That man is little to be envied whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.
Life is a pilgrimage – and where better to renew pilgrim vows and set fresh intentions than on the sacred Isle of Iona.
For many centuries this Hebridean island has attracted travellers in search of healing, renewal and a deeper connection with the divine, countless thousands following in the footsteps of Irish monk and missionary Saint Columba who arrived in 563 CE, bringing Christianity to Scotland.
It is a place steeped in history, bathed in blood and according to some legends is the final resting place for 48 Scottish kings including Duncan and Macbeth of Shakespearean fame. “If I be destined to die in Iona, it were a merciful leavetaking,” an abbot reportedly declared in the 600s. “I know not under the blue sky a better little spot for death.”
Sheep outnumber humans here, at least during the winter months. Today Iona is home to some 175 permanent residents who live simply, being largely sustained by more than 120,000 annual visitors from around the world who make a pilgrimage to a place that continues to inspire writers, poets, philosophers, musicians and artists. And like pilgrims of old they all arrive by boat, continuing their journey on foot.
It was here on 7 July 2011 that I started my own pivotal personal journey, vowing to walk the equivalent of the circumference of the world with messages about treading more lightly and lovingly upon the Earth.Now, nearly five years and 12,500 miles (20,000km) later, I’ve stopped counting the steps, although I recognise each one as a blessing given and received, each step taking me further along a path of inspiration, discovery and insights.
Again and again I’ve felt a compulsion to return to the island, and on this occasion I stayed at the Traigh Bhan retreat house that was gifted to the Findhorn Foundation more than 40 years ago. It serves community members and guests as an oasis of peace and renewal, also forming an important link in a network of light that seeks to shine love, caring and prayers out into an often troubled world.
I used this time to prepare for a Traigh Bhan retreat entitled the Art of Pilgrimage that I’ll co-focalise with my friend Adelle Horler between 28 May and 4 June. We’ll host up to six guests.
For me it has been an ideal spot to disconnect from wifi and mobile phones and slow life down to the time-honoured pace of our ancestors, walking everywhere and enjoying simplified daily routines.Highlights included the Sunday service in Iona Abbey and some gentle solo walks. Mostly it was about being rather than doing, especially during quiet meditations in Traigh Bhan’s sanctuary where I was aware of the flickering of the candle, the whisper of the breeze, waves gently breaking on the nearby shore and the sounds of lambs bleating. It’s spring and there’s new life everywhere.
On past visits I’ve often been inward-focused but this time I made it my mission to learn more about the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian fellowship of men and women dedicated to justice, peace and upholding the integrity of creation.
I joined the gentle Pilgrimage walk that starts every Tuesday outside Iona Abbey at St Martin’s Cross. The cross has stood rooted here for over 1,200 years, surviving Viking raids, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the industrial revolution and world wars. It engenders a sense of timelessness.
Hosting the walk was Rosie Magee, a feisty and fun-loving Presbyterian minister from the north of Ireland, who helped lead a group of 13 of us. We walked slowly, stopping often for reflection, song and prayer.I was especially moved by our visit to the ruins of the Nunnery that was founded around the same time as the abbey and flourished for almost 400 years. And yet what do we know about these religious women, Rosie questioned. “We have no information about them, where they came from, what their names were?
“It tends to be those in power who write history,” she observed.
Significantly in a male-dominated world the abbey has undergone major restoration work and will be closed again for fresh refurbishments in September 2017. Perhaps it is appropriate that the Nunnery is left as an evocative ruin.
One imagines that the nuns’ pattern of daily life would have been very similar to that of the monks: eating their meals together, worshipping in the chapel and going about their everyday tasks. But we know next to nothing about them.
Here at this crumbling reminder of the often unsung role of women, we were invited to remember women of faith and those whose names never made the history books, as well as the countless contemporary women who shape the world through their service.“Let us remember the women who have shaped our own lives by their example. If you wish, speak any of these names aloud now, so that these nunnery walls may once again reverberate with the energy of women who have served God.”
Someone called out “Mother Mary,” while I added “Sister Theresa” and then the names of my own daughters Bonnie and Tammy, who I’d photographed in these same ruins five years earlier.
As modern-day pilgrims we were encouraged to open ourselves to each other and to fresh ideas.
Pausing at Martyr’s Bay we pondered an event in 806 when 68 monks were reportedly murdered by Viking invaders, while a recent nearby memorial reminded us of those local islanders killed during WW1. The invitation was to consider the victims of violence everywhere and especially the current plight of refugees.
At Iona’s only crossroads, which is a minor intersection between a single-track road and an unsurfaced track, the invitation was to consider the crossroads in our own lives where our decisions may take us down new and unfamiliar paths.
Reaching the beach that is the furthest point from the Abbey during the walk, we reflected on Columba’s journey away from the safety of the known and considered the turning points in our own lives.Before heading homeward we were invited to pick up two stones, the first symbolic of that which we wish to let go off – something we need to leave behind. “We cast this rock into the sea and turn and without looking back, pick up a second stone as a sign of a new direction or commitment that we move towards.”
Often I choose to write words in the sand that I wish to release, like fear, guilt or judgement, allowing the incoming waves to wash them away. On this day the sea was so calm that I accepted the invitation to hurl a stone, the splash symbolising a letting go of self-induced busyness.
Picking up a second stone I decided that it will remind me to be more present and to practice deep inner listening. After all, it is in the silence that mystics report hearing that small, still voice of God, or have flashes of intuition and access those whispers of inner knowing.
I decided to ask better questions like “Is this who I am?” and “What would love do now?” My vow is to talk less and listen more.