following The Way to Iona


Iona Abbey

My Dear One,


I believe in the life-shaping power of pilgrimage.

This week’s WayPost is a bit different than usual.

We are going on an online mini-pilgrimage together,

following The Way to the sacred isle of Iona.


Maybe it’s the place. Maybe it’s the people. It’s probably both.


I’d known about Iona for years. My mom visited there several years back. I was familiar with the music composed in the community by John Bell and its central place at the heart of Celtic Christianity. But three years ago when it came time to discern where our high school youth group should make pilgrimage to, my colleagues and friends Bri, Julie and I gathered and looked over several options. Each place held significant religious and cultural history: Taize in France, Rome and Assisi in Italy, Machu Picchu in Peru. Any one of those trips would have changed the lives of everyone who went. But one place spoke in unison to each of our spirits before we even communicated it to one another: Scotland. And it was clear a trip to Scotland meant a pilgrimage to the isle of Iona on the west coast of the country.


Iona beckoned.

Bri, Julie, Kevin and me

The Arrival

After a year of planning and preparation, and with fantastic support from our two congregations, the three of us and a fourth friend, Kevin, boarded an airplane with 16 teenagers, some of whom had never flown or even left the state of Texas before.

We landed in Edinburgh and headed straight … away from Iona, to the east, just across the border into England to another island, the isle of Lindisfarne, with its own rich religious history deeply connected to Iona’s. It was there we began to sink into a new sense of place, aided by the most amazing hosts in Sam and Don, stewards of the glorious gift of Marygate House. Lindisfarne was a wonderful place of entryway into what was to come - with its beautiful abbey ruins to remind us of all that had come before, its wonderful active parish which immersed us in all that continues, its stores and coffeeshops which allowed us to begin to joyfully explore our new surroundings, all made replete with a hike out to the island’s mysterious castle. Lindisfarne inspired a sense of awe and exploration that proved so very important to opening the souls of our young people to the presence of God’s Spirit in this space: previously unknown yet inexplicably comfortable - to the point of familiarity. We could have happily stayed on Lindisfarne the entire ten days of our pilgrimage.


But Iona beckoned.


Pictures from Edinburgh and Lindisfarne


The Passage

Following Lindisfarne, we made a quick stop in Glasgow before beginning our middle journey. If Lindisfarne was our entryway, hiking the West Highland Way was our passageway. The three days we spent navigating this trek along the bonny banks of Loch Lomond through Trossachs National Park were perhaps the least religiously significant on the surface. Yet it was there that we overcame serious obstacles and bonded as a group. The hike was grueling, much more difficult than we had anticipated, with rain, rough terrain and a scourge of midges - something of a cross between a gnat and a most insidious form of torture. If a pilgrimage requires effort and sacrifice, the West Highland Way served us well. And yet the beauty of the loch and the glory of the fern-covered hills made me expect to come across a hobbit around every bend. It was a magical place. And, except for the midges, we could have stayed there the rest of our time.


But Iona beckoned.


Pictures from the West Highland Way


Slaying the Dragon

So we boarded a train, which took us to a ferry, which took us to the Isle of Mull, where we were to catch a bus that would take us to another ferry that would take us to Iona. Iona isn’t a place you just happen to come across. If anyone is to make the journey there, it must be with great intention and planning.


Yet, despite all our planning, I was unprepared when I went to purchase 20 tickets for the bus ride and was told by the only grumpy, inhospitable person we met in all of Scotland that they only took cash. He yelled at us to either board or move away. This man served a useful purpose in our journey as well. He came to represent to me our pilgrimage’s proverbial “dragon,” the one who must be slayed, breathing fire and meanness. This far into our journey, most of us had spent the cash we’d brought and there wasn’t enough between us all for the fare. I inquired about the nearest cash machine and was pointed to the sole store in this small crossroads of Craignure. There a very kind lady informed me that the only cash machine she was aware of on the entire island was an hour bus ride to the north, in the village of Tobermory, again away from Iona which was an hour south. It was there, in picturesque Tobermory, through a combination of a maxed out ATM withdrawal and the kind postmistress who exchanged a bit of U.S. currency I still had for pounds, that I finally secured enough bus fare for the group that awaited my return in the rain at the bus stop back in Craignure.


But there was still a serious problem. The only bus that would take me back to them left in an hour and a half. It would not get me there in time to make the last bus that would get us on the last ferry that would get us to Iona. If I couldn’t make it to them in time, where would we stay? Had we come all this way only to miss our chance to visit Iona? With no lodging to be found, could we find enough hospitality to ensure we didn’t sleep outside in the rain that night?


I prayed, asking God to show me a way back to my group in time. At that moment my eyes fastened onto a van across the road. Though it bore no markings of any kind, something told me to go to it. I walked up and hesitantly knocked on the door. The driver of the van rolled down his window.


“Can I help you?” he asked.


I cautiously offered my plea: “Yes, um, I know this is a bit crazy to ask, but I’m needing a ride to Craignure and I can’t wait for the next bus. Is there any way you might be able to help me?”


“Well, I wasn’t planning to go that far today as it’s getting late. But I might be able to, I just need to go pick up one man and take him to his house first. Climb in.”


My random vehicle happened to actually be a taxi service! Thank you, Lord.


“Why do you need to get to Craignure so fast?”


“I’m trying to make it to Iona. I’m actually a part of a large group and we…”


“Oh!,” he interrupted, “You are the one with all the kids from America who are stuck needing cash for the bus!”


I was dumbfounded. Had news of my idiocy spread so quickly across the island that I was now the laughingstock of the entire citizenry of Mull? Would they be chuckling about my poor planning for years to come, remembering the fool who got a group of kids almost all the way from Texas to Iona but couldn’t quite make it?


“Yes, that’s me. But, how did you know?”


“Your friends down there have been asking around and every taxi service on the island has been contacted to see if we can help but none of us have vehicles large enough to get your group all the way to Fionnphort [the village with the ferry to Iona]. But it would be my pleasure to get you back to Craignure.”


With my deepest thanks and as much tip as I could spare to offer (which he refused to accept), he brought me back in plenty of time for us all to catch the final bus that would make the hour-long drive to catch the final ferry to Iona.


I walked up to the bus driver, a different man and a different bus, and offered him my fare.

“I owe you an apology,” he said. “I don’t know what was the matter with the other driver. If it had been me, I would have let you all on the bus and given you a ride to Fionnphort. There’s a cash machine there. You could have gotten the fare no problem.” He gave me a significant discount, so much that I'd have had the money for it earlier.


I was dumbstruck but still thankful. We were going to make it. We wouldn’t sleep in the rain after all. We would make it to our safe, dry hostel and eat a warm meal we cooked together. When we left Texas, I didn’t know how happy I would actually be to make it to Iona. God’s Spirit had made a way for us.


Iona beckoned.


The Arrival

Riding the ferry to Iona was breathtaking. Standing beside my oldest son, RC, one of the teens on the trip, I watched as Iona Abbey came into full view tucked behind the small sailboats that dotted the harbor.


Iona is only a mile wide and three miles long. With around 150 residents mostly living near the port, there are hardly any vehicles on the island. We walked past the Nunnery ruins, stopped to give thanks at MacLean’s Cross, trekked straight past the Abbey, and made the 15 minute walk to the north end of the island where we had lodging at Iona Hostel. It was the perfect home base for our group. We shared the hostel with only one other couple (God bless them), who became fast friends.


The next day, we all made the walk to the Abbey for a tour of the cradle of Christianity in Scotland, a time of reflection and journaling amongst the Nunnery ruins, and later in the day, worship.


And it was at worship where I felt God’s presence most. But it wasn’t for any of the reasons I’d expected. On our walk to evening prayer, that couple staying at the hostel with us, Graham and Tessa, began to share their story. Recently retired, they were on a summer-long holiday and Iona was but one of their many stops. Their thoughts, however, were continually pulled home to the struggle of their grandson who had autism. They shared with me that they worried about the kind of life he’d be able to lead, how we would adjust to his teen years, how they wished he had a faith community to be a member of like the wonderful community of teens we had, and concern about what kind of job he’d be able to keep.


I wish I’d known what to say. I didn’t. So I just listened.


As we settled into our seats in the abbey, I surveyed my group. There was my son and I was grateful to make such a trip with him in these formative years. There were all the other teens, each with their own endearing story. There was Kevin, my cheerful compatriot, the guy who gave me permission to laugh and joke. There was Julie, who had such a deep, loving heart for youth ministry. There was Bri, the other pastor of our group, who had been such a wonderful and equal partner in ministry and helped me find joy again.


Worship began and it was clear it was being led by someone just volunteering with the Iona Community. He seemed hesitant at first, clearly new to the task of leading worship. It was a hard juxtaposition for me to swallow. Bri or I could lead this better, I thought. With a place so deeply steeped in centuries of worship I had expected something different. Looking back on these thoughts, I can see just how hard my heart still was. But then, then he began to offer his homily.


Tonight was a monumental night for him because, as a man with autism, this isn’t something he once imagined he could ever do. He didn’t imagine he would one day be able to be up front, leading worship, in a place such as Iona, for people such as us. He spoke passionately about those who had helped him reach this point. He spoke of his faith in God and how it had seen him through so much. He thanked us for being a part of it all.


What he didn’t know is the great gift he was giving two people in our midst. I glanced at Graham and Tessa and the tears of joy in her eyes. Their prayers to God were being answered. Their worry for their autistic grandson now had a face of hope. It looked like this … the man with autism leading us in worship on Iona.


And he also didn’t know the gift he was giving me, breaking open my heart so I could experience the true gift of this place, not in the way it might have held some element of perfection, but rather in the way it could so gracefully hold all of our imperfection: the man with autism, the worrying grandparents, this group of restless teens, and most especially me, this slightly jaded in need of healing priest of then 13 years.


This is what made Iona a thin place for me. It wasn’t that we were at the Iona Community’s marvelous abbey. It wasn’t that we were on the island that brought Christianity to Scotland. It was that we were here, with these people, my friends and family, and something holy was happening right before our very eyes.


Iona beckoned.


We answered its call. And there we found we were also answering God’s call. Life changed from that point on for me.


Pictures from Iona


The Journey Continues

As I mentioned in last week’s WayPost, this week includes June 9th, the feast day of St. Columba, the one who founded the community on Iona. As an Associate Member of the Iona Community now, it means it is time for me to recommit to my membership. I will do so this weekend in my own special way and look forward to the day of my eventual return.


What is it about this place that draws so many? What is it that continues to draw me?


As I reflect on these questions more carefully, I don’t think it’s just the place. It’s also the people of the place: past, present and future. It is the connection we make with one another in such places. It is a place where our spirits reconnect with God’s Spirit and unification, however brief it may be, is invited to consciously happen. That’s what’s thin, not just the distance between us and heaven, but between us and one another, us and God, us and all that is.


Last week, I questioned the usefulness of the term “thin place,” a description that often gets applied to Iona. My struggle with this idea is that it seems to me God is equally available in all places, not especially in some place or to some people who go there. I asked for your thoughts on this and I appreciate the comments left on the post and the emails I received. There were many thoughtful responses, most of them centered on the importance of the community that develops around a thin place. Loree Penner offered that thin places are blessed by those who have already been there saying:


“Thin places hold within their walls and acres the footsteps, the breaths, the meditations, the prayers of those who came before.”


And Anna also offered:


“I wonder if perhaps 'thin places,’ such as Iona, are part of God's special invitation and gift to us when we are for some reason less open to experience God in the rest of our lives, or when we have a particular need of such grace.”


Loree and Anna are right. It’s not just the place … it’s the people and it’s God in that place because we came responding to God’s special invitation to go on pilgrimage.


Iona beckoned. But it was actually God doing the beckoning.


Thin Places reach their fulfillment in the creation of Thin Communities. I long for it again. In the meantime, I remain connected to this place and the local and international community of Iona through my membership, the beautiful, life-giving sort of membership described by Wendell Berry who has written:


“The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.”

(The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership)


Iona helped reawaken me to my own membership: in the people I journeyed there with, in the spirits past and present I met while I was there, and in the God who beckoned us all, blessed us, and continues to walk with us going forward…


following The Way,

Rich




The Week’s Guides

Iona’s founders of two eras: Columba and MacLeod


St. Columba was born in 521 in Donegal, Ireland, was ordained a priest in 551 and died June 9, 597 on the Scottish isle of Iona. There are a number of different stories about St. Columba, both flattering and horrifying. At this point, it is impossible to separate fact from fiction. What is known is that when he was 44 years old, he and twelve others left Ireland by coracle, a rudderless, round watercraft made of wicker frame and animal hides. It is designed to simply go where it goes. It landed on Iona on the eve of Pentecost, 563. And there he founded a monastic community that became the hub from which they spread Christianity throughout Scotland. Columba is also the patron saint of poets (of which I am one and will take all the prayers he might offer for me!)


Iona’s long history was one of destruction by viking raids, the changing political and religious landscapes, and eventually falling into disuse.


Until a century ago when “The Iona Community was founded in Glasgow and Iona in 1938 by George MacLeod, minister, visionary and prophetic witness for peace, in the context of the poverty and despair of the Depression. From a dockland parish in Govan, Glasgow, he took unemployed skilled craftsmen and young trainee clergy to Iona to rebuild both the monastic quarters of the mediaeval abbey and the common life by working and living together, sharing skills and effort as well as joys and achievement. That original task became a sign of hopeful rebuilding of community in Scotland and beyond. The experience shaped – and continues to shape – the practice and principles of the Iona Community.” (From Iona’s website: https://iona.org.uk/about-us/history/)


It is George MacLeod, who like my other patron saint, Francis of Assisi, heard God’s call to rebuild the church and did so both physically and metaphorically, in both cases by rebuilding a church in ruins and also by recommitting to a life of more authentic discipleship of Jesus which inspired generations to come to do the same.


Learn more about the Iona Community

Learn more about Lindisfarne

Learn more about Marygate House

Learn more about the West Highland Way




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© Rev. Rich Nelson.  All rights reserved.  www.revrichnelson.com