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)








Holy Island

If you ever have the blessing of visiting the Holy Island, be sure to stay overnight. The island is connected to the mainland by a causeway that is only accessible during the low tide. So each day the “day trippers” come and go with the tide. When they leave, those staying on the island can experience a bit of the peace and stillness that makes the island what many would call a “thin place” — a geographical place where God’s presence seems especially close.

When the causeway opens each day, the island is invaded again (especially on a perfectly sunny and warm Sunday, like we experienced) by hundreds of tourists — some walking with sticks and backpacks, some pushing strollers with other children in hand, and some bringing a dog or two along. They quickly disperse to see the castle, walk the dunes or shop in the tourist gift stores. Our hotel proprietor likened it to the Viking invasion the island suffered in 793: “Only now there is a more even exchange of goods from these invaders — at least they leave behind money!” Of course, he said this tongue in cheek, as tourism is the principal way the island survives.

Early on Sunday morning, before the causeway opened and many people “invaded” once again, I walked towards the sun which was already rising above the sea. The birds called, one or two people passed by.  One lady rode her bike along to a spot where she evidently scatters food on the ground for the birds each day; she also splashed clean water in the bird bath.

I thought of the moving story of St. Aidan (see post of August 31st).  We had a lecture the evening before about the wise and loving Irish monks who first brought Christianity to this part of the British Isles.  I wondered about the deprivations they must have faced. I thought about how I complain because the showers are too cold or I face some other slight inconvenience. How much am I truly willing to give up for the sake of my neighbor who needs to know the love of Jesus?

Mosaic frieze from the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh showing both Aidan (3rd from r) and Cuthbert (5th from r)
Mosaic frieze from the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh showing both Aidan (3rd from r) and Cuthbert (5th from r)
Statue of Aidan in St. Mary's Churchyard Holy Island
Statue of Aidan in St. Mary’s Churchyard Holy Island

I pray for a renewal of  the deep love of Jesus in my life.  May I be willing, as Aidan was, to relate lovingly to each person I meet, ready to listen and serve so they might know the love of God.

Happy Aidan and Cuthbert Day!

Today is the day in the liturgical calendar when we honor two Celtic saints: Aidan and Cuthbert.

These two men both figure prominently with the location we will be in next weekend, Lindisfarne or the Holy Isle.

Christianity first came to northern England when King Edmund of Northumbria was converted in about 627, about 200 years later than the neighboring island of Ireland or the southern part of England. When Edmund died in battle, the pagans regained the upper hand until Edmund’s nephew, Oswald, restored the kingdom to the Christian faith. Oswald had lived at the monastery in Iona so he sent to that monastery for teachers and evangelists.

The first man to arrive, Corman, goes down in history as the type of pastor/evangelist who doesn’t really like his flock, much less love them as Jesus commanded. He declared the Northumbrians to be wild and unresponsive to the Gospel. A young monk, Aidan, dared to suggest that perhaps Corman should have been a bit more gentle and loving himself. And as so often happens when someone dares to speak up in the church with an alternate viewpoint, Aidan was given the task to follow up where Corman had failed.

Aidan traveled to Northumbria and founded a monastery on Lindisfarne, or the Holy Isle. He then traveled throughout the northern part of England, down into the midlands of England, even to London. As the Venerable Bede, a contemporary historian, wrote of Aidan: “He neither sought nor loved anything of this world, but delighted in distributing immediately to the poor whatever was given him by kings or rich men of the world. He traversed both town and country on foot, never on horseback, unless compelled by some urgent necessity. Wherever on his way he saw any, either rich or poor, he invited them, if pagans, to embrace the mystery of the faith; or if they were believers, he sought to strengthen them in their faith and stir them up by words and actions to alms and good works.”

I love the story of Aidan. Sometimes people don’t respond to the good news of Jesus, not because of the offense of the Gospel, but because of the offense of the messenger. In the same places where Corman pronounced the people wild and impossible to evangelize, Aidan got down off his high horse (literally) and taught and gave to all, both rich and poor.

Here’s a link to information on the “second generation” evangelist, Cuthbert.

Ruins of the midieval monastery at Lindisfarne. Photo by James Kiefer,
Ruins of the midieval monastery at Lindisfarne.
Photo by James Kiefer,

Next week we’ll see the little island (off Holy Isle) where Cuthbert lived his final days as a hermit.