Fourteen hundred years ago, King Oswald of Northumbria–newly restored to power after seventeen years as a prince in exile–sent to Iona on the Scottish coast for monks to Christianize his kingdom. After fits and starts, Aiden came. Nostalgic for his island home on Iona, Aiden chose as the site of his new monastary the tidal island of Lindisfarne from which he could gaze across the sea and see Oswald’s court at Bamburgh Castle.
Lindisfarne quickly became the center of Christian prayer and devotion in northern Britain, and it gained the name “Holy Island.” Like Iona before it, Lindisfarne was understood to pulsate with the heart of God. Pilgrims flocked to the Northumbrian coast to make their way onto Holy Isle, but when they reached the coast they were met by the foreboding tides. Twice daily when the tides are in, Holy Island is inaccessible. But twice daily when the tides are out, the island becomes linked with the mainland by a thread of sand. For more than a millennium pilgrims have waited patiently on the tides until the sands emerge, so they can begin the trek to Lindisfarne. Because in the eras before tide tables the water could rise with unexpected speed, posts were driven into the sands to mark the high ground. Pilgrims could mostly avoid danger if they hugged the marked way. Even so, there are stories of lonely pilgrims who encountered sudden dangers and were drowned by the waters on their journey from worldly life to Holy Island.
“Six of us walked back across the sands on the Pilgrims’ Way from the mainland to Holy Isle. I walked along the sand, dodging threats of quicksand, wind, and the impending regularity of the returning tide. Come what may, the guideposts were there to mark the way. At one point even the guideposts were unreliable because the water was too high. Marcus served as our guide when we had to veer from the marked path. The walk was a sacrament, to be sure. The wind was, on another level, its own sacrament. As it blew, literally changing the face of the water, it hearkened to me the Holy Spirit.”
On our Christian walks, we benefit from those markers left before us, those posts that make our paths straight in the wilderness of the world. And yet, there are those times when even the stalwart markers fail us. The tides creep upon us, and we fear drowning. At such times, when water rises, wind gusts, and markers fail, a trusted guide on the Christian walk can save a life and see us to the heart of God.