Reporting from a Scottish Island
This past June, I travelled again to Iona, a small island off the western coast of Scotland. It was my third time there, but this time I was joined by 14 companions as well as my dear old friend Tricia Brennan who was co-leader with me of a 7 day retreat.
The journey to Iona is a long one. Air travel from the US, arriving in Glasgow, then a train, a ferry, a bus ride across Mull on a single track road with plenty of sheep, and then another short ferry ride. I arrived a couple of days before the group, hoping to revisit old haunts, get over my jet lag, and spend some time in preparations for the retreat.
A bus in the ditch in Mull made that leg of the journey “interesting.” The city bus I was on pulled over, tour buses halted in disarray, and travellers walked up and down the road, while local police tried to put things to right. All in all, tempers remained civil and after a delay, we arrived at last at the ferry terminal. We learned to our great delight that they had “held” the small ferry to Iona and we were able to cross over, after all. I arrived in the only rain and mist I was to experience in nearly 3 weeks in Scotland, the rest of the weather sunny, warm and dry.
All of our travellers arrived, right on schedule, from the US and we settled into our cosy hotel. Our days soon fell into a rhythm, starting with a full Scottish breakfast, then morning worship at the old Abbey just a few steps up the hill, led by the ecumenical Iona Community.
We would then meet for a Morning Gathering, beginning with meditation, prayer and a song. We spent the morning learning together—the story of how Iona was founded in 563 by an Irish monk named Columba who left his native Ireland in some kind of self-imposed exile (scholars differ on exactly what happened), how the Celtic Christian tradition developed and changed, how Iona’s monks were sent out into the British Isles to bring learning, art, literacy and healing as well as the good news of the gospel.
We explored age-old contemplative practices like lectio divina and centering prayer. We spent time in silence. We spent time listening to one another.
One morning we walked to the ancient Augustinian nunnery where for 300 years women had worked, healed, cooked, prayed and lived in community together. We each chose an art form we liked—watercolors or writing, movement or photography—and spent an hour or so in a “mini solo,” sinking into the quiet of the old nunnery, letting the birds and the wind and the silence speak to us.
On another day, we walked around the island on a traditional pilgrimage route developed years ago by Iona Community members. With our wonderful local guide, Jana McLellan, we stopped at different iconic spots along the way. At each stop, she would tell us a story, teach us a song, lead us in prayer. We learned about the monastery founded by St. Columba in 563, saw the hill where it is said he liked to sit and write, copying over old texts. We saw Martyr’s Bay where the Vikings invaded and slaughtered monks.
We stopped at the Hill of the Angels where it was said Columba would go when he wanted to be alone. One day, Columba was discovered by a monk who had come to spy on him. Columba scolded him so fiercely that from then on, he was left on his own when he needed to go to the hill and get away. We saw a white horse similar to the one that Columba loved. When it came time for Columba to die, it is said, he travelled around the little holy island with his white horse, saying goodbye to each spot that he loved.
At last, we came to St. Columba’s Bay, the place where Columba is supposed to have landed after setting off from the north coast of Ireland in a small currach, praying to God that the tides and wind would carry him where God wanted him to go.
Jana showed us how to look for the special green marble, the Iona “green stone” as it is called, and for an hour, we ate our picnic lunches and then hunted for the lovely green stones, finding a few little ones that we could slip into our luggage and carry home.
In the afternoons, we had free time. We explored the island, alone or in pairs or small groups, finding hiking trails, scrambling up hills, resting on white beaches, photographing wild flowers, dipping into chapels or the museum with high stone crosses.
Often, the only sound was the wind, the shush of the water on the sand, the song of a bird. Slowly, as day after day went by, we let the peace and beauty of this lovely place sink into us, show us down. Wind and water, sand and ancient rock, the healing power of Iona made itself known.