Thursday, 4 April 2013

No man is an island

In the landscapes of the Old Testament, God is to be found in the wilderness. On mountains and in the desert, He is encountered where people are not. “They looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared,” as the writer of Exodus puts it.

Here in Britain our green and mostly pleasant land lacks the parched earth and waste places that make the Holy Land so special. But we do have rather a lot of islands, and the fifth part of the BBC Four series Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain’s Holiest Places sets sail to explore the insular devotions that have marked so many as special. The episode was broadcast on Thursday 4 April at 8.30pm, and will be available on iPlayer for a month or so afterwards. It is based on my guide book Britain's Holiest Places.

My book includes 20 islands that have seen significant spiritual activity, five of which appear in the TV programme. Many remain active today, including the famous Holy Island of Lindisfarne. More surprising is the reinvented spiritual continuity to be found at Holy Isle off Arran. During our visit there we speak to a Buddhist community leader called Choden about the latest incarnation of this very special holy place, now called the World Centre for Peace and Health.

Other beautiful and evocative places of retreat include St Herbert’s Isle on Derwentwater, which graces the cover of my book (pictured at the top of the page). Alas on the day we visited with the film crew it was grey and raining, yet the natural beauty which inspired St Herbert here in the 7th century remains. Presenter Ifor ap Glyn can be seen in the picture above, wisely opting to be towed back from the island as the storm gathered strength. The two images show St Herbert's Isle in very different moods.

And being a proudly Welsh-leaning programme, we also visit two evocative islands in the west of Britain. Llanddwyn, off Anglesey, is where a princess fled from a failed marriage, nursing her broken heart to become a devout hermit.

And finally there is Bardsey Island, or Ynys Enlli in the native tongue, the island in the currents with a treacherous sea crossing and a sacred pedigree like no other. So many great church leaders and their faithful followers chose to be buried on Bardsey it gained the name ‘Island of 20,000 Saints’. Although fewer than a dozen are formally recognised as saints, it was declared in the 12th century by the Pope himself that three pilgrimages there were of equivalent penitential value to one trip to Jerusalem. Alas another storm blew up during our attempted visit, and instead we watched the sun set over the sea behind this magical island from a striking windswept headland (pictured below).

A previous episode showed how water was seen as a place of rebirth, so perhaps it is logical that paradise should be located on an island across the sea, a journey that the soul alone makes when freed from earthly constraints. An illuminating interview with Canon Chris Pullin at Hereford Cathedral literally maps out the theology of such a poetic concept, as he describes the cosmology encoded into Britain’s largest medieval map, the Hereford Mappa Mundi.

The Garden of Eden was once believed to be a real, earthly paradise that acted as a sort of stepping stone between this world and heaven, where souls gathered to await the Last Judgement. It appears as an island in Hereford's 13th-century map, on the eastern most extremity of the world: a pleasant surprise for Japanese tourists, no doubt, since it sits roughly where their homeland is located.

It is no mere spiritual accident or even a purely Christian innovation to place the afterlife beyond the shores: Norse warriors would send their dead out to sea in a funeral boat, a great pyre set over the water in the tale of Beowulf, or simply bury them on land in a complete boat, such as the Sutton Hoo ship burials. In New Zealand the Maori legends record how souls depart from the northern tip of the islands on their final journey. In India cremated remains must be placed in the Ganges which carries them out to sea.

This is perhaps one of the things that draws us all to contemplate the sea’s horizon, the vast openness: infinity and eternity stretching before us.

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