The Isle of Iona, off the northwest coast of Scotland, has attracted pilgrims for more than two millennia. It is a place, as described by George MacLeod, where the veil between heaven and earth is very thin. This wind swept island with its thirteenth century abbey and nunnery and rich history of Celtic Christianity embodies the sacredness and oneness of all creation in ways that are overpowering, deeply personal and communal. Today, it is a vibrant center of renewal attracting visitors and pilgrims from around the world who come to experience the beauty and wildness, the solitude and community, and inexplicable and inextricable presence of God in all creation.
Responding to the invitation of Bexley Hall and Seabury Western Seminaries to join in a week-long pilgrimage to Iona, a group of laity and clergy travelled together by air and land and sea to reach this remote island in the Hebrides off the western coast. We stayed at the St. Columba Hotel with fabulous views of the sea and surrounding islands and the ancient abbey next door which has been restored and houses year round members of the Iona Community headquartered in Glasgow.
Under the able leadership of John Philip Newell, renowned Celtic theologian, scholar, poet, liturgist, and former warden of the Iona Community, we explored the theme of “A New Harmony: the Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul.” His wife, Ali, for many years a spiritual director and now a campus minister at the University of Edinburgh, joined us and led us in learning music from the Celtic tradition and movement to ground us in body and spirit.
Our time together each day was marked by times of silent prayer in the St. Michael Chapel in the early morning and early evening where we sat in candlelight to keep watch and listen for the new harmony within and beyond ourselves. Then we gathered for meals in the hotel dining room where our group met for breakfast and dinner, and much conversation and storytelling and laughter as we shared our daily experiences and food prepared from the local gardens and pastures on the island by a fabulous chef and staff. Morning and evening prayer services within the soaring walls of the abbey were filled with worshippers from the island, the MacLeod Center, and our small hotel named to honor St. Columba who arrived on these shores in the sixth century. Most days, we heard presentations by John Philip Newell and engaged in quiet reflection and discussion in small groups in the morning and late afternoon. During lunchtimes and early afternoons we could explore the island, take walks, stroll through the gardens and the village, visit historic sites, and even take naps.
On Wednesday all of us participated in a pilgrimage over the island that was led by John Philip. With packed lunches, rain gear, and colorful layers of clothing, we trudged as a motley crew along gravel roads and dirt paths, through pastures dotted with sheep, and over rocky hills with beautiful vistas of land and sea and the heavens filled with shifting clouds and rainbows that seem to bless our journey. We stopped for meditation and prayer and Celtic chants on the bay where Columba and his monks arrived; at the cross of St. Martin erected in the eight century; at the Augustinian nunnery ruins for which no written record remains and was built at about the same time as the Benedictine monastery; at the chapel of St. Oran that is the oldest building on the island and named after the first Columban monk to die; and the Hermit’s Cell, now only a secluded ring of stones said to mark the place where Columba sought refuge from the busyness of life. The pilgrimage was an experience of affirming the oneness of all things, how matter and spirit truly matter, and how we yearn for the true harmony that is at the heart of all creation.
Drawing on sources from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, John Philip helped us to explore and reflect upon the essential harmony of all things; the brokenness of the harmony in ourselves, church life, the human community, and the planet itself; and the rebirth of the essential harmony that may be reborn in new and radical ways. We were challenged to “bring into relationship what has been broken, to have the courage to feel the brokenness; and to move into transformative action.” He reminded us that the future of hope has not been decided and that we may have a part in shaping it. We reflected on the resources available to us, what gifts we have to give, and the deepest treasures that we have to bring for the healing of the world.
At our closing celebration on the beach with the sun shining in full glory, the wind blowing, the sky and the sea as blue as ever, we chanted “The blessings of heaven, the blessings of earth, the blessings of sea and of sky. On those we love this day and on every human family the gifts of heaven, the gifts of earth, the gifts of sea and of sky.” John Philip reminded us more than once that we are asked to take up the cross, to remember that we come from the One who is our true center, that the way is one of love, that we are called to make whole and holy all of creation, to bear the cost of this moment in time.
Robert E. Reber
October 3, 2012