Holy Island by Alex Diggins

 

In cities that

have outgrown their promise people

are becoming pilgrims again, if not to this place,

then to the recreation of it in their own spirits

 

R.S. Thomas

 

 

I wake with a start. Black shock; I am blind. I strain my eyes: nothing. Stumbling my fingers across the bedside table, I find the torch and click it on. Shadows loom and skitter in the corners of the unfamiliar room. My heart clenches.

 

I force myself up, cross the room and crack open the bedroom door, chasing the torch beam down into the kitchen. It’s a big cold room, and the surfaces gleam queerly in the antiseptic light. Lit up like the set of a TV murder mystery. I try to push the thought from my mind.

 

I descend and cross to the front door, the flagstones biting on my bare feet. Pulling it open, I step out into the night. Quiet. The laboured churning of the generator next door has stilled. The only sounds are the susurrus of wind and the muted rip-and-roar of waves on the shore. No lights, except for my tiny beam and the red-eyed blink of the lighthouse in the distance.

 

I turn off my torch and look up. A stage of night: wind has swept the evening’s clouds to the horizon. The sky is slurred with light. Stars crowd, thick and textured as though smeared on with a palette knife. Tang of salt on the air.

 

My first night on the island.

 

***

 

Bardsey Island – Ynys Enlli in Welsh, the isle in the floodtides – is a small place. Two miles long and just over a mile across its widest point, you can walk its coastline in a couple of hours. Or run them, as I discovered on one jubilant sun-spilt evening, in forty-five minutes. Despite its snugness, it feels wild. The prevailing Westerlies bring storms off the Irish Sea to hammer at your front door, and its rugged character is further emphasised by its most distinctive feature: Mynydd Enlli, the 584ft ‘mountain.’ Whale-humped and heathered, it looks like a Cairngorm mountainside miraculously transplanted to the sea off north west Wales. In fact this resemblance is not fanciful: on the summit ridgeline you stand on 600 million-year-old Precambrian rock, some of the oldest in Britain. As in the Cairngorms, your boots press down on a once-mighty mountain range, planed down by ice and burying time.

 

But that is where the resemblance ends. Turn your back on the mainland and look out west, towards the stolid, candy-stripped lighthouse, and Bardsey reveals a different character. The world falls away into neat squares of fields, half a dozen cottages strung out along the island’s only track and, further off, the sheltered harbour of Cafn where the weekly boat comes in. It is a view both pastoral and theatrical – from this height other humans catch the eye, their amblings make for compelling drama. Drop a bit further down the slope, and the mountain’s bulk cuts off any view back towards the Llŷn peninsula – phone signal dies as well – and mainland life abruptly vanishes. Bardsey, then, is an island with its back turned decisively on the land. An enclave, a redoubt: a place set apart.

 

Thanks in part to this sense of isolation, the island has a deep history of pilgrimage and retreat. Contemplatives and hermits have arrived on its shores since at least the sixth century, and probably far longer. Rough huddles of stone cells surface on the mountain’s southern shoulder in autumn when the heather dies back. Early Celtic monks made home in these crude shelters, attracted by the promise of the landscape’s austerity: a life ruled by the tide’s gifts and deprivations, the mind kneaded to quietude by the pulse-beat of wind and sea. Written records from this time are patchy and sparse – and invariably braided with myth – and so it is difficult to fully determine what drove these first pilgrims. It is probable though that they were partly inspired by traditions of solitary meditation and retreat drawn from Eastern mysticism. What is beyond doubt is that these Peregrini felt keenly the yearning for ‘a suitable desert’. For them, migration’s siren song was anchored bone-deep.

 

Wild and lonely places, especially islands, held particular attraction. They set a moat between the contemplative and the tares of everyday life. But islands also threw them back upon their own resources, physical and spiritual. The Peregrini thus became castaways on themselves. For some solitaries though, these rigours were not enough. St Cuthbert, for instance, who ended his days on Lindisfarne, another holy island, built the walls of his hermitage so high that ‘he could see nothing except the heavens above.’ Reading this, I was struck by the echoes in this image of the high-windowed cells I had seen in the Buddhist monasteries of Nepal, built so that they framed just a sharp strip of blue sky and blinding white peaks. There too, the astringency of the view was designed to still the mind’s whirling sediments and purify thought – architecture as filtration for the spirit.

 

Even so, seclusion gnaws. My own week-long stay on Bardsey was shot through with jags of loneliness; and I encountered R. Geralt Jones’s description of his first few days on the island with wry recognition. ‘The sea is all around me,’ he wrote. ‘I cannot get away. There is only me. I have to live with this me all the time.’ By the end of his stay though, he begins to negotiate with his isolation, perceiving instead the island’s expansiveness, its sufficiency: ‘[It] seemed spacious, a big enough world, rich and full of minute variety.’ In fact, in many accounts of island life, I met this same movement from scattering to stillness, the anxious edges of the writer’s mind worn smooth by their encounter with the place. ‘[It is] the island of solitude where one is least alone,’ declared Sister Helen Mary, a nun who lived for 15 years there in solitary contemplation. And Christine Evans, a poet who knows the island as well as anyone, having spent every summer there since 1968, called it: ‘A whole small world – that focused place, so remarkably living.’

 

The first Welsh reference to the island’s monastics describes their dwelling as Llan, a common place name identifying a simple hut or enclosure. Even in early accounts, then, Bardsey brought to mind the balance between enclosure and exposure, shelter and the storm. It is a tension one still feels today: poised in the almost imperceptible shift from farmland to mountain heath, or thrumming in the ridgeline’s crazy cavern of wind as you watch a trunk of rain approach over the sea, eyeing up the distance between your cottage and a soaking.

 

***

 

When the weather is fine, I like to sit in the hide on the far western tip of the island. Perched on a cliff top, it faces the sea. The inlet below is a mess of foam; suds fly off and catch in the nooks and crannies of the rocks like melting snow. More than at any other time, I feel the island as the prow of a ship, powering through relentless working of the waves.

 

You enter the hide at a crouch, forcing open the corroded metal hatch – more sea salvage than ironmongery. There is a floor of pebbles and a wooden bench corrugated with graffiti; it’s more of a stone hutch really, the roughest of shelters. The front panels unlatch and you can swing them down so you’re given a rectangle of sea and cloud and sky. It’s a frame; and like all frames it concentrates vision by constraining it. Mostly, however, I prefer to latch it back up, and wait for my eyes to adjust to the half-light that creeps through the slats. The dark is soft and muffled, but alert to every movement of the wind. A sounding box, an echo chamber, a weather window, and me at its heart.

 

***

 

On the island, silence and shadows strike a heavier, more plangent note. At night, the windows running with rain, I startle myself with my movements – filling the kettle, pressing the tap, the whump of the gas ring. Listen to the water begin to move in the kettle, catch, shiver and change pitch. A shift I feel in my gut. Back home in London, shadows are shrill, scattering. Any silence feels poised, tentative, wary of being cracked. But on Bardsey the dark and the quiet are great, blunt facts. I find I sleep lightly and my dreams are richly peopled. Faces and figures I have not seen since my schooldays chatter and accompany me. And I spend long reaches of the night awake – my normal rhythms pressed out of shape by the elemental black.

 

Karen Armstrong, a historian of monasticism and a former nun, describes the contemplative life as equal parts calling and practice. One must have a talent for it, she argues: ‘Just as some people – at all times and in all cultures – have felt compelled to become dancers, poets or musicians, others are irresistibly drawn to a life of silence and prayer.’ But without nurturing, that talent – that urge to inwards movement – withers and dies. Much of our modern, workaday world is orchestrated around burying that deep-rooted impulse. The logic of late-capitalism dictates that our lives are spent – in movement, work and production. What passes for the practice of silence and stillness today is often a co-opted and commodified version of an older spirituality. Distanced from their origins, trends like mindfulness and meditation, though useful for some, are nonetheless pale shades of the wild, roiling energies of true monasticism. For, as Armstrong argues, the contemplative’s existence is a life-long project of moment-to-moment vigilance: ‘[They] gladly submit to a demanding regime and, once he or she has become adept, manifest the full potential of the human spirit.’ It is therefore not so much a question of faith as application and discipline: ‘In the pre-modern period, in all the major world faiths, the main emphasis was not on belief but behaviour … First, you changed your lifestyle and only then could experience God, Nirvana, Brahma or the Dao as a living reality.’

 

For centuries, those who contoured their lives in this way were a caste apart; revered, feared and scorned, they were nonetheless seen as a legitimate strata of society. Indeed, secular authorities tolerated holy men and women much as modern governments tolerate foreign embassies on their soil. Hermits and monastic orders alike stood askance from temporal power, existing in uneasy symbiosis, exemplifying an alternative authority – another way of living – that was not wholly predicated on dominance and underwritten by violence.

 

Today in the West, outside of a few well-funded orders, such a lifestyle is nearly impossible. I discovered as much when I talked to Carole, a contemplative nun on a fortnight’s retreat. It was a rare golden afternoon, the fields gilded in low-slanting light. We were sat on the bench outside the boathouse, backs against the sun-toasted stone, watching the island’s colony of grey seals snorting, roaring and playing out their melodramas. Carole told me she had been a music lecturer but had felt a tug towards a different life. She decided to devote her life to solitary worship, living alone on a smallholding in the Shropshire hills, spending hours a day in song and prayer. Now though, through a combination of financial need and spiritual intuition, she felt ready to step back into the world: a gradual process of opening herself back up to its responsibilities and demands. This trip to Bardsey was a bookend of sorts – she had travelled there at the beginning of her journey; fourteen years later, at its end, she had returned. Had she ever felt lonely, I wondered?

 

“Not really,” she replied. “Only when I wasn’t in worship. And then, I felt like I was tapping into something bigger – a continual celebration of God.”

 

She smiled, “Sometimes I knew I was singing with many others, an entire symphony.”

 

It is an idea – a lifestyle – I find difficult to comprehend. On a rational level, one could dismiss it as the tricks of a lonely mind. After all, contemplative literature is replete with mystical apparitions and supernatural happenings. I could understand these operating as a system of symbol and metaphor, but as lived experience – that was far harder. And yet, on another level, Carole’s answer resonated. I knew that, on the island, words – because they were spent less freely – had a different heft. Weighty and cool, they rang out like pebbles tossed into a metal bucket.  And who truly is to say how far they echoed?

 

***

 

Birds are among the animal kingdom’s greatest migrants. If you were to make visible every desire line woven through the air, by every individual of every species, earth would seem nested inside a lattice-work of dazzling complexity. There are wild birds on every continental landmass, and have been for at least 65 million years. Significantly, many species are almost entirely pelagic, spending their lives on the open ocean, their worlds intersecting with ours only at the frontiers of the land: coastlines, sea stacks, cliffs and islands.

 

One such bird is the Manx shearwater. Alongside the chough, it is Bardsey’s most iconic bird. At an estimated 21,000 pairs, the island has the largest population in the UK outside of Skomer and the Isle of Man. During their breeding season between April and September they are an inescapable feature of island life. In appearance they are distinctly unremarkable, looking to the untrained eye – i.e. mine – like a dark, slightly dumpy gull. But their behaviour sets them apart. They are ground nesters, laying a single egg in a burrow. Once the chick hatches, one member of each breeding pair – who mate for life – stands sentry while the other fishes and brings back food. To avoid predators, the birds prefer to return at night, waiting offshore at sunset for it to get dark enough to move safely. And then, en masse, they return. It is an unearthly experience: the night thickens with phantom wing beats and unseen shapes flit to and fro; their cries shaft through the dark, sounding uncannily human. To the Vikings they were ‘the Devil’s birds’, their voices those of the restless dead.

 

To my mind though, this is not the shearwater’s most extraordinary aspect. Rather it is their almost preternatural navigation abilities. Towards the end of the summer, the parents will abandon their chick to return to the sea. Swollen with sustenance and grossly fat, it will not be able to squeeze out of its burrow. But, having fasted for a week or so, it will then waddle clumsily out, emerging into the open air for the first time. Yet danger is everywhere and time is of the essence. Quickly it will note the position of the stars and begin its tentative, shuffling maiden flight to the sea. It will not return for four years. But when it does, it is to the same island, the same hillside, the same burrow. Navigating by the stars and inborn magnetic sense, it will have compassed the 4,000 miles to its feeding grounds off South America several times, returning home to the burrow it saw only once, a lifetime ago, on that first panicked dash. Bardsey’s early pilgrims would have been unaware of the shearwater’s epic migrations. But I cannot believe they failed to thrill at the sight of a lone bird threading the mountainous scarps of sea, surfing the ever-shifting topography of the wind, the sun flaring chrome behind. A fellow traveller, wingtips spread out against the light, a crucifix in flight.

 

***

 

Just after sunset and summoned by its bell, we gathered in the chapel. The pews faced each other and candles clustered on the altar. Hunched, half-shadowed figures in a circle of buffeted light: I had the curious impression we were sat around an open fire in a cave. The effect was heightened by the wind, which railed at the windows with impotent ferocity. Inside the chapel, a shuttered quiet held. Carole led the service. She began, her voice a thread of high, clear beauty:

 

Be Still and know that I am God

 

Eyes closed, tasting the words as they left the tongue, we took up the song.

 

In thee, O Lord, I place my trust

 

It rose and fell, rose and fell, in the incense-laden air. A tapestry of sound and breath and spirit; an act that was rooted, ancient, generous. It carried me up and out, through the snowstorm of rain picked out by my head torch, and off, into the dark.

 

***

 

Our world is fugitive. We are in the midst of the largest refugee crisis since World War II. According to the campaign group Doctors of the World, 70.8 million people have been forcibly displaced. 37,000 people flee their homes every day due to conflict and persecution. The fifth and sixth centuries – the world of those Celtic wanderers – was likewise steeped in violence and scarred by continual migration and displacement. Successive invaders, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, drove ordinary people before them. Many sought safety in the north and west, a centrifugal expansion away from the heartland towards the ragged edge of the Britain. In the words of one contemporary source, they ‘trusted their lives to the high hills and cliffs of the sea coast.’ These Peregrini, then, were pilgrims – but also refugees. And holy islands like Bardsey summoned them with the promise of sanctuary, spiritual and physical.

 

As the climate crisis tightens like a noose, as governments dither and scapegoat, as our politics turns inward-looking and fearful, as walls become instruments of diplomacy, I wonder if these holy islands will once again begin to broadcast their call. Our current epoch – the Anthropocene – delivers the present as warning and opportunity. Never have we been more aware that our choices, our actions, will continue to echo down to future generations, ricocheting forward into the depths of geologic Deep Time. Never have we been more aware of our responsibilities as ancestors. For those privileged enough to travel to places like Bardsey, these thoughts become difficult to ignore. Away from the roar of everyday life, you sense a shift, a turning, a widening of the gyre. Like grains of sand caught in a wave’s infolding, you feel a great rearing of energy building towards collapse. Which way it will fall is harder to tell.

 

***

 

Crossing back to the mainland, I find autumn has arrived. Air pinches and breath pools. Climbing up out of the narrow, overhung harbour of Porth Meudwy, the air is cool and rich and green. Hedgerows are heavy with bird song. Behind clouds, the sun has a penny-sheen. As I climb, they break and warmth slants across the valley. I walk up, and out, towards the light.

 

 

 

***

 

Alex Diggins is a writer and journalist based in London. He has written for, among others, The Economist, The TLS, The Island Review, Wales Arts Review and New Welsh Review. He is published in Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth (Unbound). He is working on a book about holy islands in the age of climate crisis. Follow him on Twitter here: @AHABDiggins.

 

Photography by the author.

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