Iona had been calling me for a long time. This tiny island, the last bit of land before the great Atlantic, is at the end of the earth. Ireland is 40 miles to the south but other than that the only thing west of Iona is the vast unknown. It is serious work to get there: fly to Edinburgh, take a train to Oban, then a ferry to Mull, cross Mull on a one-way road in a bus and then one more ferry ride to Iona, walk to the Abbey and you finally arrived. Why would anyone feel the need to go to such a remote place? Why would this tiny island call me?
The story goes that St. Columba got in a bit of an argument over the Psalms at his Irish monastery so he was banished to Iona and built a monastery there in 563 and thus credited for bringing Christianity to Scotland. The monastery thrived and the Book of Kells was written on the island. It became a major pilgrimage site and great honor to be buried on the island. The first major Celtic crosses stood in front of the Abbey and the remaining pieces are in the museum. But there is a power to this place that seems otherworldly. It is often said that “the veils are thin” on Iona and it is easier and quicker to reach heaven if buried on the island. Many years ago I read that it is an “Atlantis Priestess Portal”, I can’t remember where I read that but I never forgot that description. I can’t say for sure what the power is–history, geography, geology, myth– or what this island means to other pilgrims in the past but what I can say is that I had one truly perfect day on earth on Iona.
I didn’t go to Iona on my 2009 trip to Scotland, I knew that time wasn’t right. On this trip it was the final destination that all the holy sites on the way prepared me for. It was raining and foggy on the one-way road across Mull and the traffic was very heavy. I couldn’t see the landscape and felt like I was in a cocoon in the very slow moving bus. Every few hundred feet we had to pull over and wait for an oncoming vehicle. We finally arrived at the parking lot and I got my suitcase and walked through the rain down to the ferry and across the waves onto the ramp; no tourist cars are allowed on the island. I got to the hotel and settled in and then had a group tour of the Abbey. It is plain but it is hallowed ground. I visited the museum and took a walk. As I walked the path to the ocean I had the same overwhelming feeling of joy that I had on the Camino. Three black sheep grazing by the road added to my happiness.
That first evening after supper, most of the group went to the service in the Abbey. The Iona Community, which is dedicated to social justice, conducted a beautiful ecumenical service with singing and sharing of bread. Coffee and dessert in the hotel lounge with my dear friends ended my first partial day on Iona.
All day a song that I had in my iTunes had been going round my head, Cantique de Jean Racine by Faure. The words are in Latin so I looked up the translation, I felt there was a message. “O Christ look with favor upon your faithful people now gathered to praise you”. In my excitement to visit these holy sites and have experiences I forgot the true goal of pilgrimage—-devotion. I was on Iona not for my benefit but to give my devotion to the Divine. I was on this holy isle to sing praises and give thanks for life. I listened to the song over and over, soaking in the beautiful melody and important message.
I had been watching the weather all week hoping that we would have a sunny day on our full day on the island and my prayers were answered. I woke to bright morning sun and the sound of mooing. I walked out to find a herd of “hairy coos”–highland cattle in the nearby barnyard. The baby came running to greet me but was kept at bay by a long-horned mother with gruff voice. I promised her I wouldn’t touch, just admire. After breakfast the hikers in the group met at the ruins of the nunnery to walk across the island to St. Columba Bay. We had a few moment to enjoy this place of worship where stones stacked by man and meadows provided by Mother Nature come together to make the perfect chapel.
After obtaining a few snacks our little group started the walk. The sparkling sun, green meadows, charming animals and the chatter of dear friends made the world even brighter and more vivid. How about the ram with such curly horns that they looked like he had spectacles on. Or my personal favorite, white fluffy lambs frolicking on yellow-flower meadows—ahhhh, it was almost too much to bear. Every step was like walking in a dream. Down the final hill was a beautiful, turquoise bay. The beach is a thick pile of perfectly smooth rocks and down by the water are innumerable green marble stones polished by billions of waves for millions of years. I was surprised we could walk back to the hotel with the weight of all our treasured stones which are said to give protection.
I went over to walk the near by labyrinth and had a bit of an encounter with the head cow as we were walking in open pasture. Apparently I was on her path and she told me in no uncertain terms to get the hell out of her way. Big bossy cows not behind a fence are not to be trifled with and I quickly obeyed.
Then lunch and a bit of retail therapy—that didn’t take long for there are only a few shops. I decided I needed more time in the Abbey to wander alone. I sat in a stream of sunlight and listened to the theme song of my visit on my iPod and soaked in the glory. It isn’t a fancy Abbey but the history and devotion of 1500 years makes it a powerful place. I sat in front of the stone crosses in the museum and thought about all the pilgrims before me and those to come.
After supper I went to the Abbey for the evening service. I was the only one in the group to go but I felt called to be in the Abbey as much as possible. I was greeted by the shadow of the cross on the stone wall of St Columba’s tiny chapel and then made my way inside and found a seat in the Choir. The service was more traditional with just a handful of participants. That was fine with me because I love traditional liturgy. I know it was a time of devotion but the service was absolutely devised by the Divine for my perfect joyful day on Iona. First there was a cosmic joke—the young Englishman leading the service was wearing a bright green tee shirt that said “Dollywood Tennessee” I kid you not!! Dollywood is just up the road from my home and I have been there many times.
The first song, one I knew well, reminded me of my dad. He was a very spiritual man and would have loved my pilgrimage. A few Bible readings and then another song. This time the hymn tune was St. Columba. Wait, that is my favorite tune—I’ve played it on the piano hundreds of times—I didn’t know that was the name. I play that song like a chant. There I was singing new words to my most loved hymn, St. Columba was already a part of my life. A few more Bible verses and then the closing song. The veil between heaven and earth was nonexistent as I sang the final tune as a two-part round “All praise to thee my God this Night for all the blessing for the Light”. I knew all the words by heart. “Praise God from whom all Blessing flow, Praise him all Creatures here below”. A perfect reminder of the message of devotion from the day before. My voice echoed against the ancient stones and I held my hand to my heart in pure joy.
I joined my friends for our final coffee and dessert to share our experiences of the day as the sun set for the short night on this tiny island outpost in the north Atlantic. It was a magic day—not of big experiences but of subtle joys of our beautiful world, meaningful songs, sun and water, friends and history all bathed in the light of the Divine.
The Dove and the Stone by Alice O. Howell
Christ of the Celts, The Healing of Creation J. Philip Newell