The 16th September is the day the church celebrates St Ninian.
There’s a wall picture of him in St Michael’s Church.
St Bede writes this in Chapter 4 of his Ecclesiastical History:
In 565AD when Justin the younger, the successor of Justinian, ruled the Roman empire, there came to Britain a renowned priest and abbot, a true monk by habit and by life, whose name was Columba. He came to preach the word of God in the kingdoms of the northern Picts, who are separated from the southern parts by steep and rugged mountains. It is said that the southern Picts, who live on this side of those mountains, had long before forsaken the errors of idolatry and embraced the truth, by the preaching of Ninian, a most revered and holy man of the British nation, who had received orthodox teaching at Rome, in the faith and mysteries of the truth. His episcopal see is famous for its church dedicated to St Martin the bishop, where he and many other saints are buried; it is now held by the English. The place belongs to the kingdom of Bernicia, and is generally called the White House [Whithorn], because Ninian built a church of stone there which was not usual among the Britons.
Ninian was probably born about 360 in Galloway and as Bede says, he was educated in Rome. Tradition holds that Pope Damasus trained him, and after he died, his successor, St Siricus consecrated St Ninian as Bishop and commissioned him to return to Britain. As he travelled back through France he visited Marmoutiers, having heard of the great work being done by St Martin de Tours (316-397). Ninian stayed at the abbey and became friends with St Martin, from whom he absorbed the teaching of the desert fathers, and particularly St Antony. When he returned to Scotland at the beginning of the 5C he was accompanied by masons from France who helped him build his church. Instead of the usual wooden structure, Ninian built a stone building, which was whitewashed and named Candida Casa. Recent archaeological excavations have found remnants of a white plastered wall which could possibly be from the first church and community at what is now called Whithorn. This was just the time of the withdrawal in 410 of the three Roman legions, taken to defend the Rhine border – the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire and its cultural hegemony in Britain. It is also the time when St Augustine of Hippo was living and writing. There’s not very much about Ninian, apart from the passage from Bede above, and also a biography of him written by Aelred in the 12C, and a Life by the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, written in 1639, where he claimed that Ninian died on 16 September 432.
The remains at Whithorn give evidence that Ninian was a key figure in the first establishment of Christianity in these regions. Butler, in his Lives of the Saints tells us that ‘from it St Ninian and his monks set out not only to preach to the Britons of the neighbourhood but also to the Picts of the former Roman province of Valentia; they may even have penetrated to the northern Picts beyond the Grampians. The mission received an impetus from Ninian’s cure of the blindness and subsequent conversion of a local chieftain. The Britons and Picts were baptised in large numbers and Ninian consecrated bishops to minister to them. Through the foundation of Whithorn, St Ninian’s effect on Celtic Christianity was considerable … he paved the way for St Columba and St Kentigern.’
Here’s a map of churches dedicated to St Ninian, all through Scotland.
It didn’t look like he came down into Cumbria, but I wonder if, subsequently, Christian folk here made their way to his shrine.
As I look across the Solway Firth to Galloway, I’m keen to make pilgrimage to Whithorn. I’ve never been. I also wonder whether there was any pilgrimage traditions around this coast, taking in the many crosses that pepper the map from Black Combe to Bootle, to Waberthwaite, to Ravenglass (an ancient Roman port), to Irton, then Shelagh’s wonderful cross at Gosforth, Egremont, St Bees, Whitehaven, Workington, and Maryport. Perhaps from the port dedicated to St Mary they crossed to Whithorn to venerate St Ninian. Who knows? Whithorn is tantalizingly close, across the Solway. Here’s the sunset over where it is, taken as we drove, one time, back from Loweswater.
There’s a story about the monks of the religious community that was originally where St Michael’s Church is today, which had been founded by Cuthbert from Lindisfarne. One time the monks attempted to cross to Ireland, but they met with disaster as a gale blew up, and the Lindisfarne Gospels they were carrying were lost overboard. The monks were forced back to shore. Tradition says that the Gospels, which were probably inside a wooden box, were discovered water-stained but safe in the sea near Ninian’s Candida Casa at Whithorn.
Making pilgrimage. Making tracks and paths. Walking.
Walking is something to write about these days. Lots of books written about it.
I love the thought of Solvitur Ambulando – “It is solved by walking.”
Perhaps first coined when Diogenes walked out on Zeno, as the latter contemplated the philosophical problem of the reality of motion, thus proving that it is indeed solved by walking. Then St Augustine of Hippo is meant to have written about it – which has prompted me to read The Confessions again, in the hope of finding where (does anyone know?)
Soren Kierkegaard wrote somewhere (and quoted by Ian Bradley in his book Pilgrimage, p. 75)
Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well being and walk away every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. If one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.
Walking – like narrowboating – takes you along at three miles an hour. Slow enough to absorb our environment, fast enough to get us somewhere, eventually. With attention to your horizons, and attention to your feet, it holds together the right and left hemisphere and makes us whole.
16 September also happens to be my birthday. After lunch with Tilda and Jonty, we walked from Ravenglass along the estuary – not far, as Peter and I needed to be back for evensong. We walked.
The light was wonderful.
The path took us through the marshes and onto the pebbles and mud.
There’s a great passage from the prophecy of Isaiah that ends with the words:
And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’ Isaiah 30: 8-21
This is the way, walk in it.
We are path-makers. It doesn’t take long to create a path. It’s been formed by use; by folk walking it regularly, tracing the footprints of others. I give thanks for paths, and for those who create them. For the fact that they come and go, over the terrain, appearing and disappearing over time as people need them. A gift for all of us, to guide our feet. Using a path is a communal activity. Of course, we could all branch out and forge our own way over the ground. And sometimes we have to – the first along a path will have done this – whether around a field on the outskirts of a town, or over a hill, or a mountain, or one of the long, old paths that criss-cross our land – the Ickneild Way, the Coast to Coast, the Cumbrian Way. Robert MacFarlane’s book The Old Ways explores ancient paths over land and sea. A fascinating account of how humans interact with their natural environment, marking, and being shaped, by the land. For once a path is there, we will naturally follow it, pleased to be spared the trouble of treading down nettles and docks, avoiding trees and brambles. Glad that we don’t need to concentrate completely on where our next footstep will be, but able to look up, and enjoy the scenery, or study the weather. This is the way. Walk in it. We have others to thank, and then we also contribute to the making of a path, its history.
It’s a powerful metaphor for life: that our individual journeys from birth to death are shaped by others; that we follow in the footsteps of others. Yes, occasionally we will branch out, we must branch out, and cross unmarked territory; but on the whole we tread well-worn paths. One of those who branched out was the founder of our faith, our Lord Jesus Christ, who showed us a new way to understand God, and God’s love for us, forgiving and reconciling us. It’s no accident that Jesus said of himself that he is the way, the truth and the life, for he was encouraging his followers to take the way, to follow the path that he himself laid out. A path, a way that leads to eternal life, by way of the cross. As we make our way along that road, we listen to the word which guides us, which helps us to see when we deviate, to the right, or to the left.
The world can seem a wilderness at times. A place of confusing cul-de-sacs and empty promises. We can struggle to find our way through life, and find it difficult to encourage others, particularly young people, to live fruitful and meaningful lives. This is the way; walk in it. The way of our lives, from birth to death. Accompanied by the Holy Spirit, we follow the way, the truth and the life, Jesus Christ. Christ who guides us from God, to God.
Peter and I did a glorious walk on Saturday morning from Rydal Hall, along the Old Coffin Road along Rydal Water until we were above Grasmere, and then up Loughrigg Fell.
Stunning views. Peter said this was one of William Wordsworth’s favourite spots.
as he walked up from Rydal Mount, where he lived from 1813 to his death in 1850.
We climbed above Grasmere
and saw Windermere from the top of Loughrigg Fell.
One of the few swallows still with us swooped below, among the meadow pipits, and wheatears.
On our way down we explored the old slate mine
We passed a tree stump that had been covered in coins – why?
and oak leaves
… Autumn is here.
I’d been there to teach the evening before – indeed, I think the first time the revised and expanded Theological Reflection: Methods book has had an airing, pre-publication!
The grounds have a wonderful little chapel where Peter and I said morning prayer on Saturday, with a waterfall through the window
– captured in oils on the dining room wall.
An angel, too,
by Shawn Williamson, painted here by Josefina de Vasconcellos in 1987, with whom he collaborated as assistant in Ambleside. The stone for the angel comes from York Minster, and was made by Williamson in 2007-2009.
Rydal Hall looked after us well.
Back to this coast which stretches, in my mind, from Black Combe, near Millom, to Workington.
It’s Norman Nicholson country, caught between the mountains and the sea. More about him in another blog to follow.
One winter Peter and I did the same walk up Black Combe on two consecutive days, on 10 and 11 January 2013. We were interested in whether we would see the same things. I wrote a pair of poems to describe what we experienced.
Here’s the first, dated 11 January 2013
We walked Black Combe from Whitbeck yesterday.
Above the road, a newish path through bramble
And bracken to Whicham where Wainwright’s path,
The carpet slipper one, begins. Long rambled,
Foot trod, it takes you to the top. Or not quite;
Bypassing the trig point in haste to be gone down
Again, or off to those distant hills; the Gable, Old Man,
Esk Hause, Scafell Pike. It pays off, this relentless route.
Or did for us. Clear above the haar that up the Valley came
The sea to west, the mountains east, a flock of golden
Plovers and silence like you never heard before.
Christmas cake at that familiar cairn
And before we got too cold we strode, Bootle
Town below, sweeping down on cracking ice
Above the loamy bog until the lovely green velvet
Road, the ancient road, corralled us down
To that distinctive field. Then left. We contoured round
Following the wall over becks and passed the old
Derelict farm that once was grand. A fell cottage.
Hollies, old thorns, stoved-in dinghy, intriguing;
With its windows and its padlocked door, it seduced
Us. We wondered to whom it belonged. Would they
Sell? But we’ve fantasied like this before.
The Combe from here allows you in now
And then as steep-cut becks sheet their white
Way down and leave one imagining what was
The top, so secret now. Whitbeck Mill, fire embers
Smoking hot. And then a micro-climate; a garden full
Of flowers: unseasonable periwinkle, lily, wallflower,
Cyclamen, all out. Puddles, potholes underfoot, and
Please don’t let your dog foul this lane.
The church, St Mary’s, full of residents who once
Lived in those farms and houses we’ve just passed.
Snowdrops. Churchyard celandine, daffodils a promise.
We walk in faith and knowledge this path today. Wondering
The difference. It traces itself in memory; does it remember
Us? What do we know that can’t be known elsewhere?
We shall walk this route, we said, every day, when we retire.
And now the second:
The following day we sat in bed and decided
To walk Black Combe again. To retrace our steps
To see if the hill remembered us. Colder, and cloud.
Both in a different mood, we argued; one wanted to take
The high route; the other to follow yesterday’s path.
We did. Resistance, internal, when you know
What’s ahead; anticipating the steep places, forgetting
The joy. We walked in cloud, more slowly; comparing
our tracks, matching our prints. Displaced rocks still
displaced; orange peel freshly dropped. The dog
happier, less timid. My blackthorn stick, old, familiar,
forgotten the day before. Purple leather gloves restricted
my grip causing muscle ache, upper arm. We met two men
as we emerged from the cloud. Glorious, glorious.
White waves of cloud below, we flew above, on
Upward; that steep last pull; and then again the cairn;
The view: big hills like islands in a sea of white.
The last of the Christmas cake and an orange for lunch
And the cloud again. No Bootle; sheep bounding away
In the mist. We drank again at Holegill beck, under the
Sycamore trees, and paused again at that old Fell
Cottage. This time the fantasy stronger. What if? Should
We ask at the farm? At Monk Foss Farm? (We later gather
That no, the Wilsons don’t own it; a hermit, Rigby, once lived there.)
This time we detoured above Whitbeck Mill to discover the pond.
The black hill, tickled lightly, that we’d returned. I’ve seen
It shudder, violently, moodily; stirred by ancient memory.
Perhaps one day I’ll organise a pilgrimage from Black Combe to Whithorn. With Norman Nicholson poetry, and stopping in churches and at crosses along the way, it could be a great event. Arriving at Whithorn for St Ninian’s day. We’d need to charter a boat across from Workington. The seas would need to behave. Or we would need Jesus in the boat, stilling the storm.