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The Return

bringing the gift home

My Dear One,

Sometimes the return home is as challenging as the journey there, or even more so. A recent homeward journey I made serves as a good example.

Though it seems hard for me to believe, it was only three weeks ago from the writing of this that I was on an island off the west coast of Scotland. Our group had gone on pilgrimage to Iona, the place where Christianity came over from Ireland thanks to St. Columba and the monastic community he first established on Iona. Today, thousands upon thousands of pilgrims visit this tiny isle every year, where a successor abbey has been restored and an important Christian community (of which I am an associate member) still thrives. We found what we went there for, a way of reconnecting with our ancient roots (for the Episcopal Church at least) and re-centering ourselves upon our faith in our Lenten journey. The Reward was received.

Upon arrival, we were welcomed to the island with joy as the first group of pilgrims for this year. Though many places were still closed for the winter, they were busy stocking up for the spring and some opened for a few hours just to welcome us in. (However, a few weeks later it looks like we might actually have been the last group for a while as Iona is now closed to outside visitors.)

Our return home became increasingly uncertain the further we travelled. First it was the weather, which crafted turbulent seas and delayed our ferry over to the larger island of Mull by several hours. We watched anxiously to see if things would clear just enough. At noon the ferry pulled up and the crew quickly loaded us aboard. For a time, the ferry had to turn sideways and idle mid-channel to ride out the waves so that they crashed bow and stern rather than port and starboard, minimizing the rocking of the boat. Landing at last at Fionnphort on Mull, within clear view of Iona just a few hundred yards away, it didn’t look like we’d come very far. Indeed by one measure we had not. But we were thankful to have successfully made even this first leg of the journey home.

Having missed an earlier bus, we waited a couple of hours for the mid-afternoon bus which drove us an hour to Craignure where we boarded a MUCH larger ferry back to the mainland port of Oban. This ride, though much smoother, was itself a half an hour late, risking us missing our three hour train ride from Oban back to Edinburgh. I was assured by the ferry crew that they had called ahead to the train, which had agreed to wait a few minutes for us. Landing at the ferry terminal, I took off ahead of the rest of our group and ran to the train station not far away. Another few passengers ran beside me. But just as we rounded the corner, we saw the train pulling away - right at its scheduled time.

The train station attendant said they’d never received word to wait and, as our tickets had now expired, the only thing we could do is go back and appeal to the ferry operator for assistance and/or buy a new set of train tickets for our group on the next train (which would have totaled almost five hundred US dollars). However, the attendant did eventually decide to call in to his main office which verified they had received a call from the ferry but somehow the message hadn’t been relayed to the local station. Apologetically, the station attendant signed and stamped a note to give the train conductor for the next and last train of the day asking him to honor our tickets. Another couple of hours wait and we were on our way.

As we drew nearer to Edinburgh, in Glasgow we switched from that quiet train to a smaller train packed to overflowing with people getting out of a The Script concert for what would be a rather loud and colorful last leg of the day. We arrived in Edinburgh at 12:30am, exhausted and thankful. That same day, Donald Trump declared that all travel from Europe to the US would be suspended. The UK, at that point, was exempt from the ban in what would be a short reprieve. We boarded our plane as scheduled and made it back without further event.

But even when we returned home, our journey was not over as a few days later someone from our group came down with a fever and tested positive for coronavirus. We all spent the next two weeks in quarantine, which ended just this week. That person is thankfully now recovered and I am glad to be able to go out as needed, though now of course we are all being told to stay home.

None of this, and I mean absolutely none of it, could have been foreseen when we planned this journey months ago, or even when we stepped foot onto Iona. All of these challenges unfolded so very fast. But each step of the way, as the next perceived step was missed, a new one presented itself.

Movie Example: The Way

The last time we referenced the Martin Sheen/Emilio Estevez movie, The Way, was all the way back at The Crossing, on the first steps of our journey. Here we catch up with Tom, after he has made three friends and everyone completed the Camino to Santiago de Compostela … or so they thought. During his journey, Tom met a gypsy who told him he should not stop at Santiago but that it was important to continue on to the optional last stage that takes pilgrims all the way to Finisterre (“the end of the world”) on the west coast of Spain. Now that Tom had reached Santiago, finishing the Camino for his dead son (The Reward), he decides he must go on to Finisterre and his three companions decide that rather than go home as they had planned, they must now go there too.

Though the movie doesn’t end with a circular return home, this last leg of the journey, past their intended end point, is in fact a “homecoming” of sorts. Each of the pilgrims admits the journey didn’t go as they’d planned, and they perhaps hadn’t accomplished what they’d set out to do (such as quit smoking or lose weight), but they had made a complete and deeply sacred journey. And Tom, who had been spreading his son Daniel’s ashes all along The Way, now empties what is left of the remains into the ocean.

Many pilgrims who travel this far leave the boots they’ve walked in on the shoreline as a symbol of the completion of their journey and a laying down of walking their old ways and taking up new ways to walk. Poet David Whyte has written a beautiful verse about this you might like to enjoy here.

Biblical Example: Jesus on Holy Saturday

Though the Bible itself says precious little about what Jesus was up to on Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Christian tradition is not so silent. There have been great differences of belief about this day ranging from Jesus went to heaven, to he simply slept, to he went to Sheol (a Jewish concept of a realm of the dead not exactly analogous to the Christian concept of hell, though often translated as such).

Eventually, the debate culminated in an amendment to the Apostles’ Creed by the Roman Catholic Church in 750AD, centuries after the earliest versions of the creed appeared and a full 350 years after the idea was first suggested by a cleric and scholar named Rufinus of Aquileia. The Apostles’ Creed is one of the great statements of belief of the Church, answering in succinct form what we believe about God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As it exists today, it includes the statement that Jesus:

was crucified, died and was buried;

He descended into hell [or sometimes “to the dead”]

on the third day He rose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven …

The belief goes that Jesus, after his crucifixion, rather than going to heaven went to hell. What he was doing there is itself up for debate. Some say that there he suffered for the sins of all the redeemed at the hands of a torturous Satan. Others say that he went to redeem all the faithful who had died before him, extending his offer of salvation to all who came before him as well as after. Others tell of his search for Adam, the first of all human creation, to redeem what had been lost from the very beginning. The Apostles’ Creed itself does not suggest what his purpose was, only that he spent a day among the dead, perhaps in a place of perpetual torment.

Regardless of what we believe about where Jesus was, what he was doing, what we think about hell, etc., within the context of the story of Jesus, Holy Saturday is the day of The Return in that Jesus had left this world. We do not believe he was just asleep. He was dead and gone. He had returned to the unknown from which he came. And, according to some, the road back to being “seated at the right hand of the God the Father Almighty” was a difficult journey in and of itself.

To read more about Holy Saturday, check out this article.

Your Return

After we have found and attained what we are looking for, what do we do next? Sometimes we can be tempted to simply sit and admire it or to revel in our own good fortune. The Buddha, having attained enlightenment, could have crossed over into the release of nirvana but instead remained on Earth to teach the way to others. Jesus, being revealed as fully human and fully divine at the Transfiguration, refused his disciples’ suggestion they create three dwelling places on the mountaintop. He instead chose to come back down the mountain to continue his teaching and healing ministry. Though we might not reach the point of full enlightenment or apotheosis for ourselves, having found or attained what it is we sought, the question remains how we intend to return and re-integrate our newfound wisdom/peace/epiphany/strength/resolve/love/etc. into the rest of our lives.

This is often easier said than done. People may not presume there is something different about us and may in fact want to go on living as if nothing has changed. They may demand we do so as well, allowing everyone to fall back into more comfortable and predictable patterns. The desire for status quo should not be underestimated. Humans who are not ready for transformation themselves will often seek to deny it for others. For if others become something different or more, it shatters our tightly-held illusion that change within us is not possible, thereby letting us off the hook of taking the universal transformative journey for ourselves. So expect some resistance upon re-entry, either external or internal, for there is a part of us that will likely feel a pull towards the old familiar ways as well even though we have the hard-fought prize in our pocket.

But if we are able to hold onto what we have attained, an entirely new way of life awaits us. We will experience the culmination of all our hard work in The Resurrection, which we will address next week, in which we become truly transformed into a new being.

Your Journey this week

What kinds of resistance or remaining obstacles will you face? Who or what is inclined to want to hold you back from new ways of being? What within you may still resist the transformation you have long sought? This week is a time to begin to re-integrate your learnings into the way you live your daily life. Seek help through prayer to have the strength for this last leg of your journey. And trust that Resurrection awaits …

following The Way,



Some photos from Iona


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