I’ve been blessed by this invitation to guest-blog at A Sacred Journey and share some of my thoughts and reflections on pilgrimage and Iona. Today’s post is the last of my three-part series as the “Pilgrim in Residence.” In this piece, I share what I have sifted down as the essential impetus for going on pilgrimage, but a value that can only be confronted upon returning home. We leave searching for something great and beyond ourselves. We return to find that much of what we had left in search for, is found just beyond our doorsteps when we engage and live on behalf of something other than ourselves.
I invite you to read, and reflect with me on the gift that pilgrimage both brings about for our souls as well for the greater communities all around us.
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It has been a joyful opportunity to share with the Sacred Journey community a bit about my pilgrimages to Iona, Scotland and further reflections on the Arrival stage of pilgrimage. It always blesses and challenges me to see not just these trips as sacred, but every day of our life. Click on the image below to read further about what you can do to create an intention around your life’s journey and preparing for the place of your heart’s arrival!
The Sacred Island of Iona is riddled with fables, legends and lore. Around every bend you encounter places that are linked to a history deeper than our own and stories that reverberate with both the whisking wind and the beat of angels wings. While we came here keenly aware of the mysteries that shroud this island, our time on Iona was strengthened by opportunities to pull apart the veiled sacred sagas and see behind the curtain the very real people and relationships that have curated all that Iona is known for today. From our geology lecture and field study, to tours of the Abbey and Staffa Island, this intimate isle grew up and out of its misty myths into a very real place. A place that is governed by the same laws of nature as my residential address: indeed, my feet, under the authority of gravity, stayed on the ground here on Iona in the exact same ways they do at home. And the people here, they grocery shop and eat too; it isn’t all miraculous maritime mana dotting the countryside perpetually available to the sacred souls musing about.
No, this is a real place. A harsh, isolated place. A place where in the winters one could go mad for a spot of sun. But it has also always been a place for which people have longed. A place where pious pilgrims prevailed, and where nobles and kings are entombed. It is a place of heart-aching beauty that has inspired the very real people behind the legends to come here and be about something greater than, and beyond, themselves.
And so it was with George Fielden MacLeod, Baron MacLeod of Fuinary, a Scottish soldier and radical reverend who believed the ruined medieval Abbey stones cried out to him to rebuild their resplendence. While this man’s eulogy is the stuff from which tales are told, in 1938 he was a young captain emerging from World War I with a profound sense of God and a disillusioned notion of politics. His awareness for social justice was as real as the grit and grime he saw daily on the faces of the unemployed in Govan. But what is indeed legendary about this man was that he responded to the visions of a restored Iona Abbey, and a transformed church that would reconcile people and denominations from all over the world, a church that would become the Iona Community.
This clarified sense of Rev. MacLeod and the beginning’s of the Iona Community was offered to us by means of theater and a fantastic troupe from Cutting Edge Theatre Productions. Within the Iona Village Hall, we were given the gift of insight to the conditions that created the context of the rebuilding of the Abbey. We laughed at the well written jokes and jests between volunteer men, present to this dream despite their social class dichotomies. We were cut to the quick with the very real stories that occurred on this soil so that we could be afforded the luxury of comfortably lighting a candle in the sacred beauty of the Iona Abbey.
Written by Alistair Rutherford, “An Island Between Heaven and Earth” presents the story of George MacLeod’s dream to transform stones into splendor and to reform the Church of Scotland in the doing so. And, it worked! His maverick methods caused many to question the social norms of the time and to work towards ecumenism and social justice. To this day, the Iona Community continues to provide resources and relevant assistance to global issues of inequality and justice, while also providing a place to where people can gather in community, learn together and participate in worship.
This play provided the perfect reminder that when we come upon sacred sites and pilgrimage places, it is because something not only fabled and fanciful occurred, but something very real happened there. And most likely something very hard-the kind of hard that pushes back on the status quo and demands something different. The kind of real and the kind of hard that are flanked with reconciliation and transformation. George MacLeod called Iona a “thin place”, with only “a tissue paper separating heaven and earth.” I can’t help but believe that this kind of place occurs when the visions for what it means to live on earth come into alignment with what living is like on the other side. Now, this is the stuff of legends that I want to surround myself!
Bravo, Cutting Edge Theatre Productions, bravo!
Bless to us, O God,
The earth beneath our feet,
Bless to us, O God,
The path whereon we go,
Bless to us, O God,
The people whom we meet.
Based on an old prayer from the Outer Hebrides
The pilgrimage around Iona visits places of sacred significance and historical importance on the island. There are 18 sites in all and can take nearly all day to get to each one. Our group broke the pilgrimage up in a few days-hitting the Abbey’s specific spots while we did our tour and hiking up Dun I on a quiet afternoon-so that we could enjoy the heft of the hiking down to the south end of the island to really spend some meaningful time at St. Columba’s Bay and enjoy the reflections at holy sites along the way.
I watched our band of pilgrims prayerfully hike the path that Columba, his followers and 1450 years of seekers have sojourned. While not adorned in the medieval garb of the traditional pilgrim (full length tunics, broad rimmed hats, staffs and satchels), their water proof pants and jackets, knit caps and thick ankled hiking boots carried the seeker-spirit of modern day pilgrims on this Sacred Isle. While not barefoot, our blistered, bone-tired and boot-sore feet carried us over sacred pebbled beaches and peaty bogs. We jumped and leapt from rock to rock, attempting to keep out of the muck, as we made our way to the 17th century remains of the Iona Marble Company’s marble quarry, a site that demands acknowledgment of humanity’s exploitive behaviors and pleads for a change in global values and lifestyles.
Scripture verses that speak of Christ as our rock became more than just metaphor as we discovered that we very much needed the consistent presence of the rocks to keep our feet out of the mire. This island journey was clearly emphasizing and highlighting Celtic and pilgrim-ways of seeing. Without the physicality of the outside world to underscore these Biblical truths, these Christian metaphors would be weak words and flimsy fables.
The early Celtic church had a fundamental belief in the revelatory nature of the created world. Every tree, blade of grass, and wild gooses cry was imbued with the Spirit of God and spoke to the character of the Creator. These “theophanies” –God showings—were expected and sought after as a way to understand the sacred mysteries. The ninth century Irish teacher, John Scotus Eriugena believed that God was the ‘Life Force” within all things, “…therefore every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany” (John Scotus Eriugena, Periphyseon-The Division of Nature, 749D). All of the created world upholds something of the essence of the Creator. Eriugena also taught that there are two primary ways in which the sacred is revealed–the Bible and creation: “Through the letters of Scripture and the species of creature…” mysteries of God are revealed.
The historical significance of Iona was underscored as we hiked this island pilgrimage; sacred sites emphasized how very near the works of God are all around us. We were also reminded that we walk the pilgrim path together; we are not alone as we seek God’s guidance in our lives. The road is filled with pilgrims who are seeking after inspiration and transformation, seekers who long for and are called by the saints who have gone before us. And, as a mutual company, we are challenged to live forward in ways that bring about restoration to others and our earth.
A fundamental aspect of pilgrimage is to engage the local culture of a site. It is paramount to experience with your senses the place where you are. This means intentionally involving the sight, sound, smell, savor and sensations of a place. It is advisable to not just find a McDonald’s or Starbucks when you are hungry or thirsty, but seek after local cuisine and appreciate it for the expanding understanding it gives you for a locale. It means taking out the earbuds and listening for the unique melodies that are native to a particular place; this could be the sounds of the sea, regional birdsong, or the lilt of a distinct accent. And it is certainly seeing the sights that enhance the definition of a place.
When one comes this far away to Iona, it is always recommended to try to get off and away for a boat tour to Staffa Island. Staffa Island is renowned for many features, one being its unique basalt columns; similar rock formations can be found in Northern Ireland’s Giant Causeway, which, between the two, legends of giants and hurling stones have emerged and been told for generations. This is also the summer breeding ground for the Atlantic Puffin, a clown-like looking bird that comes ashore to lay eggs in the island’s thrushy and rocky outcroppings. And lastly, there is the celebrated Fingal’s Cave, a notable cavern renowned for its unique structure, incredible acoustics and naturally formed rock walk way along the side of the of cave. It is here that Mendelssohn received the inspiration for the “Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave}” that continues to provide the world a stirring reminder of this natural wonder of the world.
Our little group was very grateful to the elements for aligning, and to Gordon Grant Marine’s crew who delightfully navigated our boat, so that we could pull up alongside the small docking area and disembark. It was an absolute delight to walk up, down and around this small Hebridean island, watching the puffins swoop and swoon over their nests, and even be able to make our way far into the reaches of Fingal’s Cave.
“…one of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld. It exceeded, in my mind, every description I had heard of it …composed entirely of basaltic pillars as high as the roof of a cathedral, and running deep into the rock, eternally swept by a deep and swelling sea, and paved, as it were, with ruddy marble, baffles all description.”
–Sir Walter Scott
It is in the spirit of Quest that we walk towards an answer, a hope, an ache, towards healing, while on a pilgrimage. It is the desire to seek and find. While we are walking, while we are looking for the answer, creates a constant state of expectancy, which raises our spirits and lessens much of the “normal” stress or fatigue of everyday life.
The Pilgrim’s Path requires you to look at all exchanges, all events, all emotional reactions with fresh eyes; always looking for the divine to show up, expecting a synchronicity, expecting an answer. We must stay aware. The stranger is often such a deliverer of the divine response. We see this pilgrimage possibility as early as the book of Genesis, in which Abraham and Sarah greet three strangers in the desert, who actually turn out to be angels. But Abraham and Sarah are unaware of this sacred presence; they are simply practicing an ancient law of the desert, honored among the nomadic peoples of the Near East, which required that if a stranger appeared at your tent, you were to welcome them, and share your food, drink and shelter. In the searing heat of the desert, the law of hospitality was a matter of human survival. It is still practiced among the Bedouins today and seen along the Pilgrim’s Path, even here on Iona. It is a way of extending yourself to Other, acknowledging the ever-present possibility of the Divine showing up and the sacramental sharing of a meal or a moment of time.
As a way of attuning our eyes and ears to the possibility of angels and answers, our group is using the following “mirror of questions” to center in on the God-given value of each day. This is in line with the Jesuit tradition’s of The Examen, which was believed to be a method to seek and find God in all things and to gain the freedom to let God’s will be done on earth. Honing in on the daily experience is a way of discerning the movement of the Spirit in our lives; in this critical accounting, there is revealed answers for authentic expressions and guidance to personal quests and conflicts.
At the End of the Day: A Mirror of Questions
What dreams did I create last night?
Where did my eyes linger today?
Where was I blind?
Where was I hurt without anyone noticing? What did I learn today?
What did I read?
What new thoughts visited me?
What differences did I notice in those closest to me? Whom did I neglect?
Where did I neglect myself?
What did I begin today that might endure?
How were my conversations?
What did I begin today that might endure?
How were my conversations?
What did I do today for the poor and the excluded?
Did I remember the dead today?
Where could I have exposed myself to the risk of something different?
Where did I allow myself to receive love?
With whom today did I feel the most myself?
What reached me today? How deep did it imprint?
Who saw me today?
What visitations had I from the past and from the future?
What did I avoid today?
From the evidence, why was I given this day?
-From John O’Donohue’s Benedictus, A Book of Blessings