“Religion is what you do with your solitude.” – Archbishop William Temple
The Irish Celtic monks who lived at Lindisfarne in the 7th century would have understood this quote. Solitude was an important part of their practice of faith – so much so that the choice of the tidal island of Lindisfarne was a deliberate one, made to accommodate their desire to set themselves apart from the world. This island that was separated by the tides twice a day was a perfect place to enforce that solitude.
The monks there practiced a rugged aesthetic Christianity, whose roots went back to the Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries. Their monastery was modelled after the one at Hii (modern-day Iona) founded by Columba, which also was situated on an island and at the time the most influential centre for the particular flavour of Christianity practiced by the Irish monks. Lindisfarne’s Abbot and Bishop, Aidan, came from Iona in 635 AD along with 12 other monks at the invitation of Oswald, King of Bernica, to start a monastery in that kingdom.
Irish society at the time was based on clan and kinship ties, and the monasteries were similar, in that they revolved around the Abbot as leader and promoted a strong sense of community. The Celtic Christianity practiced by the monks included much that resonates with us today: the goodness of Creation, a greater allowance for the role of women in the church, and an emphasis on accountability between individuals. But it also contained elements we find difficult to understand – in particular, the extreme aestheticism shown by practices such as praying for hours while immersed in the cold ocean, rigorous fasting, hundreds of genuflections at a time, the cross-vigil (praying prostrate on the floor before a cross) and even self-flagellation.
There is not enough space in this blog post to fully comment on those practices, other than to say that they, like the monks themselves, are a part of their times, and difficult for us to understand without the same frame of reference that the people of the day shared. This was a chaotic time, and discipline was key to survival. Sacrifice and discipline were much more entrenched in that world, where pledging to your lord, and giving your life for him as part of a war band, was common. Sheer survival meant hard, disciplined work. The Irish/Celtic monks carried this idea into their practice of the faith, and added to it the religious ideal of becoming like Christ. In order to follow Him fully they dealt severely with any sin that might distract them from that goal.
It was through practicing the discipline of solitude that the monks built time into their day to meditate upon God and pray. Aidan, in particular, felt this need keenly as the busy monastery began to fill with students, guests and monks. He established a place away from the island, on another small tidal island a stone’s throw away from Lindisfarne, but this proved to be too close for true solitude and so he eventually made a retreat for himself on the Farne Islands nearer to Bamburgh.
Meditation for Aidan and the monks was never an “emptying of the mind” such as is practiced in Eastern religions. Meditation for them chiefly meant meditation on Holy Scripture, much of which they had memorized. The monks were required to memorize all 150 Psalms plus a Gospel, this, plus the many other scriptures they chanted together at their 4x daily services would prove much food for prayerful meditation during their times of solitude. The monks also would meditate on the natural world: the tossing sea, the graceful way of birds in the wind, the rising of the sun and moon. This was not pantheism, but a deep awareness of the presence of God in all of Creation. God had created all, therefore all creation was good and held something to teach them of God and His ways.
In researching the lives of the monks I found much to challenge me and much to puzzle me. But I could not help but be impressed by their devotion. Of course they were not perfect people, and their emphasis on aestheticism led to some bizarre extremes that I find hard-pressed to justify. The temptation to go the extra mile and be “more” devoted than the next person was one that I feel some must have succumbed to, and in the end at times their strange practices became more about themselves and their own glory as opposed to the glory of God.
But that is not to say we cannot learn from these men (and women, there were some strong female figures at this time in the church, Hilda, daughter of King Oswy, among them) and their practice of faith. I daresay I could use more time for solitude and meditation myself. Too often these days we are afraid of silence, filling our ears with ear buds and music rather than the sound of the wind or the birds. What are we losing? What do we not know about God that we would know if we would disconnect and listen for a time to the Word and Creation?
I have attempted some small retreats a time or two, and have found it surprisingly difficult to disconnect. The minute you start thinking about taking a day, or a half-day away, the “list” clamours up in your mind, demanding attention. And when you do manage to ignore that distraction and take the time, you find that silence is difficult. Listening prayer is difficult. And I suppose that is the point.
“Come further up, come further in!” urges Jewel the unicorn in Lewis’ The Last Battle. The monasteries were all about making a space for people to do just that, and to take what they learned back to their world in the form of education, healing, and spiritual direction.
This is all summed up nicely in a prayer attributed to Aidan himself:
Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart,
alone with you, God, holy to you.
Then with the turning of the tide
prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond,
the world that rushes in on me
till the waters come again and fold me back to you.
Photo credit: Quiet Time, by Leland Francisco, on Flickr