Pilgrimages

What should one feel when walking on water?  To cross the ancient pilgrim’s path that connects the mainland with the holy island of Lindisfarne at low tide is to feel “in between,” dependent, at the mercy of the tides and the path.  Even the modern causeway is subject to forces beyond human control. Twice a day the North Sea swallows it whole. The soggy strip of asphalt reemerges only when the waters drain back into the deeps, leaving gleaming rings of mud and algae around the tidal island.

To conclude our pilgrimage, we tread across the two miles of inter-coastal mudflats, following the pilgrim’s way.  The route runs in a straight line from where the causeway meets the mainland to a small beach northwest of the village. The path across the sands is marked by spindly poles, which offer a study in perspective, diminishing in the distance.

While the tide was still receding, we stepped outward towards the line of posts.  It was midday,  cool, sunny, bright-skied, and the lingering waters pooled so shallowly on the sand flats as to become an expansive reflecting pond, mirroring back the blue skies above. The blue upon blue was cut only by the charcoal seam of land distant on the horizon. Under our feet, the sand was a muddy taupe, parts of it slick with sea grasses and with hundred of piles of wormy-looking sand. But all was stillness, as if time itself were suspended in the watery skies.

Damp and dotted with tidal pools, the sand appears to be terra firma. Yet to walk across it is to experience just how shifting this tidal world can be, as water carves out its own paths and pools, making short work of the malleable, moveable surface.  That is one of the paradoxes of this place: even that which seems the most fixed may be mutable and mobile. Everything is in motion. The sea, sky, sand in incessant flux.

Here, there is little sure footing. With each step, I readjust my balance and expectations. With one step there is firm sand, the next step sinks into the pitch black mud as I inelegantly plod my way from pole to pole. I find that the deeper channels that the water has hollowed out of the sand are less treacherous than the slippery islands of mud that are emerging in counterpoint to the subsiding waters.  Rivulets embrace these, snaking around, shaping new worlds twice daily as the waters depart. As the tide recedes, there are hundreds of these islands rising out of what was sea only hours ago, revealing an entirely new topography moment by moment.  In this, the sea speaks of new creation, the renovatio mundi. Every day the seas rise and recede, the land is veiled and revealed in an incessant repetition of the separation of the waters from the skies, then the earth from the waters.

Holy Island, too, is a liminal place, an outpost at the end of the world, a sandy threshold between sky and sea, and perhaps between earth and heaven too. It’s the sort of place that the Romantics might have called sublime, where awe hijacks reason. People have  long spoken of the island as a “thin place,” where the line between the sacred and the ordinary world, like the seam between sea and sky, is so fine that it’s nearly transparent.  But places like this, I think, are important because they remind us of the holiness of all places. Their radiance, their special transparency, the way their beauty and history pull us into reflection, wonder, and self-abandonment, help open us up to experiencing the world beyond as sacred too.

“We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through all the time,” Thomas Merton says, “If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows himself everywhere, in everything – in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without him. It’s impossible.  The only thing is that we don’t see it.”

Cuthbert’s Way,
Summer 2016