LINDISFARNE CAFE – MEMOIR
Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne 1972
Today the counterculture is on the Right, but in the days of the Viet Nam War, the counterculture was on the Left. In the slalom of humanity’s descent into time, we seem to lean alternately from Left to Right as we hope to steer away from imagined disasters.
One generation will envision a return to nature in an effort to escape spirit-killing bureaucracies, and the next will dream of a return to White Protestant small town culture, simple markets, and Libertarian values in an effort to escape metropolitan cultures, intellectual experts, and Big Government. And yet neither shift in our inclinations seems to affect the general direction of humanity’s descent into the strange attractor of a global catastrophe bifurcation.
The generation that came of age in the sixties and seventies had an apocalyptic sensibility that expressed itself in radical Left political movements, millennial cults, and popular science fiction mythic art forms in novels and films. The artistic imagination is much like the hypnogogic state of mind that separates the waking from the dreaming consciousness; in this transitional state in which the muscle inhibitors kick in to prevent us from moving while we sleep, we can sometimes see things in the room that aren’t really there–even with our eyes open–as diverse sensory signals are converted into imagery and then into the enacted imagery of the dramas we call dreams.
This state of imaginary perception also seems to occur during fevers. In the nineteen-sixties, a whole generation seemed to be living at a fevered pitch. Myths, millennial movements, popular art forms such as the science fiction movie 2001: A Space Odyssey took an indistinct and slower cultural transformation and compressed it into events in the imagery of a mythic narrative that was much like a waking dream.
In 1972, I founded The Lindisfarne Association, a very much seventies kind of cultural movement that sought to avoid the sixties-style mass movements of drugs and revolutionary violence to seek out a more spiritual and intellectual third way to effect the transformation of culture.
As a student of cultural history, I had a sense that our Western civilization was at the edge of its kairos and that an emerging planetary culture called out for a new formation with which to realize itself, so I sought out others in what became the Lindisfarne Fellowship that seemed to embody this third way. Paradoxically, such a gathering together is very much in the ethos of Western Civilization, from the Axial Age to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
I chose to call this new emergent domain a planetary culture rather than a planetary civilization with a mind tuned to complex dynamical systems. A civilization has a single imperial capital and a monocrop mentality of dominance. A culture can be polycentric and composed of competing ideologies, such as those of science, art, and religion.
James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’s Gaia theory is a vision of planetary dynamics in which ocean, continent, and atmosphere create an emergent domain through energizing diversity. Our planet is not a primal sludge in which earth, air, and water are one common medium.
From the early eighties, this Gaian theory, therefore, became basic to Lindisfarne’s philosophy. With the addition of chaos dynamics and complex dynamical systems at the end of the eighties, Lindisfarne’s work took a further step toward the articulation of this new culture of science and a post-religious spirituality.
Because of my personal background in university teaching, Lindisfarne in the nineteen-seventies was aimed at university students and drop-outs, but the Lindisfarne conferences soon proved to be attractive to professors, artists, scientists, and scholars, and we found ourselves described as what Harper’s Magazine called “a summer camp for intellectuals.”
Like Black Mountain, Bennington, or Esalen before us, Lindisfarne’s identity was not really based on its institutional structure. We were more of an atmosphere than a physical location—a cloud more than a clod. For those of us inside this nebula it felt as if a Zeitgeist were trying to condense and form into a stellar body. But this Zeitgeist was definitely an ephemeral manifestation of the spirituality of the seventies, and with the onset of the Reagan eighties it felt as if America had voted a resounding No! to whatever intercessionary angel was seeking to manifest its mysteries in historical time.
After a generation of this countercultural work to articulate a new planetary culture, Courtney Ross, founder of The Ross School, a new private school in East Hampton, visited the Lindisfarne Mountain Retreat in Crestone, Colorado in 1995, accompanied by the Lindisfarne Fellow Ralph Abraham. There, she asked me to design a curriculum for her school and provided me with an opportunity to extend my vision from adults to the education of children for a post-national world.
Although the Lindisfarne Association ceased to be a formal not-for-profit educational foundation in 2009, the Lindisfarne Fellows continue to meet to think together about ecology, planetary culture, and issues of global concern, and the Ross School continues to develop internationally in an effort to transform education so that it may express a new global consciousness for a new planetary civilization. But Lindisfarne has its roots on Holy Island by the North Sea in Northumbria in eastern Scotland.
I did not know why I had picked Lindisfarne out of all the monastery schools of the Dark Ages, and I did not know what I would do when I got there, but I went on all the same. When, after traveling around the world for three months in 1972, I finally came to Holy Island off the coast of Northumbria in early autumn, I had only a few minutes to cross before the tide flooded the channel.[i]
I was glad that I had followed my hunch not to stop on the way down from Edinburgh, for now I would have the whole afternoon on the island until the channel again opened at dusk. I crossed over quickly, parked the car, and began a slow ambulation in search of whatever was left, suspended in the ether of another era. I circled around the castle on the high rock, went down to the shore, paced in the enclosed garden, and came back to the ruin of the twelfth-century priory and the modern chapel. Nothing of the original seventh-century monastery remained; after the sacred power of the founding saints had gone, the profane power of the Vikings had come in like the tides. Since there was no other place in which to pause and meditate on the tides of history, I went into the modern chapel.
In all the sacred places I had visited in my journey around the world, I had constructed an imago: a spiral in a new planetary space in which all the religions of the past were circulations in a single hypersphere. And to match this uniqueness of space, I envisioned a uniqueness of our present moment in time, a kairos, in which it was appropriate to look back at all the religions of the past, and then move beyond them in the next turn of the spiral into a new post-religious and scientific planetary spirituality.
Once I had concluded my meditation, I had only to wait until the tide went out to return to Edinburgh. In the chapel I saw and bought a little pamphlet that told of the life of St. Aidan, the founder of Lindisfarne, and of St. Cuthbert, his greatest successor. One of the hagiographic fables seemed to connect the ethos of Lindisfarne with ancient esoteric traditions of the Essenes and the Judaism of the desert.
According to several esoteric traditions–among them the Anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner as well as the kriya yoga of Paramahansa Yogananda–John the Baptist was said to be the reincarnation of Elijah, and Jesus was said to be the reincarnation of Elijah’s disciple, Elisha. When Elisha asks his departing master that a double part of his spirit descend upon him, he is asking for an acceleration of his spiritual evolution.
Elijah cannot grant this to him, for it can only take place if Elisha himself can stand to receive such powers all at once. And so Elijah tells him that if he can control his consciousness so as to be able to see all the planes of consciousness–the lokas, through which Elijah will ascend as he departs–then Elisha’s inheritance of what the Zen Buddhists call the “mind to mind transmission” of his master will be achieved.
Elisha does indeed see Elijah ascend to heaven “in a fiery chariot”; he picks up the mantle of Elijah and returns to the esoteric community on Mt. Carmel and all the followers recognize that Elisha now wears the power and mantle of Elijah. A similar kind of prophetic succession is expressed in the hagiography of Aidan and Cuthbert.
“On the night of St. Aidan’s death, an athletic lad of 17–whose dust is now the prized possession of Durham Cathedral where his name, Cuthbertus, is engraved on a great stone slab behind the high altar–was watching sheep in the Leader valley on the lower slopes of the Lammermoor hills.
Awake while other shepherds were sleeping, he had a vision of angels bearing a great soul to paradise; and when a few days later news came of the death of the beloved Aidan, he took the vision as a call to the services of God.”[ii]
It would seem that something of the esoteric was transmitted through archaic Celtic Christianity; or, perhaps, it would be closer to the truth to say that in Ireland two streams met to create the river that sustained life in Western Europe in the Dark Ages.
One was the ancient stream of esoteric thought that had been centered in Ireland since megalithic times; the other was the Christian monastic tradition which had its source in that other fountainhead of esoteric traditions, Egypt.[iii]
With Druid Ireland on one side, and syncretistic Egypt on the other, one can see that there have been times in the past, much like our own, in which one esoteric tradition comes into contact with another. The Sufis claim that their knowledge predates Islam and goes back to Egypt, but this claim to have a source of authority that does not derive from orthodox centers of priestly power can create trouble for mystics, Gnostics, or Nestorian heretics, as both Sufis and Celtic Christians discovered at different times.
Initiates of certain inner experiences can recognize in the imagery of another tradition different metaphoric systems for similar experiences. Fundamentalist zealots, who have not experienced these inner illuminations and transformations, are both full of fear and then rage that they have been excluded from some mystery, so they reify religious belief into textual literalisms and then use these as a license for persecution and murder of their rivals.
An initiate of these inner experiences recognizes that whether it is the case of the Egyptian serpent rising out of the forehead, or the Indian snake of kundalini, or the Mexican serpent turning into a plumed Quetzal bird, or the winged snakes of the caduceus of the god Mercury, or the snake worship of the Druid priests that St. Patrick drove out of Ireland, that a single experience of illumination has been encoded in the imagery. What is common to them all is human physiology, with its energies, both physical and subtle.
Of course, most scholars, especially those who have not experienced this physiologically based process of illumination, would object to such global theories of transcultural communication and see them as some form of Pynchonesque conspiracy network. But imagine that our civilization were to be wiped out and that scholars thousands of years from now were trying to reconstruct its activities. No archaeologist would be willing to accept the fact that pieces of things as different as Volkswagens, Cadillacs, and buses represented, not artifacts of isolated cultures, but parts of one industrial civilization that covered the face of the Earth.
The specialists would split up the civilization into pieces and talk about how the Volkswagen I people conquered the Ford II people until both were replaced by an empire which moved troops around in large vehicles. Other experts would argue that no one could possibly have crossed the great oceans, and that the Volkswagen and Ford cultures could have had nothing to do with one another but were separate and independent technologies of isolated cultures.
Humans traveled in the past as they do now, carrying their culture with them in their heads. Pythagoras was not the first or last man to travel and bring the mysteries of the East to the West. Strange as it may seem, St. Cuthbert seemed to know the yoga of body heat and knew how to match the waves of inhalation and exhalation with mantras and waves of the sea.
“A spying monk recorded how he watched him descend the cliff while others were sleeping, cross the slippery rocks, enter the sea, and chant psalms while the waves lapped around him; and how on his return to shore two small creatures, otters or young seals, came and rubbed themselves upon his chilled feet.”[iv]
It is sad to think how little of the esoteric and initiatic has survived in modern Christianity, but given our Western history of the Albigensian Crusade, the Inquisition, and the witch trials, it is not surprising that those seekers of illumination and enlightenment now must go to Japan or India to find something as simple as a breathing technique for quieting the noisy inner dialogue of the mind so that the aspirant may enter states of consciousness deeper than egocentric prayers of God give-me-this and give-me-that. Americans have to go to the “New Religions” because our old religions of Catholic, Protestant, and Jew tend to give us the institutional culture of priests and not the experience of the divine.
Christianity once contained specific instructions on the cure of our malaise, but these instructions about techniques of inner consciousness opened doors that were not doors of the Church with its clergy and sacraments, so the doors to the mind were slammed shut in a campaign carried on over centuries of persecution to wipe out “heretics.” No doubt, the Princes of the Church were able to terrorize monks and nuns with the examples of a few religious psychotics, and, perhaps, a few of these delusional heretics were truly evil; but if Christianity had kept its esoteric tradition alive, there would have been, as well as Popes and Cardinals, a few adepts who knew the inner geography of the soul sufficiently well enough to tell the spirit of the Lord from possession by the devil.
But it is now pointless to argue over whose fault it was that Christianity lost its way and became the religion about Christ and not of Christ. We have to accept the fact that we now live in a time when the esoteric traditions of Christianity are barely alive, found only occasionally in a few scattered individuals, and that the esoteric traditions that served to inspire Western science are fast dying off in our age of technological idolatry.
The light of the civilization that came out of Christian Europe is flickering toward a new age of darkness. Now we live in a culture in which the Rosicrucian Enlightenment of Kepler, Boyle, and Newton has been reduced to a new electronic version of what Whitehead called scientific materialism. The Celtic Christianity of Columba, Aidan, and Cuthbert has been reduced to the soporific pieties of the clergy—be they Roman Catholic or Anglican. The esoteric is not a visible presence in Christianity any longer.
If you wish to go back to the point at which Christianity took the wrong turn, so that you can find the other road at the fork, you must go back to Lindisfarne to see the clash between the Celtic Christianity that identified itself as the Church of John and the Roman imperial Christianity that identified itself as the Church of Peter.
“The clash had been developing during the episcopate of Finan, who succeeded Aidan at Lindisfarne; and it became unavoidable when Oswy in 655 slew Penda of Mercia, the last defender of heathenism, who had stood between the stream of Christianity coming down from Iona and the stream pressing northwards from Canterbury.
Colman, the third bishop, inherited the dispute when Finan died in 661. King Oswy’s sympathies were with the Celtic Church in which he had been brought up at Iona, but his queen and her chaplain followed the usages they had been familiar with in Kent. The confusion in the royal household was such that Easter was kept twice…The king’s long reign (642-670) and religious zeal gave the Church the opportunity to become deeply rooted in his extensive kingdom; but which Church and which customs was he to support?
Aware that the Easter divergence in 665 would be greater than usual, Oswy summoned the Synod of Whitby in 663 or 664 at the monastery ruled by Hilda, pleading that all who served the one God should agree to observe one rule of life. Colman claimed that the Celtic traditions went back to St. John; but Wilfrid, a former disciple of Aidan, who had visited Rome and adopted Roman usages, laid emphasis on the folly of resisting the unique authority of St. Peter: “The only people who are stupid enough to disagree with the whole world are these Scots and their obstinate adherents the Picts and the Britons, who inhabit only a portion of these two islands in the remote ocean.”
The king had evidently already made up his mind, with a view to unity and peace in his own house, and with a smile he announced his decision in these words: “If Peter is the guardian of the gates of heaven, I shall not contradict him. I shall obey his commands in everything to the best of my ability: otherwise, when I come to the gates of heaven, he who holds the key may not be willing to open them.”[v]
Two roads diverged at Lindisfarne; one went to Rome through Wilfrid, the other went to Iona through Colman. Aidan had come to Lindisfarne from Iona, and it was at Iona that Aidan’s teacher, St. Columba, had created a center of esoteric Christianity. It is small wonder that after the failures of the Synod of Whitby, Colman and his monks left Lindisfarne and went back to remote Iona.
From contemporary sciences of ecology, we have learned that a rich biological diversity is a healthier way to maintain an ecosystem or a planet. Imperial modes of thinking, however, demand and command a monocrop that destroys wetlands with dams and turns prairies into single crop factories forcefully maintained by center-pivot irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides. The industrial farm, the modern corporate university with its aluminum and glass business-containers, and the drive-in, parking lot super-churches of Dallas are all embodiments of this imperial mentality.
One can only look back to the Synod of Whitby and speculate how much richer Western Christianity would have been if Rome and the Papacy had not triumphed, if Celtic, Roman, Greek, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Maronite-Syriac, and Nestorian Christianities had all flourished and prospered. After all, there is no Pope for Buddhism, and Hinayana, Mahayana, Tibetan, Chan, Shin, and Japanese Zen Buddhisms have managed very nicely around the world without an imperial standardization. But the West chose the Roman model, and in taking on the form and thinking of empire, it was easier to move toward the politics of empire in the Albigensian Crusade and the permanent establishment of the Inquisition.
Since the esoteric has been often forcefully eliminated from Christianity, and had only survived in prophetic sects in which, unfortunately, the personality of the founder also became part of the message, I felt in the nineteen-seventies that the only way for a healthier diversity to re-establish itself was to back-propagate Christianity with living esoteric seeds from other traditions. Influenced by the Hindu-Christian syncretism of Yogananda, I thought that in a planetization of the esoteric, Yoga, Sufism, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, and native American traditions could be brought into communion with a new form of post-religious Christian spirituality and Western science.
Education had been captured by industry, science had been taken over by a technological idolatry based upon a narrow linear reductionism, and religion had been taken hostage by mind-numbing rituals and emotionally infantilizing forms of worship. What was needed was a new kind of educational community in which the individual was empowered through meditation to connect the unique to theuniversal without the mediation of clerical ritual and collectivizing worship, and in which a more holistic science that recognized complexity could work toward the design of architectural forms that were more symbiotic with our new biospheric understanding of ecology.
A new kind of educational association would need to be created in which the transformation of individual consciousness and the redesign of human settlements could be brought together in meta-industrial villages and more symbiotic cities–not to preserve the old in a monastic museum or pre-industrial commune, but to articulate an emergent evolution to carry us forward into a new historical landscape.
Such was to be my project in returning from my pilgrimage to the historical Lindisfarne, quitting my professorship in Toronto, and working to establish the Lindisfarne Association in New York City in December of 1972.
[i] An earlier version of this essay was published in Passages about Earth: an Exploration of the New Planetary Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).
[ii] Henry Kelsey, St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert (Berwick on Tweed, no date), p. 23.
[iii] See Maire and Liam De Paor, Early Christian Ireland (London: Thames & Hudson, 1958); also “Ireland and the East” in G. T. Stokes, Ireland and the Celtic Church (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1886), pp. 166-170.
[iv] Kelsey, loc.cit.
For further reading, see Jean Markale, Le Christianisme celtique et ses survivances populaires (Paris: Editions Imago, 1983).
Brendan Lehane, The Quest of the Three Abbots (New York: Viking Press, 1968).
Celtic Chrsitian Spirituality : An Anthology of Medieval and Modern Sources, Ed. Oliver Davies and Fiona Bowie (New York: Continuum Books, 1995).
Celtic Christianity: Ecology and Holiness, Ed. Christopher Bamford and William Parker Marsh (Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 1982).
William Irwin Thompson (born July, 1938) is known primarily as a social philosopher and cultural critic, but he has also been writing and publishing poetry throughout his career and received the Oslo International Poetry Festival Award in 1986. He has made significant contributions to cultural history, social criticism, the philosophy of science, and the study of myth. He describes his writing and speaking style as “mind-jazz on ancient texts”. He is an astute reader of science, social science, history, and literature. He is the founder of the Lindisfarne Association.
His book, Still Travels: Three Long Poems was published in 2009 by Wild River Books. Order a copy from Amazon.
Works by William Irwin Thompson
Memoir – Farewell Address at the Lindisfarne Fellows Conference
Memoir – Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne: 1972
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part I
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part 2: A Community in Fishcove, Long Island
Memoir – Building a Dream – Part One: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – My Dinner with Andre Gregory: Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan, 1977-1979
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Shadow Side Part Two: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Cathedral Part Three: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Conclusion: The Economic Relevance of Lindisfarne
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary: Reflections of a Homeschooling Parent
Memoir – Sex and the Commune
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary
Memoir – With Gregory Bateson’s Mind in Nature
After Heart Surgery: Hokusai’s Great Wave
A Lazy Sunday Afternoon
Nancy Grayson’s Bookstore
On Reading “The Penguin Book of English Verse”: on my iPad and Exercise Bike
Wild River Books/Poetry – Nightwatch and Dayshift: Cezanne
Anatolian Days and Nights and the Cultural Evolution of Spirituality
And the Votes are In: The American Elections of 2010
Avatar – When Technology Displaces Culture
Bedtime Story for a Civilization
The Big Picture: Reflections on Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines
The Big Picture, II
Child Abuse and the Catholic Church
The Digital Economy of W. Brian Arthur
From Shamanism to Religion, Part Two
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality, Part Three
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality: Conclusion
January 1, 2011: Reflections on the Philosophical Notions of Republicans
January 6, 2011 – Part Two: The Etherealization of Capitalism
Nature and Invisible Environments
Of Culture and the Nature of Extinction
On Nuclear Power
On Religion – Part One
On Religion and Nationalism: Ireland, Israel, and Palestine
On Transnational Military Interventions
A Pagan Ur-Text of the Lebor Gebála Érenn
Part 1 – The Shift from Industrial to a Planetary Civilization
Part 2 – The Shift from an Industrial to Planetary Civilization
Part 3 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The Recovery of a Cosmic Orientation
Part 4 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – The Global War for Drugs
Part 5 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The New Jerusalem
Part 6 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Catastrophes as the Spur to Institute Tricameral Legislature
Part 7 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Complex Dynamical Systems and Tricameral Legislatures
Part 8 – The Shift from a Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Israel and Palestine: Sic transit gloria mundi
Part 9 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – On Sarah Palin and the Technocratic Society
Part 10 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – On Conspiracy Narratives as Expressive of the Transition from the Nation: State to the Noetic Polity
Part 11 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Global Awareness and Personal Identity
Part 12 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Conclusion: The United Nations
Political Meditation for the Fourth of July, 2011: Can We Shift from Empire Back to Republic?
St. David’s Day, 2011, Technology and Social Change
Saint Patrick’s Day, 2010: Us and Them: Identity and the State
Some Reflections on Hurricane Sandy and an Outline for a New Civilization
Technical Hubris: and the Sinkhole of Obama’s Centrism
Television and Social Class
Thanksgiving Day, 2010: The Uses and Abuses of History
The Elections of 2010
Thoughts on My new Kindle App: on My Mac iPad