Page 12, 5th July 1996

5th July 1996
Page 12
Page 12, 5th July 1996 — A return to Lindisfarne and a renewal of faith

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A return to Lindisfarne and a renewal of faith

of our land can be a reality in our lives

long before we visit them, and Lindisfarne has been like that for me: symbol of faith, a sign of the Church's life in our history. Before I knew the Catholic Church, I knew about this Holy Island off the Northumbrian coast, and now I wonder whether God was seeking me in that sacred landscape.

I first read Bede's Life of Cuthbert and Ecclesiastical History of the English People when I was a student studying Anglo-Saxon and Middle-English literature.

I loved St Aidan, the first prior of Lindisfarne.

When one of his Celtic monks called the Northumbrians obstinate and barbarous, St Aidan told the monk he was "going too far too quickly," and urged the community to "start where people are and lead them to where they never dreamed they might go." Even for an obstinate, barbarous undergraduate, the words had the ring of truth, although I only came to understand them fully many years later in my own hour of need.

But it was St Cuthbert who drew my imagination most vividly. I read the stories of Cuthbert's miracles with amazement: the night he spent praying in the sea, and the otters at dawn who warmed his feet with their breath and tried to dry him on their fur; the raven who stood before him with feathers outspread and head bowed low in a sign of grief; the demons he banished from Fame Island.

As a cynical undergraduate, I didn't believe in them as miracles but read them simply as the stories of a genius: I failed to see that such genius

is another sign of the miraculous.

I spent three years reading Anglo-Saxon literature: the prose devoted to God's glory in the world, the poetry full of Christian wonders.Then I drifted away into a secular life.

But Lindisfarne was waiting for me.

AsI WORKED as a teacher and writer, I began to read the ovels of Robert Westall, and in two particular stories found all the wonders of I.indisfarne again: The Kingdom by the Sea, with its ravishing descriptions of the island, and The Wind Eye, which brings Cuthbert back to life in the adventures of three 20th-century children.

Robert Westall weaves chronicles and folk-legends brilliantly into his retelling of the miracle stories, bringing them vividly back to life: his ravens destroy the roof of Cuthbert's shelter to make themselves a nest, and then croak loudly for pardon; his spiteful demons ride around on black goats, long cowls covering their hideous faces, spears brandished in their hands.

Using all the powers of the imagination, Robert Westall sent me straight back to the Venerable Bede.

Then at last I visited Lindisfarne, on a holiday with my wife.

I walked around the ruined priory, knelt in front of the statue of St Aidan, prayed in the "bare ruined choirs" of Shakespeare's sonnet.It was a cold autumn day: the sea was an intense blue, the blue of constancy and the soul; the

fields shone green and yellow; the sky stretched cloudless to the far horizon.

IWROTE A SHORT story not long after this called Lindisfarne, and BBC Radio broadcast it as part of a pilgrimage week. The story was read in the studio, and the liturgy was broadcast from Lindisfarne: you cold hear the sea in the background, the gulls crying on the wind.

In the story, I used the imagery of medieval religious literature and the rose garden passages of Four Quartets to try and show something of a woman's grieving for a lost child. There is a walled garden on Lindisfarne. I have never received so many letters for a piece of work.

Lindisfarne came into my life again recently when Cardinal Hume made a return journey for television. It was a wonderful film, drawing a fascinating picture of the lives of the saints, and touching deep echoes in my own experience.

At the end of the film the Cardinal told the famous story from Bede of the conversion of Edwin, which contains the beautiful image of the bird flying briefly through the firelight before disappearing forever into the darkness.

As I thought about my own conversion, TS Eliot's words at the end of Four Quartets came back with ever greater clarity: "And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time."

That is how Lindisfarne has been for me.

William Bedford's latest novel, The Lost Mariner, is to be published by Abacus in August

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