This piece was originally posted in August, 2015.
Like Robert Macfarlane (discussed in this previous post), Sara Maitland is fascinated by the peregrini: the early Celtic Christian monks and mystics who set out alone in small, flimsy boats, seeking solitude, nature, and God on the most remote islands of Britain.
"On island after island," she writes in A Book of Silence, "the more isolated and far-flung the better -- on St. Kilda, on the Farnes, on the Shiants, throughout the Hebrides and the northern islands, off the coast of Ireland, around Iceland and possibly even North America -- the traces of hermits can be found. This history is confused and uncertain, but originating in Ireland in the fifth century, there was a well-developed form of Christian spirituality which valued the silent eremitical vocation extremely highly.
"In Britain, the most famous such voluntary exile was Columba, who left Ireland in the mid sixth century and crossed the Irish Sea to become first a hermit and later a missionary and founding father based on the tiny island of Iona, which is just to the west of Mull. His community later spread across Scotland and converted north-east England as well, but he was by no means unique: over the next several centuries hermits settled alone or in tiny communities all over western Scotland and further afield too....These adventures were known in Ireland as 'green martydoms' -- to distinguish them from the 'red martyrdom' of being slain, shedding blood for the faith. To leave home and travel out beyond civilization was a martyrdom (the word means 'witness'), death of the ego, a self-giving that seems absolute."
"We do not know very much about the spiritual theology of these early hermits," Maitland continues. "Their lives are lost in legend and story, their physical markers faded or wiped out by the wildness of the places where they dwelt."
One of these hermits was St. Cuthbert, bishop of the monastery on Lindisfarne, a center of Celtic Christianity in the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast. A great lover of nature, he issued regulations to his monks for the special protection of Eider Ducks, which are called Cuddy Ducks ("Cuthbert's Ducks") to this day. He retired to live an austere and solitary life on Inner Farne Island in 676, and died there in 687.
Sara Maitland explains that we know more about St. Cuthbert than most other Christian hermits because he was personally known and loved by Bede, author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. "But what interested Bede is somewhat different than what interests me," writes Maitland. "So, for example, Bede records that Cuthbert would pray all night standing up to his neck in the frigid waters of the North Sea and, indeed, when he emerged otters would come and warm him with their tongues and fur. This combination of the ferociously ascetic and the miraculous engages Bede, for what he is writing about is the ultimate form of something so obvious to him that he never says anything about what Cuthbert thought he was trying to achieve, nor about the content of those prayers.
"It is not until rather later, from the tenth to twelfth centuries, that we begin to get accounts that attempt to explain what the island hermits were seeking, in the beguiling poetry of the Irish monks:
"Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle, on the peak of a rock, that I might often see there the calm of the sea. That I might see its heavy waves over the glittering ocean, as they chant a melody to their Father on their eternal course. That I might see its smooth strand of clear headlands, no gloomy thing; that I might hear the voice of its wondrous birds, a joyful tune. That I might hear the sound of the shallow waves against the rocks; that I might hear the cry by the graveyard, the noise of the sea. That I might see its splendid flocks of birds over the full-watered ocean; that I might see its mighty wales, greatest of wonders. That I might see its ebb and its flood-tide in their flow; that this might be my name, a secret I tell, "He who turned his back on Ireland." That contrition of heart should come upon me as I watch it; that I might bewail my many sins, difficult to declare. That I might bless the Lord who has power over all, heaven with its pure host of angels, earth, ebb, flood-tide."
Unlike Maitland and the hermit monks she admires, I am not a Christian, and I certainly don't live an isolated life, yet my morning prayers on Nattadon Hill aren't so different from those of the nature-loving peregrini:
Delightful I think it to be in the green hills of Devon, climbing through bracken and blackberries to the granite peaks above, that I might often see the sheep-dotted fields, and the grey tors of Dartmoor beyond. That I might hear the wind singing in the trees, a choir of oak, ash, rowan, and beech; and the bells of the village church; and the bleating lambs; and the hooting of owls in the woods. That I might see this hillside covered in bluebells, stitchwort, and foxgloves, no gloomy thing; and that I might hear the voice of its rooks and its robins, a joyful tune. That I might see the badgers live undisturbed; and the small red deer, shyest of wonders; and watch wild ponies graze in the tall grass as they flow between valley and moor. That I come nameless to this hill, no more, no less than others creatures here, living quietly, gently upon its slopes. That I walk these paths with respect, attentiveness, open eyes, open ears, open heart. That I might bless Mystery within all of us; and my good neighbors, human and nonhuman alike; and the air, the water, the fire, the earth, ebb and flood-tide. Mitakuye oyasin.
Words: The quotes by Sara Maitland are from A Book of Silence (Granta, 2009), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The last three photographs above are mine, taken here in Chagford: Meldon Hill viewed from Nattadon Hill, a pathway on lower Nattadon, and a very young Dartmoor pony on the village Commons. The photographs of islands in Scottland and north-east England (and their birds and animals) are Creative Commons images. They are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)