Iona: Getting There Well

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The journey itself to Iona makes this place unique; it is long, quite complicated and even relatively uncomfortable for the urbanite who is accustomed to quick and easy travel. This distance provides the perfect pilgrimage process, for it truly requires a removal of oneself from all that is familiar and supplies a lengthy trek-full of obstacles, no doubt! Once there, one finds a sparsely populated island, with almost no cars and a large abbey, whose structure appears to have dropped from the heavens onto this topographically small and relatively insignificant place.

 

Sheep outnumber the residents and the sunlight plays on the hillsides in the most magical ways. One senses almost immediately Iona is indeed a “thin space” – that brushing up against the Divine is inevitable.

It takes time to get to Iona. To start your pilgrimage preparations, think about the itinerary in two parts: TRAVEL TO OBAN and OBAN TO IONA

By Train

 

Trains travel regularly from Edinburgh (Waverley Station) and Glasgow (Queen Street Station) to Oban. This spectacular journey (one of the top rail rides in the world!) takes approximately four hours and the train terminal in Oban is next to the ferry terminal for the Isle of Mull.

Rail Enquiries:
Tel: 08457 484950.
Scotrail (Trains)www.scotrail.co.uk

By Bus

Buses depart from Edinburgh (St. Andrew Square) and Glasgow (Buchanan Street Station) and go directly to the Station Road stop in Oban. The route takes approximately four hours-make sure to pack a snack!

Bus Enquiries:
Tel: 08705 505050 or visit www.travelinescotland.com
Scottish Citylink (Coaches)www.citylink.co.uk

 

About

By Car

From Edinburgh take the M9 to Stirling, then the A84/A85 to Oban.
From Glasgow take the A82 up the side of Loch Lomond to Crianlarich, then the A85 to Oban.
If you are travelling from the north of Scotland the A82 will take you from Inverness to Fort William, then take the A828 to Oban.

Disabled Passengers

For assistance on the railway ring Scotrail (Tel: 0845 605 7021).

 

Recommended accommodations for your overnight in this seaside town

Oban Youth Hostel

www.syha.org.uk/hostels/highlands/oban.aspx

Harbour View Guest House

A lovely and affordable B&B in Oban within walking distance from the train and ferry.

Dilys McDougall at dilysmcdougall@aol.com

Tel: 011-44-1631-563-462
Harbour View
Shore Street
Oban, Argyll
PA34 4LQ

Ferry Service to Mull

 

The ferry from Oban to Craignure on Mull takes forty minutes. Walk on passengers should arrive within an hours time of departure, and make sure to give yourself time to pick up a fresh seafood sandwich at a local fish monger booth near the ferry-delicious! Cars need to check in at least thirty minutes before departure and advanced tickets is strongly recommended during the summer season and public holidays.

Ferry enquiries: contact the ferry operators Caledonian MacBrayne (Tel: 08705 650000) or visit their website www.calmac.co.uk

Across Mull

Tour buses will pick up passengers in a lot just off of the ferry departure area and bring them to the ferry terminal at Fionnphort; these bus times generally coincide with the Mull and Iona ferries. There is a sweet little gift shop and restroom facilities to visit-if there is time before the bus departs!

 

About

 

It takes approximately one hour to drive across the Ross of Mull from Craignure to Fionnphort, where the ferry leaves for Iona. Visitors cars are NOT allowed on Iona, but there is free car parking at the Columba Centre in Fionnphort, minutes from the ferry terminal.

For bus enquiries: Tel: 01631 566809 or visit www.bowmanstours.co.uk orwww.travelinescotland.com or Tel: 01546 604695 or Email: public.transport@argyll-bute.gov.uk

 

Ferry to Iona

The bus will drop you off at Fionnphort. There is a ten minute passenger (walk-on only) ferry that crosses the Sound of Mull landing at the pier in the village of Iona. In the Winter some ferries need to be reserved the day before travel.

Telephone the CalMac Craignure office on: 01680 612343 or visit www.calmac.co.uk/destinations/iona.htm

Disabled Passengers

For assistance on the ferry ring your departure terminal: CalMac Oban (Tel: 01631 566688) or Craignure (Tel: 01680 612343).

You have arrived to Iona, the place that has called to you! Savor your arrival.

 

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Iona Pentecost Pilgrimage-The Pilgrim’s Path: Its All About the Eyes (May 9-10)

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I’m well on my way and so far, all of my connections have been seamless.  The seven hour flight to Iceland’s Reykjavik is a drowsy memory mixed with some knitting, a book on labyrinths and a bit of the Lord of the Rings.  Customs went on a bit longer due to me forgetting to have a printed copy of our lodging on Iona.  (NOTE: do bring printed copies of all reservations in your carry on bags.  The hope to bring up the email accommodation confirmation on your phone at the customs desk will be thwarted.)  I got a bit of local currently (Scotland uses the GSP) and headed outside to Stand One to board the City Center bus to Queen Street Station.  While I made that connection with five minutes to spare, I fear I peeved off the driver with my large bills.  Had I time to get a coffee and break a 20 note, I would have.  However, making that bus so to make the 12:20 train to Oban was a priority.  He grumbled at me as he handed me change and I quickly sat down, out of his rear-view mirror eyesight, wanting to blend into the fabric of the bus’ seats and Scottish people.

The quick drive into Glasgow reminds me of magic time travel.  While in the industrial outskirts of the Glasgow airport, you could be almost anywhere in the modern world.  Grey anonymous boxes housing industry and ribbons of smoky highway weave together to create a rather uninspiring landscape.  However, soon the drab right angles begin to boast of ancient terraces and sacred spires.  Downtown Glasgow rises steeply on either side of narrow streets, beauty and awe etched into the classical architecture.  The bus driver tells us when to alight for Queen Street Station, and once again, I am within a 15 minute window of the train’s departure.  I have time to get a latte and then its boarding time.  This transition always makes me smile; people rush the platform to board this multi-coach train and Scottish brogues and humor abound.  Men are calling strangers mates and clapping each other on the back, telling stories that are taller and taller tales of days gone by.  All eyes seem to twinkle on this train and I caught my fair share, which always feels like a priceless gift.  To me, these are souls on the lookout, and oft are the ones to ensure that me and my bags are exactly where we should be.

It’s the eyes that are important-both the lifting of our own to gaze at the green-washed landscape that whips past the train’s windows, and the willingness to meet the eyes of others.  Even in this romanticized countryside, everyone has their devices at which they constantly paw, sucked into the technological, social media vortex that offers them connection with people worlds away, but stunts awareness of the soul within reach.  We have all heard the saying that the “eyes are the window to the soul” but I’ve also recently come across a belief that the eyes are the icon of God.  When we gaze into the eyes of another being, we discover an essence of the eternal. There is something of the Ancient of Days within the design and movement of our eyes and it is something, that when pairs of them unpresumptiously connect, we become deliverers of grace, one to another.

A fundamental way of travel for the pilgrim is to be open to engaging others.  The pilgrim’s posture is one of openness and receptiveness-open to the opportunity for conversation and receptiveness to the gifts that a place or a person may give.  There is nothing that is happenchance or coincidence any longer.  Moments are charged with meaning; it is the pilgrim’s charge to have the ears to hear and the eyes to see these opportunities of blessing.

While on the train from Glasgow to Oban I sat near two English men with accents as thick as marmalade.  Their humor and laughter filled the cabin and fellow passengers soaked up their smiles as their own.  We caught eyes and I chatted with them a bit but fatique cajoled me to put my head against the window and close my eyes to sleep.  However, I could hear their crowing cadances through my weariness and it warmed my soul.  I felt safe and content on this train filled with such joy and laughter.

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This morning in Oban, the seafood capitol of Scotland, as I awaited for a couple hours to pass before boarding the ferry to Craignure, I happened upon these same two men on a seaside sidewalk.  We exchanged morning greetings and I was offered gifts of Rollos and a quirky postcard of a golden eagle.  And then, in a spontaneous moment, Graham-with Spanish-soil skin and sea blue eyes, invited the three of us to get a pot of coffee together.  Had I hesitated and recalled all the little souvinier shopping I wanted to accomplish, I would have quickly and graciously denied the offer.  However, I decidedly chose the pilgrim’s path and spoke up with a simple yes and off we were to find a place to share time and stories.

3 cups of coffee

It soon became evident that these men were more than just jokes and jests.  They were in Oban for an annual international gathering for AA (Alcoholics Anonymous); dinners and dancing, caring and sharing were on the agenda for their weekend retreat.  Our synergy gave way to me sampling a bit of what these two are truly about and why this weekend is so meaningful to them.  Over the warm steam emerging from our cups, stories were told of the Spirit and sobriety.  Graham told of a bright beam of light that bore into his heart the day he was in a hospital bed-given 24 hours to live due to his system failing because of alcoholism.  He was watching the news with reports of Michael Jackson just dying and in that moment, cried out to God to help save him.  That light, that moment, infused him and Graham hasn’t had a drink since.  Five years of sober living have given him grace and peace and a way of living that inhabits every moment and allows for a contagious abundance of joy.  His eyes twinkled with mindfulness while the deep grooves in his face spoke to sorrows innumerable.  His journey paralleled aspects of pilgrimage and we quickly were aware of our shared spirituality and belief in God, who guides and provides.

Dan-O, Graham’s boisterous travel companion, was full of one-liners and what between his accent and tendency towards tall tales, I didn’t know what end was up with his stories.  This, however, seems to be this one’s modus operandi and it maintained the laughter throughout what would’ve been a conversation marked with goosebumps and tears.  Dan-O’s story of addiction landed him as an overweight, bearded vagabond with self-defecated pants, wandering the beaches near the southern reaches of England.  With a soul knowledge that he was at his lowest, darkest point in life, he waded into the sea and let out a primordial scream; this ancient cry was one of complete surrender.  He stayed in the water, allowing the grace-filled waves to wash his pants, and his soul.  He hasn’t had a drink in seven years.

This time together ended with three souls connected, encouraged and recreated.  I could have spent those two hours shopping for material items to bring home that would have lost value over time.  Instead, mindful of the way a pilgrim is encouraged to journey, I was invited to engage an even greater gift.  The gift of conversation, authentic stories and friendship.  And I am reminded that this sort of relational adventure needn’t be reserved for overseas pilgrimage treks.  There are people in my own home-city who are desperate for connection and a sense of community.  If I embrace the challenge to live as a pilgrim everyday, perhaps I will be all the more willing to lift my eyes and engage those of another, and in so doing, being present to the very eyes of God.

The Pilgrim’s Path: Surprise in the Similar

I’ve been walking in our neighborhood’s woods for years now.  What started out as hopeful curiosity in a forest behind our house, led me down a path towards becoming a Forest Steward- trained in local flora and fauna, urban forest restoration and community activism. I wanted a trail upon which to walk my dog; I found homeless encampments.  I wanted a place in which to refresh and recreate; I found prostitution base camps.  I wanted a place in which to be quiet and still; I found needles and sex toys.  The sacred place I wanted didn’t even seem like a possibile hope; the English Ivy and Himalayan Blackberry covered the promise of this land with its dark invasiveness.

In 2007 we commenced our commitment to hosting monthly volunteer work parties for our neighborhood.  We believed that the fear, filth and felonious behaviors could be combatted to reveal the great gift Earth is always offering us: LIFE!  In the context of these first-Saturday-of-the-month gatherings, we began the slow, inglorious effort of hand removing the ivy and blackberry.  We became master garbage collectors and bore witness to the very real social tensions of encampments being told [repeatedly] to vacate.  We became versed in our City’s shelter programs and at which pier personal affects can be collected.  We canvassed the neighborhood looking for support and interest in changing something that was into something unimaginably better.  We were committed to the long-term work of restoration and transformation.  We wanted to transform this urban soil into a sanctuary.

The work of bringing down heaven to earth is no easy task.  And it always takes time…and a lot of it.  This is the epic work of pilgrimages and journeys, deserts and dreams.  There is always such fanfare and exhilaration when one picks up the walking stick and marks, and crosses into, the beginning of the journey.  The vision of the destination is so clear, so lucid–it seems you could just reach across a short breadth of time and realize every desired detail.  But soon you find your arm is tired from being extended for so long…for so very long.  Your hand clutches that walking stick with a deepened sense of understanding that this stick is with you to uphold and offer stability when the road gets longer, instead of shorter.  For sacred destinations always require time and long processes; the meaningful meanderings are necessary to bring you to that place where you are able to see and hear with a clarity that simply doesn’t exist at the beginning.

We have hosted over 75 work parties in our 10 acre parcel of urban forest in the last six years.  We have painstakingly picked up invasive plants and planted more than 1500 trees and shrubs.  We have written for and received grants to fund an urban forest trail system to connect neighbors and neighborhoods.  I have sat in Council members chambers in City Hall sharing our story of forest transformation and restoration.  The heaven that I thought was just one-shovel full away has taking me years to begin to see.  I have leaned on that shovel-and on the arms and hearts of committed neighbors and friends-in fatigue and frustration, wanting so badly to be done and to realize the destination for which I had set out for…so very long ago.

I long for free social weekends and open evenings not requiring correspondance with local organizations. …And then I have to make the choice–the choice we all have to make on our journeys.  When we have been on the road for a bit of time, the enchantments and sparkles of roadside attractions become great.  They call for us to stop, rest and even consider them a favored substitute over the sacred destination.  We can choose this…or we can look to the “imaginative, active encounter with the place” (P. Cousineau).  At this point in the journey, we must look all the harder and request for a renewed power of vision.

I went up into the woods this week and came across a beautiful, seemingly-spontaneously-built, road side alter of rock, wood and fern at the trail head into the woods.  I was startled and stunned by its presence.  Everything about its quiet appearance shouted reminders to me of what these woods once held.  For at one time-at this very spot, I had uncovered over 200 hypodermic needles…and now there was just this free, intentional, beauty.  This organic gathering was a blessed statement of how far along the journey we had come to seeing this forest as a place of community refreshment, a place of collective comfort.  We certainly aren’t there yet–the destination is still a long way off.  But the meaning that is being collected along the whole long way is going to make this little piece of heaven one helluva place!