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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

07 October 2022

Malcolm Guite returns to the Island of Lindisfarne, but is it a ‘thin’ place, he asks

I HAVE been briefly back to beloved Northumbria, and, in particular, back on to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Like Iona, whence Aidan came to found the monastery on Lindisfarne, the island is one of “the thin places”, as they have been called: places where the veil between heaven and earth is thinner, where the light of the eternal shimmers through the veil of time and place.

In some ways, it’s a helpful phrase, but it’s also misleading. It might seem to suggest that the outer and earthly is dismissed, or becomes more vague and less substantial because it is in some sense displaced by the glimmers of heaven, the “intimations of immortality” which shine through it.

But this is not my experience. On the contrary, there seems something in the very quality of the light up there, as it diffuses from clouds and lifts from the sea, which gives wonderful focus, almost a hyper-reality, to everything that I see: the shining pebbles on the shore, the individual grains of sand, all the singular-shaped stones in the ruined priory.

I become intensely aware of “the minute particulars”, as Blake called them in his visionary poem Jerusalem: “He who wishes to see a Vision; a perfect Whole, Must see it in its Minute Particulars.”

And, again, where Los, the figure of the Artist in that poem says: “Labour well the Minute Particulars, attend to the Little-ones.”

We don’t glimpse heaven in a thin place because the earth is dim, but precisely because all the earthly things, in their minute particulars, shine with heaven’s light.

It is this loving attention to the tiny detail in light of the cosmic whole which is at the heart of the art of the Lindisfarne Gospels; and I was on the island as part of a celebration of the return of that precious book to the north. There has been, in these past two weeks, a pilgrimage in St Cuthbert’s footsteps and in the footsteps of Cuthbert’s people, who carried the holy body from the depredations of the Viking raids, till eventually it was brought to rest in Durham.

But this pilgrimage reversed the journey and brought a replica of his coffin, of the Lindisfarne Gospels and of the Cuthbert Gospel, the beautiful little Gospel of John that was found on Cuthbert’s breast when the coffin was opened — brought all these treasures back to the island that first gave birth to and nurtured them. I was there to read poems both about Cuthbert and about his Gospel to the pilgrims as they gathered in the ancient church of St Mary.

I was there only for an evening, as the tide allowed, but I have stayed on the island when it is truly an island, when the returning waters have covered the causeway and set us free from the rush of things and all the land’s long cares. Indeed, there is something apt and fruitful about the island’s rhythm and interplay between being a true island and being once more “a part of the main”.

John Donne was right to say that “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”; but it is also true that we sometimes need a little isolation on some inner insula sacra, a place of solitude, to renew those springs that will later flow back into the world; that we need, in Merton’s phrase, “contemplation in a world of action”.

The beautiful rhythm of the alternating tides around Lindisfarne, daily withdrawing and reconnecting, is a perfect emblem of that pattern in spiritual life; and, that evening, I was more than glad of my island moment.

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