MUCH OF OUR CHRISTMAS celebration and its customs is interwoven with our country’s pagan past. The Holly and the Ivy imitate the fecund art of the Celts, the celebration of the coming of light in the mid-winter darkness cannot shake off the shadows of Saturnalia and Yule.

Yet the ‘dark ages’ did have lights of Christ in their own generation. The English, Welsh and Scottish Churches are founded on the witness of men and women who straddled the old and new; the pagan world-view and the kingdom of God.

Most left no written work; few had their lives and deeds recorded but many have their memory marked on the landscape in a place name, the site of a shrine or church. Few have so dramatic testimony as the square ruins of Crowland Abbey whose roofless nave dwarfs the aisle, which is now the parish church. Rising now above the peat-black soil of the fens it marks the place of prayer, a thin place where heaven and earth met, in the hermitage of Guthlac.

Guthlac arrived there in around 690 to colonise an island in the heavily wooded region cut off by marsh and river. He set up his oratory in the tunnel left by grave robbers who had robbed the grave barrow which stood on that place.

Fe1ix the monk of Jarrow tells us this in his Life of Guthlac written within thirty years of Guthlac’s death.

Guthlac’s business was war. As a young nobleman from the border kingdom of Mercia he had led his own war band. In the depths of night, in a dream, his conscience felt the weight of his own wickedness and violence from afar. In the morning he vowed to turn to Christ and become His soldier. So it was, after a period as a monk at Repton he came to Crowland.

Felix’s account of Guthlac’s arrival and early years are remarkable. He describes how Guthlac, wishing to take on the forces of evil in single combat comes near to madness – ranting and raving at God, cursing Him for this darkness and pain.

It is the communion of Saints that comes to Guthlac’s rescue. St Bartholomew comes to console him. His loneliness in prayer leads him to a deep sense of the reality of the cloud of witnesses and the company of heaven.

The story of Guthlac is one of heroic struggle; of the necessity to “fight against sin;. the world, and the devil”. It is a reminder of the need to put on the “armour of light”. In Christ’s strength Guthlac won a great victory; his hermitage became a place of counsel for bishops and kings; it marked a new colonisation of the fens; his island became a new Eden where he talked to the birds and fed fish from his hands,

Crowland Abbey stands as a sign post to our generation.; it points to the command of Christ to take up the cross; the power of prayer; and the great truth that holiness is possible even in a world where darkness shrouds the light.

Andy Hawes is Vicar of Edenham with Witham on the Hill in the diocese of Lincoln and Warden of Edenham Regional House.