Far north off England’s east coast, near Scotland, is Holy Island, known as “Lindisfarne” at first millennium’s close. Its vibrant monastery could only be reached from the mainland at low tide, by a path of mud and sand flats, famously described by Sir Walter Scott in Marmion:
Dry-shod, o’er sands, twice every day, The pilgrims to the shrine find way; Twice every day the waves efface Of staves and sandalled feet the trace.
Pilgrims of all sorts have visited the island over the centuries, braving its signature strong winds to enter this place of joy. Present-day islanders say the twice daily separation of Holy Island from the mainland gives their home a “magical quality,” which attracted seventh-century Scots-Celtic monk Aidan to found a monastery here, with tides creating the rich isolation for a contemplative community without solely cutting it off. These monks became known for their evangelical spirit, best seen in the breathtaking early-eighth-century illuminated manuscript, The Lindisfarne Gospels, a decade-long act of prayer by the well-named monk, Eadfrith. I can imagine Eadfrith having come in from milking a cow or weeding in the garden — hunched over vellum, stylus in hand, absorbed in crafting this extraordinary manuscript that a thousand-plus years later blesses (Ead-) the world with Christ’s peace (frith).
Then, after decades of despair-inducing Viking raids, the tenth-century monk Aldred exercised his hope by writing an Old English translation between the Lindisfarne Gospels’s Latin lines. This oldest surviving English version of the Gospels holds a linguistic gem — the first recorded use of gospel in English, in Matthew 9:35: “Ðe hælend . . . bodade godspell rices.” “The Savior . . . proclaimed the good news of the kingdom.” Monks chose “hælend” (“healer”) to express “Savior”; it’s the Anglo-Saxon phrasing of the Latin salvus,“in good health,” with the root ideas of “safe” and “whole.” They are saying our salvation is in the One who can heal us.
It’s wonderful to find this first instance of gospel smack-dab in the middle of healing, teaching, and messy joy: “The Savior went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.”Jesus the Healer went out to make human beings just like us well, and Jesus the Teacher helped tired, inflexible people like us understand his kind-hearted, good-news curriculum. I can picture the joyousness following Jesus as he shared his gospel — people wanted to be near him. I can also imagine the happy shouts from those once crippled. Years ago in Atlanta watching the Passion Play, I saw Christ heal a little boy who couldn’t walk, and immediately after, the healed child leapt about the stage crying out, “I can walk! I can walk! Look, everyone! I can walk!”
That’s the gospel — Christ’s joyful, healing friendship. Anyone who has been hurt or has known any kind of ill health, grief, sin, or brokenness needs this “good (gód)news (spell).” Gódspel is how Anglo-Saxons expressed Latin’s bona adnuntiatio (“good announcement”), a translation of Greek’s εὐάγγελος, reminding us that evangel means “bringing good news.”
In this definition of gospel there’s no mention of my judging others, only a declaration of joy that comes from being forgiven and loved unconditionally. The Oxford English Dictionary also defines gospel jubilantly:“‘The glad tidings (of the kingdom of God)’ announced to the world by Jesus Christ. Hence, the body of religious doctrine taught by Christ and His apostles.”
The castle on the island of Lindisfarne.
Why, then, as a Christian, am I not always so cheerful? Award-winning novelist and nonfiction author Vinita Hampton Wright shares wisdom about our up-and-down souls:
Spiritual growth guarantees imbalance of all sorts. One day you’ll have faith, the next you’ll feel covered in doubt. One day you will see God, the next day you’ll doubt that God exists. This is called pilgrimage. It’s also called growth. People who do not experience ups and downs and who do not struggle with life on a regular basis are not balanced; they are more likely stagnant. (The Soul Tells a Storyp. 221)
Reading Wright reminded me that Christ came to bring us abundant life (John 10:10). She invites a rediscovery of his joy in our lives and says it’s powerfully connected with exercising God’s gifts to us — whether writing, teaching, studying, being kind to another, loving a four-legged friend, listening, building bridges, or doing any other thing in love. She finds this joy in the New Testament discussion of spiritual gifts, pointing out how Paul frequently uses the Greek charism, inseparable from the notion of joy; charism (“gift”), chara (“joy”), charis (“grace”), and eucharistia (“giving thanks”) all sharing the Greek root, char-, with the mutual sense of well-being.
Wright also asks a valuable question to all who want to make more soul room for Christ’s friendship: “Think back . . . to what you loved as a child. What gave you joy before anyone told you what you should be doing or liking?” (25)
Scripture has always offered me gladness. Even when life’s signature strong winds blow, dwelling on its truth is like being ensconced in a monastic cell with the tide coming in, creating an inner Holy Island that nourishes my soul with joy from God’s deep, sweet-tasting wisdom:
Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you. Isaiah 12:6
I will sing and make music to the LORD. Psalm 27:6
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13
I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. John 16:22
Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. John 16:24
May Christ’s kindness comfort us all today, and bless us in discovering and using our gifts.
For more on The Lindisfarne Gospels, see here and here.
To see the initial page of the Gospel of St. Matthew in The Lindisfarne Gospels, click here for an enlarged image. See also this image gallery.
For more on charism and joy, see Stanley B. Marrow’s Paul: His Letters and His Theology (Paulist Press, 1986), 150-151. Also, Vinita Hampton Wright’s Facebook page shows her own sagacious sense of humor; on June 6, 2014, there’s a poster with a quote by Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho: “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It is lethal.” You can also read about her English walking adventure.
Carmen Acevedo Butcher is a professor of English and scholar-in-residence at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. She was the Carnegie Foundation professor of the year for Georgia in 2006, and during the 2004-2005 year she and her family lived and learned in Seoul, South Korea, while she taught as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at Sogang University. She has written books on medieval women mystics and linguistics. More information can be found on these at her website. (Photo credit: Katherine Butcher.)
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