Pilgrimage to Iona, 2015
Late afternoon on the 16th of May 2015 saw a small group of pilgrims from our parishes crossing the Sound of Iona
on an evocative journey.
The waters’ swell, the squall and a shiny grey glimpse of a seal’s head set the mood as we sailed through the opaque rain towards the sight that drew the eye of every soul aboard
the ancient Abbey of St Columba, noble and defiant,
beckoning from what appeared to be a green beach stretching placidly down to the sea.
Columba arrived here in 563 A.D. Though the abbey was built over many hundreds of years, one thing connects you directly with Columba – St Martin’s Cross, a beautiful Celtic cross erected by Columba on the site of his prospective abbey, still standing in its original seat, miraculously unweathered, its design clear as though freshly carved. It dominates the entrance to the Abbey, as though Columba himself is greeting you, declaring boldly what this place stands for.
Adjacent to the Abbey is an ancient chapel obscurely dedicated to St Oran, which keeps vigil over an ancient burial ground for the Kings of Scotland. Through the low grass, you can see the cobbles of the former ‘Road of the Dead’ by which they were brought to rest in this conspicuously holy site.
Most breathtaking of all is the situation – right by the sea, with the Sound of Iona rushing constantly past like a gigantic wild river, from which the jagged shore and high mountains of Mull rear up to frame the abbey, which seems to have been there as long as the sea and mountains themselves. It draws your gaze repeatedly, for mere humanity cannot comprehend such beauty.
The abbey church, having fallen into disrepair after the Reformation, was restored in the late 19th Century by the Duke of Argyll who, with great enlightenment for his day, left it (along with the whole island) to the Scottish nation, to be a non-denominational church for all Christians. His vision was taken up in the 1930s by a Church of Scotland minister, George MacLeod, who rebuilt the remaining ruins with a workforce of unemployed Glaswegian labourers and newly ordained clergymen, who rode out the Great Depression learning from each other how to worship and work. From that fellowship sprung the remarkable Iona Community. It remains an ecumenical community (also now international), its style of worship different from any denomination, yet strangely it makes everyone feel at home. It seeks to revive the distinctive theology of Celtic Christianity, which St Columba knew and which was the norm in northern Britain until the Synod of Whitby in 664.
Celtic Christianity is marked by its sense of mystery, its simplicity, its equality (men & women, clergy & laity), and its sense of wholeness of creation. These lead to some distinctive ideas: the idea that God is to be found in nature as well as scripture, the interconnectedness of all things and the idea that work is part of our worship. This is expressed in its art, notably the Celtic knots which interweave beautifully on the ancient Crosses and it’s chosen metaphor for the Holy Spirit – the wild goose (symbol of the Iona Community). But it is also expressed in the Iona Community’s way of living and worshipping. It is deeply committed to equality and justice. Daily prayer begins with a call to ‘continue to worship’ and ends standing in order to continue worshipping through our work. As guests of the abbey, we were given a share in their daily work, usually washing or cleaning, which we performed as joyfully as we could!
The experience was not always comfortable. The living quarters were relatively basic. The community’s sessions on justice and peace were challenging and sometimes controversial. Many of us couldn’t agree with their conclusions, but were nonetheless challenged by the issues raised. The weather was cold and windy, yet exhilarating. The worship required our attention to oscillate continually between the beauty of God’s creation and the ways in which our sin has marred it, compelling us to both worship and action. That discomfort is itself part of Celtic spiritually and Iona surely and steadily wove its unique spell on us all.
We went on pilgrimage around the Island, taken first to the Island’s only cross-roads, adjacent to a mysteriously shaped hill where Columba was said to pray by night. “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16). We reflected on the choosing of paths and leading of the Holy Spirit. We went on to Columba’s Bay, where he first landed, climbed a hill and, having satisfied himself that he could no longer see his Irish homeland, moved on with tears in his eyes, to bring the joy of the Gospel to the whole of northern Britain. Here we too left things behind, symbolised by throwing a pebble into the sea and moved on to where God would lead us. We paused at the Machair, the link between land and sea, where green grass grows on the fertile pure-white sand, distinctive of Iona, which colours the sea turquoise. We reflected on God’s abundant provision, and the sharing of it. We rose to Iona’s highest point, where we surveyed a vast landscape (physically and spiritually) and walked on to the ruins of a small hermitage, where we sat in silent contemplation, alone yet never alone. Iona is, as George MacLeod said, “a thin place where only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual”.
Our trip also took us to the Isle of Staffa, famous for its basalt columns (the twin of Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway), for Fingal’s Cave and for its puffin colony. And it brought us into new fellowship. Our fellow guests included lone travellers and parish groups from around the world whose paths converged here at the end of the earth. Strangers at the start of the week, we were one community by the end of it – it took real effort to remember who had been of our original party and who had not. Our parting at the end of the week was sad and joyful. Iona seems to do this. It is a remote cross-roads of the world, where people meet as strangers and depart as brothers & sisters, where people come looking for peace and go home looking for justice, where people look for the ancient paths and find a new and good way for their feet. As you return across the Sound, the receding Abbey seems to bestow a little of Iona into your soul to take home, and cries through the wind, in some ancient, forgotten tongue, “haste ye back”!