“The Christ-Haunted South” is a phrase attributed to Flannery O’Connor. She was referring to the lingering resonances of Christian religious life that has infused the culture of the American South.
I now live in a Christ-haunted “North.”
I am referring to northern England. For long centuries Christian religious life infused the Pennines, the Lakes, and the barren Northumbrian hills. Christian faith and practice still lingers, but England is largely a secular society now. The crumbling stone hulls of former chapels stoically remain as architectural emblems of a former time. Cathedrals are porbably visited by tourists more than worshipers (though Durham Cathedral—a stone’s throw from where I write—is still a thriving ecclesial centre).
This post is not meant to be nostalgic of halcyon days. In fact, there is much lingering from the Christ-haunted rural southern US (where I grew up) and the Christ-haunted rural north of England (where I now live) that should be no more than hauntings—in both places there are ecclesial skeletons in the closets (or cupboards).
But I am certainly interested in the idea of spiritual legacies.
Last Saturday morning my cup of coffee was enjoyed along with the Venerable Bede’s account of St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert, holy men associated with the “Holy Island” of Lindisfarne. Over 1300 years ago these monks and their cohorts spread the Christian faith throughout much of England with this sparse little isle in the North Sea as their base. It was here that the dramatic artistic project of the Lindisfarne Gospels was undertaken.
After the coffee and the reading, my family and I then made our way up the coast and took the tidal road over to Holy Island. You have to make this journey when the tide is low, otherwise the little stretch of road is covered by the sea. When Aidan came from Iona in Scotland, Lindisfarne could be accessed by foot at low tide only. Perhaps the combination of remoteness plus accessibility inspired his choice. This was the home of Christian missionaries dually committed to the monastic values of separation from the world, yet also committed to engaging the world with the Gospel.
Lindisfarne is a physical embodiment of two significant dimensions of spirituality. Refuge, sanctuary, self-imposed distance for reflection and solitude—these are combined with a tenacious devotion to wondering into villages and homes to heal the sick and preach the fruit of study and prayer.
I like that.
As a chaplain and a scholar-in-training, my contemplative labors should somehow engagement the wider world. They need to have some impact in villages and homes. But I also value the retreat into quietness, reflection, and study.
No man (or woman) is an island.
But some of us need to let the tides come in for a few hours while we pour over the texts and take in the barren expanse of the sea.