Anyone visiting or living in the Lake District, or any other place of natural beauty for that matter; and who are sensitive and at peace within themselves and their environment will have on occasion sat on a rock, a bench, a tussock; looked out across a valley and in a period of quiet reflection absorbed that scene into their subconscious. It remains there to be revisited at quiet moments by your desk, at home or in the city, when the treadmill of daily life begins to grind at your spirit and sanity, inducing an inner peace: a sanctuary.
In his book Walking into Celtic Spirituality Cameron Butland refers to these areas of natural beauty as Thin Places: where the separation between heaven and earth, the physical and the spiritual is almost imperceptible; and where the early Celtic Christians of the first millennium through solitude, prayer and meditation sought the Creator in his creation. Some of the places he mentions such as Iona, Lindisfarne and St David’s are well known – others more obscure. St Bega’s chapel on the shores of Lake Bassenthwaite is one such place and last week, on a rare sunny day I went along with Cameron to visit the historic site.
Cameron studied archaeology at the University of East Anglia before training for the ministry at Ripon College, Oxford. He was ordained at Lichfield Cathedral in 1984 and since then has served in the dioceses of Lichfield, Oxford and Carlisle. He is currently the rector of St Oswald’s, Grasmere. He has a Masters in historical research; teaches church history and leads regular quiet days and courses on Celtic spirituality, prayer and psychology.
We took the footpath from Dodd Wood car park skirting Mire House and made our way through the outbuildings and woodland until we reached the edge of the estate where the valley opened out before us. Cameron stopped and sweeping his arm before him said ‘Look, this is what I mean.’ It was breathtakingly beautiful. In the bright sunlight the stream cut through the soft emerald pasture like hot metal turning the lake platinum, while the port wine stains of blushing heather against the grey rock of the high surrounding fells combined to form a palette that was as rich as it was sublime. He went on, ‘When you see this you can’t help being affected by its beauty and majesty: the feeling runs deep, bringing you closer to nature and in the Celtic Christian tradition, to God.’
Cameron was a learned and erudite companion; along the way we discussed the poetry of Caedmon and Blake; Armitage and Duffy. He spoke of the symbolism of water to pray in or beside, and the social impact of the Norman invasion and the establishing of the Roman church with its warring popes and political agendas, replacing a church that had been more communal and spiritually grounded in the natural world. He talked of the hermit Anthony of Egypt; and how the early pioneers of the church in this country followed his example by living a life of solitude and prayer in remote parts of the British Isles.
St Bega was one such pioneer. She is believed to have been an Irish princess, who sailed to England in the seventh century and formed a religious community at St Bega’s Bay, now St Bees. At some point she chose to leave her community behind and travelled inland to the shores of Lake Bassenthwaite, where she lived out her life as a hermit. The site later became a place of pilgrimage and in the thirteenth century a Norman chapel was built where her dwelling had once stood. A pilgrims cross stands at the entrance: Cameron mounted the steps and kneeling kissed the base of the cross as pilgrims would have done in times past; giving thanks for a safe deliverance.
A mile from the nearest road and accessible only on foot it is still a place of peace and tranquillity and we lingered a while before making our way back along the well-trodden path to our starting point.
Walking into Celtic Spirituality by Cameron Butland, is published by Open Spirituality Publishing, ISBN 798-0-9926277-0-6
The Song of Caedmon
Now let me praise the keeper of Heavens kingdom,
The might of the Creator and his thought,
The work of the Father of glory, how each of wonders
The Eternal Lord established in the beginning.
He first created for the sons of men
Heaven as a roof, the holy Creator,
Then middle-earth the keeper of mankind,
The Eternal Lord, afterwards made,
The earth for men, the Almighty Lord.
Next month: The Keeper of the Flame.