We can make our lives sublime. And departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time.
For the fifth time in as many years the sacred Isle of Iona has tugged at my heartstrings, reeling me in with its magic, mystique and monastic simplicity.
It was here that I started my pilgrimage on 7 July 2011, the date honouring the memory of a remarkable silver-haired woman known simply as Peace Pilgrim, who walked tirelessly for 28 years, vowing to “remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until given shelter and fasting until given food.”
Penniless and walking her talk without any organisational backing, she touched the lives of countless thousands of people before dying instantly in a car accident 30 years earlier on 7 July, while being driven to a talk she was to give. She was 72 and had described death as “liberation into a freer life”.
She’d believed that a pilgrim’s job was to rouse people from apathy and make them think, insisting: “Love is the greatest power on Earth. It conquers all things.”
And somehow Iona seemed the perfect starting point for my own walk, having been synonymous with pilgrimage for centuries since the Irish monk Saint Columba arrived in CE 563, bringing Christianity to Scotland.
My daughters Bonnie and Tammy had chosen to be with me for the start of this life-changing day as I shouldered my heavy pack; paused to pose with them in front of Iona Abbey and then strode purposefully to the ferry. The plan was to hitch a ride across to the vastly bigger Island of Mull, and then begin stepping it out towards the mainland of Scotland.
Of course, a true pilgrim of old would travel without money, relying on the kindness of strangers, I explained, adding that if I were to attempt my quest without funds, the ferry crossing would be the first major hurdle. Guess what? While waiting at the slipway we struck up a conversation with a friendly local, who announced: “You seem such nice people – would you like some ferry tickets? I have a book of tickets that’s due to expire today.”
More than a year and many millions of footsteps later I was back where I’d last hugged my daughters in an emotional farewell, and I vividly recalled their words of encouragement: “Dad, what you are doing brings knowledge, love and light to a great cause, the beloved Earth.
“Have fun, be brave and remember that you don’t have to suffer, freeze or go hungry to spread your message. Spread your message in true happiness.”
Now I’d linked the spiritual centres of Findhorn, Glastonbury and Iona with my footsteps, and done so during the wettest weather in England in more than a century. Often I’d ignored their sensible advice about not needing to suffer. Perhaps the lowest point was when tired and sodden, I’d lain in a muddy field, awaking with a start each time a slug crawled across my face. In the days that followed I suffered severe and debilitating asthma attacks. What was I doing and was I really making a difference?
One question brought a smile to my lips: If I was treading lightly and lovingly upon the Earth, why did my feet hurt so much?
A few drops went into the flower arrangement in the retreat house’s meditation sanctuary, some on the Wishing Stone on neighbouring Erraid where I’d photographed my daughters and silently committed to my walk, with much of the remainder later being sprinkled generously at both Findhorn venues: Cluny Hill and The Park.
Fast-forward to March 2015 and I was again back on Iona, this time for a writing retreat, accompanied by my friend Amala. A wonderful week stretched ahead of us with the tantalising prospect of filling it in whatever ways we desired, be it writing, exploring, reading or simply relaxing.
Of course, getting there wasn’t as simple as you might imagine, Mother Nature concocting a fiendish mixture of ferocious winds, wild seas and snow, sleet and horizontal rain that prevented the ferry from attempting the mile and a quarter stretch of ocean that separates it from Mull.
There is a brooding sense of history and of occasion that so many pilgrims have noted, the poet John Keats describing his tramp across Mull as “a most wretched walk,” while the journey’s end astounded him.
“Who would expect to find the ruins of a fine Cathedral church, of cloisters, colleges, monasteries and nunneries in so remote an island,” he asked.
It remains a place of marvel to modern-day tourists and pilgrims who invariably spend a day of travel that includes three ferry crossings and the adventure of motoring along single-track roads where the etiquette involves pulling into lay-bys and allowing oncoming vehicles the right of passage.
For Amala and I it was a precious gift. For a week we managed without Internet and emails, left our phones switched off and connected instead with the rhythms of nature, observing the tides and the movements of the sun, moon and stars.
As a former motoring journalist who enjoyed an unlimited choice of new vehicles, I smiled at the image of us taking turns to haul a cart carrying our supplies. Sure, there is a lone taxi on the island, but there’s something deeply satisfying about sustainable human-powered propulsion.
Stormy weather gave way to warm sunshine and the caress of a gentle breeze, inviting us to take a day out and explore the island, which is roughly 3.8 miles long and 1.2 miles wide. A four-hour hike allowed us to traverse Iona’s length and end up at Columba Bay where we walked a labyrinth and picnicked on a rocky outcrop with the waves breaking alongside us. Was this potentially treacherous spot really where St Columba landed more 1,400 years earlier?
It offers a quiet and dynamic space to explore our inner landscapes and roles in global service.