Despite the December look, this is actually July: the great British summer we know and love…
The most striking thing about visiting the Farne Islands is how unaware people seem of the Christian history of the area. I simply cannot understand this; regardless of one’s own personal faith, we should be able to recognize and appreciate the extraordinary value of this heritage. I never could understand what hides behind this hurried willingness to erase one’s own past, and to get rid of one’s own history.
And yet, in some ways, this is a useful (though painful) lesson about how culture cannot preserve faith. The Orthodox have always had a strange relationship with culture; especially over the last few centuries, we’ve had a strong tendency to make an idol out of our ethnicity and our national culture at the expense of the living, true faith. I cannot recall how many times I’ve been told that nationality and culture preserve our faith. Well, a pilgrimage to the Farne Isles should cure anybody of this disease.
When you face these lonely and deserted isles, when find yourself surrounded by these huge, dark cliffs, when the harsh, unwelcome character of these seas hits you, you realise what sort of strength and faith St Cuthbert must have had. We all idealise the lives of the early Celtic saints; it’s unavoidable. We imagine these romantic characters, washed in light and supported by grace; pain, fear and disease never seem very real in relation to them. It’s almost as if they’re faking it, we image they go through these temptations untouched by weakness, unaffected by suffering.
And then, you come here. And all you see are bare rocks coming out of the sea; not one tree, not one place of shelter; no detail to catch one’s eyes. There’s nothing frail, nothing delicate about these small isles. To live here must have been hell. Pure hell. The only thing I could think of was Christ descending into Hell; my thoughts could not let go of this image. These saints came here to confront hell, and to wait for their Saviour.
And THIS sort of faith, THIS sort of life is lost to most of the people you meet. Culture could not even preserve something as monumental as St Cuthbert’s heritage. Because, in reality, faith is not something which can be preserved. Faith is a living being, it has to breathe, it has to find a human heart in order to remain alive. Once we lock it up in a museum of any kind, it dies away.
At the end of this pilgrimage, I remain even more convinced that faith is God’s gift to a living human being. It has nothing to do with nationalism, nothing to do with culture, nothing to do with any of these created ‘selves’ of our society. Faith is always personal, and always alive: here and now, in this human heart.