Inner Farne: St Cuthbert’s hermitage

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.


8 responses

  • Amen and Amen. But how we need to be purified by the pounding waves of God’s love, separated from all our vain glorious pretensions in order to know the enormity of God’s love and the mercy of His grace. It seems that St Cuthbert lived what God said to St Silouan many centuries later-‘Keep your mind in hell but do not despair’. This is faith when all the ‘goodies’ of the world and self righteousness are stripped away – and the soul is left alone with God.
    I am constantly aware of Isaiah 43 which challenges us to recognize the gift involved in God’s cleansing work. We could say that this is our joy- to know that God has not left us to self-satisfaction- but continues to purify and cleanse us that we may be His witnesses- as St Cuthbert was.
    May we rejoice in desert times that God may complete His work in us. sM

    • You are right, sister Marina; there is a link between St Cuthbert’s and St Silouan’s experience. The amazing thing (for me, at least) is that St Cuthbert willingly took this hell upon himself, he looked for it and – such a paradox! – he ended up longing for this hell, crying after it, even fighting against the world around him in order to be allowed to live this hell. His soul, his holy soul must have known with certainty that at the end of this road is Christ’s Kingdom.

  • I felt the same way Father, (Fr. bless!) when I made a small pilgrimage in Inishowen in 2000. I wanted to go to Skellig Michael on that trip but all boats were cancelled due to the roiling seas. When St. Columba left home to go to Iona he did not know where he was going or what to expect. But he faced all the terror of that, in his own heart, and with the fellowship of his faithful companions. None of us are “saved” alone. We are saved in communion. The fellowship of fellow travelers along the way, to “bear one another’s burdens” is a stark reality that many would rather not face. They prefer, at the least, a narcisstic faith that does not require any effort and/or any thought of others. But this is not the Gospel which tells us that : “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” To leave behind everything and everyone that is familiar and comfortable and to strike out into the unknown, to follow the Lord is terrifying. People come into the Church through certain doors (” Knock and it shall be opened” — the Serbian Church, the Romanian, the Russian, the Greek, etc) and they end up worshiping the door itself, instead of the One who opened it to us. We cannot even begin to imagine the deprivations Sts. Cuthbert, Columba and many others faced in those islands. May they pray for us, that we can have the strength to slay our own demons each day in the same Spirit of Faith.

    • Unfortunately, you are right, dear friend. Many people do end up worshiping the doors of the church, as you say. Yet, it doesn’t help anyone to focus on that. In fact, it doesn’t help in any way to focus on the negatives of any sort. I always think about Fr Sophrony’s advice to keep looking up, to keep our ‘heads above the clouds’; at one point he even uses a kind of motto (if a saint had a motto): ‘the only way for me is straight ahead’. I try my best to ignore the bad and to focus on the good, especially in relation with those around me. I see the same attitude in the Desert Fathers of the Paterikon. The world is so full of hatred these days – as Christians, I think we should just love. Love – in its Christian, absolute meaning – is the most striking and ‘unnatural’ thing today.

    • That is interesting, thank you for sending me that link; I’ll definitely look into it. I celebrated Easter in Island a few years ago, and it did look like the sort of place monks (including this one) would love to live in.

      However, I’m currently reading a history of ‘Medieval Scotland: Kingship and Nation’ (by Alan Macquarrie), and Islanders don’t come out as particularly welcoming to missionaries of any kind.

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