Monthly Archives: July 2015

Is Holy Island "holy"? If so – why?

Holy Island (Lindisfarne) as the tide comes in and the island is cut off.  

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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”?


  1. No, absolutely not, don’t be daft!
  2. Yes, absolutely (unless you happen to live there!)

Holy Thorn

This is the Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill, just on the edge of Glastonbury.  In the background you can see Glastonbury Tor.

Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea visited Glastonbury with the vials of Jesus’ blood and sweat (and possibly the chalice from the last Supper) and thrust his staff into Wearyall Hill.  The planted staff grew into a thorn tree that “miraculously” flowers twice a year – at Easter and at Christmas.

As you can see it is in a sorry state.  This is what it used to look like before it was vandalised in on 9th December 2010 – all of its branches being brutally hacked off during the night…  It still seems to me to have been an unspeakably violent and anger-fuelled thing to do.  It feels (to me) like more of a desecration than all of the smashing of stained glass and toppling of statues that Henry VIII unleashed.

It’s not the first time the tree has been attacked – it was uprooted and burned by Cromwell’s religious purifiers during the English Civil war, the one there now was grown from a cutting – as were several more dotted around the town.

I climbed up Wearyall Hill and sat by the tree, what is left of it, looking across to the Tor and over the town.  As you can seem, countless people have made the same journey and have started leaving ribbons around the tree.  Reading some of the messages with the ribbons, it soon becomes clear that this place has been a focus for the hopes and dreams and prayers and wishes of people of a whole multitude of faiths and what are now referred to as “spiritualities”.

It felt to me like an incredibly moving place – perhaps the “violence” done here now adds to that sense of hope and healing peace – that even now, even after the darkness has done its worst – ribbons turn and move in the breeze – broadcasting pilgrims’ hopes to the world.

There are descendants of the original thorn in the grounds of the abbey – as if the Church wanted to wall in the experience, bottle it, guard it, keep it close, control it.  But nobody leaves ribbons there – only here.

There are no instructions.  Nobody has codified what happens here.  People simply invest this place with their various and diverse hopes and dreams.  Some might be called christian prayer, others might not, it doesn’t seem to matter – they all coexist quite happily and naturally in this place.  The tying of a ribbon around a Holy Tree – a simple, yet powerful ritual that speaks to people of wide-ranging and differing faith traditions – speaking more powerfully, maybe, than all our sunday words put together.

Why is it that a place, a symbol of simple human hope, attracts such extreme destructive vandalism?

Nobody knows who vandalised the tree in 2010.  Another thorn was planted in the town next to a peace pole by the town hall in April 2012 – a sapling.  But that was snapped in half and destroyed by vandals only 16 days later.

Supposition at the time was that it was some kind of anti-Christian act.  But I can’t shake my original surprise when I read that – for I had assumed that this was done by Christians – it “feels” like the kind of thing Christians might do in the name of purifying religion and fighting their petty war against errant expressions of spirituality.  Maybe I’m wrong, but my sadness remains.  Alongside it, a very real experience of the importance and power of ritual in peoples’ lives.

I don’t want the church to “capture” that – but I do think the church should respond to that and take it seriously, not least the URC, which for all its strengths can feel like a very sterile place spiritually, to me, anyway – and I’m about as far from being a touchy-feely bloke as you could imagine being!


Frank – the disapproving regular

Whilst on my travels I went to a few cathedral services.  At all of them there was a small core of obvious regulars boosted numerically by us know-nothing tourists.

My favourite was Frank at Llandaff Cathedral 11am Eucharist.  I don’t actually know he is called Frank – but I suspect they are all called Frank, or if they aren’t, they should be!

Frank was there before me.  I arrived in my full waterproof rig-out – so was a little bit rustly as I sat down and shed a couple of layers.  I sat just behind Frank, which might have been a mistake, as he turned to look at me disapprovingly.  However, it seems it wasn’t my waterproofs rustling that irked him, merely my tourist presence, as another woman (clearly a non-regular) arrived shortly after me – quiet as a mouse – and he also looked at her disapprovingly!

The priest was visiting – he had done part of his training at the cathedral, and he had requested to return this day as it was the 10th anniversary of his ordination.  He had the most fabulously sonorous voice with a soft welsh accent.  I could have listened to him all day!

My attention was soon taken, however, by Frank.  His way of letting everyone else know that he was a regular – not a soon-to-be-forgotten tourist – was a carefully crafted two-fold strategy.

1. To ostentatiously NOT read the responses from the booklet – thus exposing us noobs completely!  Frank knows them all off by heart as he is a REGULAR!

2. (and here’s his masterstroke) To pronounce every single one of the responses so immediately and promptly that he is almost finished before anyone else (even the other regulars who also know them by heart) has begun!  This is very distracting – as it does tempt you into some kind of competition!

We all have our Franks to bear, don’t we?  Yet in the long winter months when the tourists fade away, it is the Franks of this world that keep Cathedral worship alive.  I imagine that the priests and canons and choirs and vergers would carry on even if there was nobody else there – but it would feel a little lacking, wouldn’t it?

I think they must be a special breed – the cathedral Franks.  Why would you choose the cathedral as your regular place of worship?  Isn’t it better to get involved in the life of your local parish church?  (maybe some of them do – but I’m sure that some don’t.)  If cathedral worship is your only diet, is it not too rich a diet?

Yet the Franks of this world in all our churches DO make life uncomfortable for others – new people  The Franks all seem to carry a sense of grievance that newcomers have not put in the hours as he has, this place doesn’t really belong to them as it does to him, this isn’t FOR them…  it’s a small-scale re-enactment of the parable of the workers in the vineyard – “but Master, we’ve been working all day in the hot sun, and they have only worked an hour – yet you pay us the same?”

But then honesty comes along and points my finger back at me.  More than once – on my travels – in cathedrals and “holy places” I have found myself becoming Frank.  More than once I have had to stop myself from looking at others (taking photos during choral evensong on their mobile phones; lighting up a fag alongside St Winifrede’s Holy Well; having photos taken of themselves pulling faces whilst standing in the lectern at St Albans; using St David’s shrine as a handy place to leave bags, coats and coffee cups whilst taking photos of themselves next to a statue and making rabbit-ears behind the statue’s head…) and sighing deeply, thinking in such a Frank way that this place isn’t for them – that it’s for people like me who come honestly seeking…

but it IS for them, isn’t it God – it is totally for them just as much as it is for me.

I am Frank!  Forgive me…