On the long and winding road

02 November 2006

IT IS a wonderful sight to see thousands of pilgrims singing as they cross the sands. Large groups, often barefooted, following a person carrying a cross, find this journey to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne very moving in itself.

The Pilgrims’ Way has been used since the seventh century, when pilgrims came in great numbers to the shrine of St Cuthbert. Because of the quicksand and the tortuous winding of the River Low, the Pilgrims’ Way was clearly marked out. The monks placed cairns at regular intervals, some of which can still be seen.

The journey to the Island is very like the pilgrimage of life. Sometimes the way is easy, level going and without hindrance. At other times we find our way blocked and we can do nothing about it but wait. No amount of jumping up and down or getting irate will change the situation unless you are Moses or have the cloak of Elijah!

There are times when we must move forward without delay or the opportunity will have gone and the road before us will be closed. At all times we need to accept the wisdom, knowledge and guidance of those who have gone before us. We need to plan our journey and be aware of any hazards we may encounter. Without a doubt we are all travellers in this world, if not pilgrims.

I believe that we all need to find our own “Holy Island”, a place that is special and important to us. We should seek this place until we find it, though I do believe it can be of the heart and carried within us. It will be this quest and awareness that will distinguish a pilgrim from a traveller. Our pilgrim journey is not only measured in miles but takes us into the depths of our being and the mystery of creation.


Sometimes we have to move out beyond the safe and the secure to become more aware of the mystery of our world. Leaving the familiar and the predictable for a while gives us a better chance of moving on in our lives. Dislocation can deepen our awareness and can make us appreciate our home and our way of life.

The Celtic saints, by living as strangers in a strange land for Christ’s sake, were able to deepen their awareness of the reality that they were citizens of another kingdom. By going away from home, they discovered that they were Hospites mundi: “Guests of the world”.

This did not mean that they did not belong to the world, or that they did not like the world. They often showed a great love for the world. But they acknowledged that it was a transitory place that was only part of their life. The outer journey is a visible sign that we are being moved and changed in our inner being.

IT WAS a typical August day. It was noon and I had already taken three services and spoken to over 60 American visitors.

The church was heaving with people. At this moment, it felt more like a supermarket than a place of prayer. I just wanted to escape.

At the back of the church sat a busload of Saga pilgrims, obviously a little tired. They were trying to eat their packed lunches without being noticed. In the south aisle a very intelligent man was standing by the facsimile of the Lindisfarne Gospels and proclaiming his wisdom. He was speaking in a stage whisper so that all could hear and acknowledge it.

In the north aisle, a group of children were sitting on the carpet and making merry sounds. Their chortling showed they were very happy to be where they were. There were at least 150 people just wandering around, most looking rather lost.

Someone stopped me and asked, “Do you still have services in this Church?” When I told him, “At least three every day,” he refused to believe me, saying, “No one goes to church that often”. I felt that I had had enough for one morning. What can be done with such a madding crowd? With the excuse of lunch, it was time to escape this busy place.

Before I could get to the door, in strode a group of young people. They made straight for the front pews on either side of the main aisle. As there were about 20 of them, they almost filled four pews. After a deep bow to the east, they all knelt except for one. This was a pretty young woman, who stood with arms raised in prayer.


Suddenly, the whole church was silent. The air began to tingle. There was some strange power at work. No one in the church dared to move. The children were the first to sense the change and became absolutely still and quiet. The loud speaker ceased from his lecture. The Saga pilgrims stopped eating their sandwiches and bowed their heads. All were being touched by something deep and mysterious.

The whole group then arose, made a bow and went out. They left a hushed building and people that were aware that something special had just taken place. How long the vibrant silence lasted I could only guess. It must have been at least two or three minutes.

Who were these young folk? What made them come here and what were they doing in the church? I could not resist following them out and enquiring about their visit. Sadly, I should have been able to guess that they were not English. In fact, they could not speak English except for one young man. His sentences were slow and thoughtful. “We are from Slovakia. As Christians, we have a new freedom. To celebrate our new liberty, we sought one of the holiest places we had heard of and came to give thanks to God. Our pilgrimage is one of thanksgiving.”

Needless to say, I was deeply moved by the directness and simplicity of his statements. It was the next sentence that caused me much joy and amusement: “I hope that we did not disturb anyone.” I could only take his hand and say, “Thank you. I believe that you have disturbed us all by revealing the presence that is ever with us. God bless you all on your journey.”

I would never see these young people again, but what they did that busy August day would remain with me. Without words, they introduced our visitors to the holy and the mysterious. Their faith gave them a confidence, not in themselves but in their God.

They rejoiced in his presence and helped others to be more aware of the God in their midst. I am sure they did not need to come to the island to find God, they knew that God was with them in their joys and sorrows, in their captivity and in their new-found freedom.

The Revd David Adam was, until recently, Vicar of Holy Island, Lindisfarne.

This is an edited extract from The Road of Life: Reflections on Searching and Longing (Published by SPCK, £7.99 ( CT Bookshop  £7.20); 0-281-05217-4).

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