Monthly Archives: April 2016

Iona: Reflections

There  is something, subtle yet undeniable, about this place. It is often described as a ‘thin place’, where the boundary between Earth and Heaven is less concrete. But it is certainly a place where there is no boundary at all between Creation and the Sacred. Ican clearly sense that here, and I hope to carry it with me as I travel onward. 

Iona is a Quiet Place as well: physically quiet, with the absence of traffic, crowds, advertisements and television. Yet also a quiet place in relationships: people are respectful, compassionate, and considerate — rather than demanding, judgemental, and selfish. 

Iona is a place of Peace. Even though nature seems ready to reclaim the entire island at every turn, and the wind ruckuses, the snow swirls, and the surf pounds. The rocks, the 2 billion year old basalt and the softer green marble, still stand along the steadfast stones of the ruins. The determined hairy cows, the blithe sheep, and the endlessly playful lambs are all at home here.

There is something to be said for that: a place of Home. A place of Safety. Not necessarily a place to return to,but surely a place that prepares one to depart on the onward journey. A place of foundation. A place of new beginnings.

Iona: (Dis) Comforts

iona is a small island, 1 mile by 3 miles, in the Inner Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland. There is nothing between Iona and the North Atlantic. There is nothing between Iona and the Norh Pole, either.

Tuesday the wind blew, all day long and all night long, in excess of 32 mph. There were whitecaps on the sound from one side to the other. The ferry, a converted Landing Craft (Tank), wallowed from side to side in the swell, with its flat bottom. I felt for the craft master in his Sisyphean task.

We attend a service of Silent Prayer before breakfast each day, in a chapel at the Abbey. This, too, is U heated. We can see the fog of our breath, if our eyes are open. Even with the door closed, the wind howls over the roof.

The sheep, and their many lambs, know how to find shelter from this onslaught. They find safe places, in the uneven terrain of the pastures, and in the lee of stony ruins.

The daffodils, those sturdy souls, bend a little but their sunny faces remain upright, despite the flattening gusts, constant in their optimism.

Your heaviest fleece is not too heavy. Too many layers are not too many. Rain pants are not superfluous. Neither hat, not gloves, nor scarf is extraneous.

Iona: Arrival

For me, the essence of pilgrimage is struggle; it may be internal or external — or some combination thereof — but there is some difficulty undertaken.

Even with modern conveniences of travel, the journey to Iona is a lengthy one. From Glasgow, it is three hours by occasional train up to Oban. Then an hour by large ferry across to the Isle of Mull, an hour by bus across Mull, and ten minutes by small ferry over to Iona. From the ferry landing it is a quarter mile walk up to our hotel (St. Columba). I am chilled to the bone — with temperatures in the mid-40’s and winds above 25 mph — and the warmth of the hotel is immensely comforting.

Our group of pilgrims on retreat assembles: out of 26, there are 3 Canadians, 1 Australian, 1 Brit, and the rest Americans. North Carolina is well represented, as is the Pacific Northwest, but there are others also. Several are making repeat visits.

We gather and commence introductions: who, whence, why. I struggle with formulating a response to why? Others offer responses that have some resonance for me but don’t quite touch the center. Finally I settle on, “Needing to learn how to listen to the Sacred.” Then we conclude the day with Evening Prayer, incorporating this chant, and I am pierced.

Let me hear, let me hear

The words that You speak

When I turn to you in my heart

En Route to Iona, Scotland 

Travel is a privilege and a blessing. These are the months of travail for refugees fleeing the horrors of war in Syria. We heard, in Sunday’s sermon, of the equally horrific plight of youth in El Salvador, where one is forced into sex-slavery or soldiering on pain of death by the drug gangs. So to travel in safety is a great privilege.

When I walk the Jakobswege in Europe, it is the intentional unknown that makes me vulnerable, that opens a crack for encounter with the Divine. This year’s journey is different- offering community, which can be vulnerability of a different kind. But for me intentional vulnerability is still a key for the Divine.

On the flight over, I watched the film The Martian and I was struck by the forms and strength of community this astronaut experienced. In the initial disaster, of course the astronaut feels his loneliness and the loss of community. But his crew mates also feel the diminishment of community, as does the NASA staff — in fact the whole world mourns. With each step of re-established communication, the sense of community connection is restored a little bit more. Until, in the final measure, he is physically retrieved and fully restored to community. We are shown that communication leads to connection, and connection leads to community. But that is not the only element. There is also a mutual sense of belonging; this particular individual belongs to this ship’s crew, this organization’s staff, this planet’s people. He feels it, and they feel it. And each feels a mutual accountability; this makes a bond they all feel.

Pilgrim Blessing: Iona

This year’s journey on the Way of Saint James/Jakobsweg/Via Jacobi/Chemin St Jacques/Camino Santiago has become instead a pilgrimage to Iona, in Scotland. As many of you know, a pilgrim follows the call, wherever it leads. And this year it leads to the Iona Community, where we will be attending a weeklong retreat with John Phillip Newell, a well-known scholar of Celtic spirituality. I have been reading his books for years, and when this opportunity arose, it seemed the right call to answer. Another year, I will return to the long walks.

This is not a solitary pilgrimage. I am traveling in community, with a group from my parish, Grace Episcopal Church. Some of us are veterans, some are new to the parish, some are friends yet to be made. Just like any other pilgrim band.

At our send-off, we received this blessing. It’s a good one for any pilgrim setting off.

You call us, God, to leave familiar things and to leave our “comfort zone”.

May you who travel from Grace on pilgrimage to Scotland open your eyes to new experiences, may you open your ears to hear God speaking to you, and may you open your hearts to God’s love.

May you experience the freedom to wander, the freedom to hope and the freedom to love as you journey.

May God the Father who created you, guide your footsteps.
May God the Son who redeemed you, share your journey.
May God the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you, lead you on life’s pilgrimage.
And the blessing of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be with you wherever you may go. Amen.