isn’t foreign is Cuthbert’s humility, sincere faith, gentle pastoral presence and desire to be close to God. What is all too familiar is the way powers and authorities try to use popular religion for their own purposes.

Contrasting the quiet peace of the little church at Lindisfarne with the soaring transepts of the magnificent cathedral of Durham, I can’t help but think Cuthbert would have been happier in the lonely windswept setting where he prayed and served his God.



Cairns on the Beach — Holy Island

Have you ever seen a cairn? Have you ever had need of one?

I first saw cairns when hiking the Lake Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota. On top of the glacial hills, the trail gets a bit uncertain sometimes. There are no trees which could be blazed with a swatch of paint to point the way. So more experienced hikers pile up rocks to show where the trail continues. Some of these cairns are quite creative, with large rocks precariously balancing on smaller rocks or upright rocks supporting horizontal flat stones. They look quite imaginative but serve a practical purpose — to show the way to go.

Here on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, the eastern beach near the castle is covered with smooth, flat rocks of all sizes that visitors use to create towers that remind me of Dr. Suess landscapes.


Hundreds of yards of shore are covered with these diverse cairns.

Not every visitor picks up stones to add his or her own creative element to the island. But each visitor to the Island contributes something to the atmosphere of this place. It’s been so since Aidan founded his monastery here in the 7th century.

Aidan and Cuthbert, who came after him, were both remarkably humble, gentle, courageous followers of Jesus. They travelled extensively around this area, spreading the Good News in such a way that people truly believed it was GOOD news! Many who visit the Holy Island today would say the influence of these saints can still be felt. Certainly the Christians who gather here to worship, serve and provide hospitality seek to extend the influence of Aidan and show the way to Jesus.

For a thousand years, people have been visiting  the Holy Island. Some come as pilgrims and some, even as they did back in Aidan or Cuthbert’s time, come as curious tourists. As we leave tomorrow, I ask myself what I leave behind. I have not built a literal cairn but have I helped point the way to others?

“Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all the day long” (Psalm 25.4-5).

Happy St. Aidan’s Day 2017!

(Check out the 2015 blog on Holy Island)

(Also on Aidan and Cuthbert)







Finally — a Moment to Think…

Very loud. Very crowded. Very raucous and busy. That’s Edinburgh at Festival time!

The locals have a love/hate relationship with the Festival. It certainly has put Edinburgh on the map as a world-wide tourist destination. But the central part of the city is crowded 24/7 almost the entire month of August. Hard to walk down the sidewalk, or grab a quick bite, or run an errand in city center.

We’ve been here a week and have taken advantage of everything we could. We’ve seen a couple of shows, walked miles and miles (best day was 18,353 steps and that doesn’t count the day we climbed Arthur’s Seat, the steep hill above Edinburgh — my Fitbit battery was dead…), shopped, been to numerous museums, darted in and out of small closes and wynds, watched the street buskers and performers, and strolled through a few green parks.

But difficult to get perspective enough to write a blog post without taking a few hours to think about all we’ve experienced in one short week.

Trying to gain perspective reminds me of walking through Edinburgh. Darting through crowds, trying to keep my footing as numerous groups head towards me, attempting not to trip (and break any bones!) on the very uneven sidewalks and cobblestones, brought up short at a stoplight, mustering patience as I wait for the “little green man” walk sign, looking up and….

Seeing a spectacular view from the center of the city all the way out to the Firth of Forth or even the North Sea!

Perspective — stop, take a breath, look up — sometimes the very act will bring events into perspective, provide a greater vision than you had a moment before…even if you’re not in Edinburgh!

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1.5).





Living Waters

I was born and lived for the first seven years of my life in Southern California. Water is a BIG DEAL there, as most people know from news of the recent record breaking drought, or from the themes of movies such as “Chinatown.”

Water — clean, fresh, flowing water — is a big deal in most places in the world. Even the state in which I live now — Land of 10,000 Lakes — has issues with contamination of groundwater, keeping sources of  lake water clean, etc.

In the United Kingdom, water is ever present — lakes, rivers, springs, and, of course, the seas. One of the themes I want to pay attention to on this pilgrimage is this ever-flowing, always being renewed, cleansing and life-giving water.

Some of the first pilgrimage sites in the British Isles were holy wells. These were places perhaps first associated with local pagan deities that later became associated with Christian saints. Think of John 4  — the well where the Samaritan woman came to draw water was first associated with the patriarch Jacob (he was NOT a local pagan deity but you get my meaning!). But after Jesus’ visit, that identity changed. The well would forever be the place where the woman found new life: “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

One of the places we hope to visit briefly in Wales is St. Winefride’s Well in Holywell, Wales, said to be the only place in Britain with an unbroken history of pilgrimage from the 7th century until now. So more about when we visit!

In 2000 when we visited Taize with the England Term students of that era, I bought a small enameled medal that the monks make.


The tiny explanation that came with it quoted John 7.37: “If anyone is thirsty let him some to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” I chose this symbolic medal to remind me both of Taize and the lovely spring (or source, in French) that bubbles up in their valley, but also to remind myself that I should continually trust and believe so I can share those living waters with so many who are thirsty all around me.

As we take care of last minute packing, meet with the students and parents today, and head out over the ocean tomorrow, please keep us in your prayers. We want to encounter Jesus and his Church in new ways, among new people and places. We will no doubt get thirsty both literally and figuratively. Please pray that we will be reminded by the abundant sources of water in the United Kingdom and Ireland to continually go to our source, Jesus Christ.