One of the questions I wanted to reflect upon as I travelled around some of the most renowned “holy” sites in Britain was, “what makes a place holy?” Can a place be holy? What does that even mean?
It seems to me that Holy Island is as good a place to ask the question as any!
Is Holy Island “holy” because saints lived here? They had two biggies – Aidan and Cuthbert. I love the stories of Aidan and Cuthbert – I blogged about a couple of them a few weeks ago. But does the fact of their (undisputed) historical presence make the actual island “holy”?
They are both reputed to have performed miracles here – people came to be healed… does that make the island “holy”?
It is said that Cuthbert’s relics were kept here – nobody knows exactly which spot… does that make the very soil “holy”?
However hard I try, I cannot conceive a theology or a world view that would allow there to be something like a property of “holiness” that applies in perpetuity to land or ground or an island or a mountain or a well or a stream or a building, a property of “holiness” that sets that particular land or ground or island or mountain or well or stream or building on some kind of a different spiritual plane than any other land or ground or island or mountain or well or stream or building.
So, for me, it’s a no. Holy Island is not “holy” – or, at least, it is no more “holy” than Canvey Island or Barry Island or indeed any island you care to mention.
I get the idea, but I don’t buy into it. These feet once trod here… It’s seductive, but ultimately as much a pile of poppycock as homeopathy – the presence of a saint – ever so faint after centuries have past – like the homeopathic water that merely contains a memory of the healing substance no longer present.
It sounds like a big thing to say – especially as I have only ever visited the island once and stayed only two nights – but it isn’t the only thing I have to say.
If Holy Island is not “holy” – then why is it that so many countless people describe it as such a place because they have experienced it as such a place?
I think the answer is crushingly simple…
It seems “holy” because the island is called Holy Island.
This might seem trite – but bear with me. People come intentionally to Holy Island in order to experience “holiness” or embrace “spirituality”. God invites us to seek and promises we will find – and we do. When we seek, we find. It is no surprise that people feel a closeness to God on Holy Island – they come with that intention, and God honours his promises.
And it is well suited to the act of seeking. We are pre-conditioned in so many ways to find such places to be good places to seek God and nurture spirituality:
- Type the word “spirituality” into Google images – or any image search tool of your choice – and you will find a vast preponderance of images of young women – often silhouetted – sitting by the sea in bendy yogic poses gazing out at the horizon. It is an image we have all grown up with. Islands are great for sea-views – especially small ones!
- Even a casual knowledge of Jesus’ life will have us remembering that he went out into the wilderness after his baptism to wrestle with his soul and we will remember mountain-top epiphanies and stories of him fleeing to the moutains to pray… alone…
Of course – he will have been conditioned too. Mountain tops were almost always where God showed up in the bible stories Jesus grew up with – and at margins/borders – between land and sky (mountains), between land and and sea (seaside) and between dwellable land and hostile land (wilderness). God shows up in these edgey, untamed places. Holy Island can be fairly wild and untamed on a windy winter’s day!
- We have been conditioned to think of spirituality as a lonesome task – something deeply personal that you do on your own. We have the idea that you need to get away from your every day life to an extraordinary place where you can find solitude and relief from the noise and bustle of your everyday life. Holy Island gets cut off every day. There are long periods where unless you have a boat or a helicopter, you are stuck there, and you are safe from mainland invasion. Holy Island also has rubbish wifi and poor phone reception – so you are also isolated from the digital storm that normally assails you. The fact that it gets cut off is, I think, a big part of the deal. It feels vaguely the same to be on Iona when the last ferry leaves.
Many of the locals – the people who live there – are irritated by the holiness conection, they don’t feel it or recognise it, and they resent the hordes of people mooning about the island trying to be “spiritual”. Maybe that’s because to find their ideal place to seek, Holy Island is the very place they need to escape from.
- The saints are not irrelevant. Of course they are not. The island echoes with story and myth celebrating their lives. Putting our lives alongside the life of a saint can be a humbling experience. Where better to do it than in the place where they lived and worked?
So, is Holy Island “holy”?
- No, absolutely not, don’t be daft!
- Yes, absolutely (unless you happen to live there!)