With the ebb,
With the flow,
O Thou Triune
With the ebb,
with the flow.
Celtic blessing from the Carmina Gadelica.
by Marjorie George
It is the North Sea that rules the tiny island of Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island, which sits off the east coast of far northern England near the Scottish border. Twice in every 24-hour day, the island is completely cut off from the mainland to which it is connected by a long, rutted, often muddy causeway. Twice a day, when the tide rises, the causeway road is submerged and disappears, leaving no trace of its existence, and Lindisfarne is surrounded by the sea. Visitors to the island are warned by a sign that is updated daily:
7:10 to 10:50 am
7:35 to 11:15 pm
This would not have been unsettling to the Celts of Northumbria, the name for that section of northern England. The Celts were a people of the land, of the wind and the sea, of the creatures wild and domesticated. They were a people who knew – and respected — God as Creator of all, and all of creation as co-inhabitants of the earth. Did the North Sea wish to reclaim her portion of the island twice a day? Very well, so it is; and that is the rhythm by which we shall live.
The monks who went out from Lindisfarne to spread the Christian gospel under the direction of St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert beginning in the seventh century did so mindful of the ebb and flow of the sea.
Life on Lindisfarne is submissive, slow, connected with raw nature and her Creator. Those who make pilgrimage to Lindisfarne soon learn there is no progress to be made in asking the sea to adjust her schedule to accommodate human enterprise. Visitors to the island arrive and leave on the sea’s timetable. (Laggers-behind can find overnight accommodations at the island’s several hotels and guest houses.)
And there is no point in trying to overcome the tides – standing at the edge of the causeway, bucket in hand, feebly trying to bail faster than the sea can come in.
Nor can one stand in the middle of the causeway as the tide comes in and rail against the injustice of it all. One will simply drown. Pity.
No, on Lindisfarne one subjects one’s human ego to the tides and acknowledges a grounding to life that is set by something larger than ourselves. And that is a thing both frightening and comforting. Frightening in that we must let go the stranglehold we have on our lives and surrender to God what is God’s. Comforting in that once one does that, one can relax into God’s bounty.
God and the sea are faithful. Day after day, the tide rolls in and the tide rolls out. You can, quite literally, set your watch by it. And you should.
We Westerners of the 21st century can take great counsel from the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Society of neurotics that we are, we think we have to run the world and control the planet. Oh, silly people — we cannot change the tides. Better to spend our energy fitting our lives into the world as it is created rather than as we wish it to be.
Ebb and flow, ebb and flow. Your life and mine need both – times of productivity and intensity, and times when we allow the high tide to cut us off from the mainstream and to rest in the certainty that God is in charge of his creation and of all creatures, including us.
Marjorie George is editor of ReflectionsOnline and Reflections magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
St. Aidan came to the island from Iona on the Scottish west coast in 635 AD and built a monastery at Lindisfarne; St. Cuthbert continued that work after Aidan’s death. From the island, missionaries went out to spread the gospel among the pagan English. All was destroyed by Vikings in 793. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, a second monastery was built and later dissolved by King Henry VII in 1536; its ruins can still be seen on Lindisfarne. Today a small community of Christians on Lindisfarne welcomes more than 650,000 visitors each year. To learn more about the Holy Island of Lindisfarne: http://www.lindisfarne.org.uk/general/welcome.htm