Searching for the desert in the Scillies

There's a good reason why humans are not allowed on Annet... two of the present residents swimming offshore

There’s a good reason why humans are not allowed on Annet… two of the present residents swimming offshore

The Scilly Isles has a large number of deserted islands and rocky outcrops, each of which have their own history… Nornour, in the Eastern isles, was only recently discovered to have housed an important Roman shrine on the way from Gaul to Ireland; Samson was populated until the middle of the nineteenth century; and islands such as Annet now house important seabird colonies.But there were a number of others, which lay close to St Martin’s, that particularly fascinated Jen and myself.

One of these, White Island, lay tantalisingly opposite our lunch spot on our final full day. Seals bobbed around in the sheltered channel, entertainingly curious. I was sure that the map showed that a bar across to the island would appear at low tide but while we were there the sea remained a barrier.

White Island from St. Martin's

White Island from St. Martin’s

We left after lunch, but the lure of exploring a deserted island proved too strong and I persuaded Jen that we should try to cross. By this time another young couple (sorry, a couple who were themselves young) arrived, peered at the sea, and then trod across carefully, trying not to slip from the rocks into any unseen gullies.

So we followed, removing boots and socks, and gingerly waded in… not, in my case, very elegantly… but having learned from the other two we picked our way across without getting too deep. Ten minutes later we looked back and saw that the shingle bar was almost clear of the water… had we waited we’d have crossed with little drama.

White Island at low tide

White Island at low tide: no longer an island

Yet there was still the excitement of being on an uninhabited island, knowing that if we stayed on more than about three hours, we’d be stranded until the next low tide. We were experiencing the allure of the desert… more than a millenium ago, this drew Christian hermits to these islands – and specifically to two that lay a short distance further west.

St Helen's - the home of St Elidius around the 7th century, as seen from White Island

The island at top left is St Helen’s, the home of St Elidius around the 7th century – as seen from White Island

Fifteen hundred years agothese two (St Helen’s and Teän) would have been tidal islands – much as White Island is now. The name St Helen’s is a corruption of St Elidius, the name of a 7th or 8th century hermit about whom little is known, except that he was reputed to be the son of a British king and a bishop. His cell is still visible on the island, as are the mediaeval buildings connected with the monastery on Tresco. In 1461 Pope Pius II granted an indulgence to “the faithful who go in great numbers to the Chapel of St Elidius” [ref] which, whatever the pre-Reformation tone, indicates the great significance of the site locally.

Neighbouring St Helen’s is Teän, a name more obviously derived from ‘Theona’, a female hermit from the same era, about whom even less is known than Elidius. Her influence also seems to have inspired a monastic community that survived for centuries. In the 1950s, an archaeological investigation discovered sixteen Christian graves. One belonged to an elderly lady, who may (because of the location of her grave under the altar of the mediaeval chapel on the island) have been Theona herself.

Teän and St. Helen's - homes to the hermits St Theona and St Elidius - with Round Island Lighthouse in the distance

Teän and St. Helen’s – homes to the hermits St Theona and St Elidius – with Round Island Lighthouse in the distance; viewed from St Martin’s

Like St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne (and later, even more remotely, on Inner Farne), these Celtic saints were heading for the British equivalent of the desert. They were following in the footsteps of Antony the Great towards the end of the fourth century, and the thousands who followed him, in subsequent centuries, into the Egyptian desert. Their purpose was to become holy by battling demons, and to intercede for others in spiritual warfare.

This view of what it is to live a holy life seems alien to us in the 21st century, used as we are to comfortable western lifestyles. But perhaps the island mystics had a better insight into Biblical spirituality than we do today: after all, John the Baptist spent his life in the desert eating locusts and wild honey (Matt 3), and Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and nights specifically to be tested by the devil (Matt 4).

I’m fascinated by St Elidius and St Theona – about whom so little is known except what has been found archaeologically, but who represent a deep strand of Celtic spirituality about which we ourselves have very little understanding.

Hearing an uncomfortable voice

Some time ago, an affluent young man heard a Gospel reading which galvanised his life: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”. He heard this as a call to abandon everything and head into the desert, to battle with demons in striving to live a more holy and Christ-centred life.

The year was around 370, and for the next 80 years Antony lived in isolated cells, fighting intense spiritual battles with the demonic realm. Lonely this may have been – but it so inspired Christians over the next few centuries that, at times, there were thousands of solitary monks doing battle in their desert cells. It is the same struggle for sanctification that led Cuthbert to the windswept Farne Islands, and Irish monks to isolation on the Skelligs, those rocky outposts in the Atlantic.

Anthony in the desert, confronted with a path littered with gold.

Anthony in the desert, confronted with a path littered with gold. (Original here)

Early on he had an intense struggle with lust, or as he described it, the ‘spirit of fornication’; later on Antony’s spiritual enemy took on bodily form, and it was as if he had to fight wild beasts. Lest we think that this was just a selfish battle, the ethos of the desert movement was that the personal war for holiness was essential for learning to love one’s neigbour better.

The immensely readable ‘Life of Antony’, written by his near-contemporary Athanasius, highlights what it was that drew people to follow his example. After a period of twenty years, during which he remained confined to his desert cell, seeing almost no-one, a crowd came to visit and forcibly removed the door to his cell.

…When he saw the crowd, he was not annoyed, any more than he was elated at being embraced by so many people. He maintained utter equilibrium, like one guided by reason and steadfast in that which accords with nature. Through him the Lord healed many of those present who suffered from bodily ailments; others he purged of demons, and to Antony he gave grace of speech. Thus he consoled many who mourned, and others hostile to each other he reconciled in friendship, urging everyone in the world to love nothing above the love of Christ. And when he spoke and urged many to keep in mind the future goods and the affection in which we are held by God, who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, he persuaded many to take up the solitary life.

His influence was such that Greek philosophers also came to see him, despite his own lack of education – but they too were confounded. He challenged them as to why they were seeking him: “If you came to a foolish man, your toil is superfluous, but if you consider me wise, become as I am, because we must imitate what is good”.

Other Greek philosophers also sought him. To them he said,

For this too is a wonder: Your religion was never persecuted, and in every city it is honoured among men, and yet our doctrines flourish and increase beyond yours. Your views perish, although acclaimed and celebrated far and wide. But the faith and teaching of Christ, ridiculed by you and persecuted frequently by rulers, has filled the world.

There is so much in Antony’s life that seems alien to a western mindset – but perhaps it is we who are missing out. We have scant idea of what it is to battle with demons – we do well if we even recognise that there is a ‘spirit of fornication’! – yet neither do we know what it is to be persecuted.

In the western church there is an over-emphasis on a ‘bless me!’ spirituality. Thus there are strong Christians who are disappointed with God, because he appears not to be blessing them as they were led to expect. Antony, and the desert fathers who followed him, recognised that a big part of our call as believers is to live more sanctified and holy lives, and would have been baffled by the thought that we should wait around to be blessed. If we grasped this part of their teaching, we would be less disturbed by God not delivering when we expect him to. Perhaps also we would better understand the faith of believers in the persecuted church today, who for the love of the Gospel willingly give up the comfort of their lives knowing full well that their faith may lead to their death.

Antony’s life was lived in a world in which the Christian faith suffered wave after wave of persecution. For us in the west – and me as I write it – this background, and this story, is scary. However, the cost of our comfortable western lives may be that our spirituality is greatly impoverished. We need to hear again that Christ’s call is not just to receive his love, but to live lives of greater holiness.