Welcome to the fourth chapter of our 5-part series: A Pilgrimage to Iona! For today’s VIDEO, there’s a link below. At this point, we know you’re packed for the journey and eager to go … So, on with our Spiritual Adventure …
”Dangerously, We Rise; We Fall; We …”
“It will be difficult traveling for some time.”
The Rev. Malcolm King, Warden of historic Iona Abbey
Pilgrimage is dangerous.
It has always been this way.
In another sacred place, Jerusalem, deep in the archaeological excavations beneath the lowest chapels in the mysterious Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which marks where Jesus was crucified and buried, Armenian Orthodox priests may show fortunate pilgrims a 1,800-year-old inscription etched in the rock faces that once lay exposed to ancient travelers outside of Jerusalem’s city walls. Now, an entire historic church sits on top of these rocky surfaces.
This rarely glimpsed etching on the stones shows a Roman vessel that carried early pilgrims and words that say, in translation, “Thank God we made it!”
The rough-hewn nature of this etching suggests great sincerity in that prayer! After all, many pilgrims in ages past died en route. Many reached their goal and never returned home to tell their story.
Memories of past pilgrimages resurface on our way to Iona. A memory of my visit, years ago, to see that ancient inscription on those rocky surfaces in Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulcher resurfaces in my mind’s eye as our group discovers the dangerous, one-lane roads and steep hills that lie ahead of us on Mull, the enormous island we must cross to reach our last ferry to tiny Iona.
Boats. Danger. I see the etched prayer again: “Thank God we made it!”
I hope that we will be breathing this same prayer soon.
It is now dusk on this, our second night on the pilgrimage road, as we slip out of the last port on mainland Scotland, Oban, on a ferry that quickly retreats from the smokestacks and fishing nets of that sea-side village. The ferry moves us, our van and all of us, toward those mountains on Mull. Once the steel ramp of the ferry thunders onto the shore of Mull, our leader Beth Miller fires up our van and rumbles in low gear up onto the jetty.
At last, this feels as though we are nearing our sacred dot at the end of the world, but still we must cross Mull where the one-lane roads are so narrow that two vehicles cannot pass each other unless one pulls off the road and waits for the other to pass. Beneath leaden skies, we set off in the van, each dip and switchback of the road obscured by rock, stone walls, bracken and now, as night rolls over us, by coal black skies.
Beth hits the breaks unexpectedly!
A truck looms around a corner! It’s lights bounce crazily in our eyes as it bounds over potholes and ruts. Easing our van to the road’s shoulder, Beth waits as the truck rattles past us with inches to spare.
Beth says to us, “Help me, now. Help me watch ahead.”
Rick Miller our best navigator is at her side. Rick is watching, we figure. He’ll help Beth.
But the rest of us are tired, bone weary. How can we possibly stay awake and keep watch? Another pilgrim near Rick is so tired that his head dips forward and nearly smacks the dashboard.
The road dips and our heads dip, too, until Beth hits the breaks again for more blinding lights! This time, a tour bus passes so close that our eyes are wide and our breathing stops.
“That definitely was a gasp,” Beth says to us collectively. “No need to gasp. We’re safe. But, please, stay awake and help me watch.”
We try. We fail. The road curves and dips perilously onward.
We rise. We fall.
What is coming?
Are we on Iona yet?
No. I shake my head silently. Looking out a window, it seems that what passes for morning sun in autumn in watery western Scotland has arisen around us. We find ourselves in a white-walled cottage overlooking the sea — or what little of the sea we can see — through the mists. We are in a breakfast room now, several of us watching these morning mists compress all light across the Scottish hills, bogs and the sea beyond into a narrow range of deep blues, grays, umbers and — greens.
What greens! Even in this void of clear sunlight, the grass is an unearthly green — the green of jade and emeralds as if the turf glows from somewhere inside the soil.
“There’ll be more coffee in, oh, about three minutes,” our fellow pilgrim, Rick Miller, calls from the kitchen. The sight of him is reassuring. He’s such a solid pilgrim.
If Rick’s well; we’re well, aren’t we?
Rick moves toward me and, together, we watch the unusual range of colors through the window.
“You’ll enjoy his coffee!” pilgrim Dora Ziegler says. “Rick’s making French Roast just a few cups at a time and there’s already cereal and toast and all good things waiting for us here.”
Now we are three, watching the mist. Rick and Dora and me.
Then, I notice a fourth pilgrim, Doug Paterson, sipping coffee nearby and I finally sit near him, when Rick serves me a fresh cup of his rich coffee. Sipping from my own cup, I say to Doug: “It’s hard to describe what this feels like after what we’ve been through — so little sleep and then all of our adventures already — and then waking up here this way. It feels like — like we’re waking up in a foreign film. Maybe Ingmar Bergman,” I say, although I know that the Swedish director died recently. He’s certainly not making any new films
I continue to ramble: “Perhaps we’re in another world. Perhaps last night on those treacherous roads, all sleep deprived from the long flight and with those awful, one-lane, blind curves — perhaps we didn’t make it. Perhaps this is our first day in a new world.”
“Hmmm,” Doug says, shaking his head. “It couldn’t be Heaven, though, because I’m not here with Karla,” his wife, who is half a world away as are all of our spouses as we pursue this pilgrimage.
“Nor Amy,” my wife, I say. “You’re right. Can’t be Heaven. But perhaps we’ve arrived at an inn between worlds and we have to figure out how to live together until the others arrive some day.”
“How to Live Together Until the Others Arrive Some Day,” in short, could serve as the title for Iona’s story.
In each age of its history, those who control its sacred sites claim that they understand its misty essence, but they really turn out to be caretakers of the sacred site until ….
Well, consider this: In the 6th Century, St. Columba proclaimed Iona a new global center for Celtic Christian art, study and reflection. He built a monastery that blossomed to the point that many historians credit Iona as the birthplace of the fabulous, illuminated gospels that later moved back to Columba’s Irish homeland for safekeeping and became known as the Book of Kells.
Why did the Book of Kells need safekeeping? Because Columba’s legacy was all but extinguished when the Others arrived — in this case, the Viking raiders who all but erased Columba’s community in the early 9th Century. The Vikings were looking for territory and booty and murdered their way across Iona in pursuit of both.
But they certainly didn’t own Iona in any meaningful way.
In 1200, still Others built a new abbey — and a nunnery, too, this time. Iona became a haven for the Benedictine order, loyal to Rome.
All went well there — until the Others arrived in the turbulent centuries of change after the Reformation.
Just before World War I, the Duke of Argyll, who controlled the sacred site — which had fallen into ruins — foresaw still Others coming and rebuilt the abbey, yet again, as a global center for ecumenism — the startling idea that Christians of many denominations might like to share a sacred space.
And so it went on Iona with other Others: In 1938, the Rev. George MacLeod organized the modern Iona Community, a new-style lay-and-clergy religious order concerned with the welfare of the poor. He brought both pastors and talented craftspeople to the island to rebuild the entire abbey structure from the ruins surrounding the church that the Duke of Argyll had rebuilt.
MacLeod’s crews rebuilt the centuries-old refectory, library, chapter house, cloisters and the monks’ cells. All were rebuilt to house modern pilgrims who began to flock to his new Iona movement. But even MacLeod, who was virtually a force of nature himself, could not reshape this sacred outcropping of stone for all time.
Others came, like the composer John Bell and inspirational author Philip Newell in the 1980s and 1990s to turn MacLeod’s community into something else again — a vanguard in the revival of what they called Celtic music, worship and theology. The core of their affirmation was that Creation and human life are essentially good, not sinful from the start, and that the Holy Spirit moves in community in the specific direction of the world’s poor and oppressed.
But what’s most intriguing about this history is what transpired in the long gaps between the arrivals of these Others. Even when something wasn’t blossoming here, Iona always seems to have retained its sacred aura.
In 1764, for instance, when the sacred sites were all but dormant, British scientist John Walker visited Iona to assess Iona’s botany and geology. He dutifully reported on soil, rock and grasses, but could not help but declare himself amazed that even the inhabitants of “lowest rank” have “a remarkable propensity to whatever is marvelous and supernatural … with numberless legends, which have been handed down …”
Now, Iona is in the midst of one of those waiting periods again, trying to discern when Others will arrive. That’s essentially the message, these days, from the Rev. Malcolm King, a priest and one of the 250 worldwide members of the Iona Community who became rector of the Abbey in July.
On our third night of travel, as we finally arrive at Iona and join dozens of other pilgrims from around the world, Malcolm gathers us into the abbey’s chapter house and begins to tell us about this sense he has of sweeping spiritual change around the world.
Iona’s revolution in neo-Celtic worship with easy-to-sing, prophetic songs of praise now is common in many places and, “We’re no longer on that cutting edge,” he says. The world is changing, too, and people are not looking merely for religious rules to follow, he says. Most importantly, they are looking for spiritual community, he argues.
He says, “We live in a time of transition and it will be difficult traveling for some time.”
Who is helping Malcolm scan the misty horizons from his abbey — his inn between the worlds?
“I’m very impressed with Rob Bell, who’s from your place, isn’t he? From Michigan?” he says.
Malcolm goes on to explain that he is amazed at how close Bell’s books, “Velvet Elvis” and “Sex God,” seem to be to the heart of the Iona commitment to breaking down barriers and building inclusive community. After all, this kind of Rob Bell-like rallying cry has been the lifeline of the abbey’s spiritual heritage for nearly a century.
Malcolm even speaks like Rob. Or does Rob speak like Malcolm? It’s difficult to discern the direction of the connections in the disorienting landscape of pilgrimage.
In any case, it is clear that: “Religious boundaries are coming down,” Malcolm says. “We no longer put things in separate spiritual boxes. Everything is connected.”
Or, as Rob likes to put it: “Everything is spiritual.”
But, forgive me, kind readers, if this particular scene in our pilgrimage is sounding too cosmic — too, well, too misty to grasp.
We are, after all, on a quest for the concrete feel of sacred turf.
So, here is what it really feels like as a pilgrim at Iona — quite honestly and concretely:
On our first night at the abbey, after opening worship and an initial talk by Malcolm, Beth gathers a few of us in the nearly empty abbey and apologizes to us. She planned for a year and brought us here for the glorious neo-Celtic music and, for a few weeks this autumn, the abbey is even lacking a musical director. The staff is waiting until the spring pilgrimage season to bring in a new full-time musician.
On our first night at the abbey, a staff member who normally doesn’t play for worship volunteered to fill in and — with a noble spirit — plinked out the melodies to hymns on an electric keyboard.
“I’m so sorry you didn’t hear what I heard when I was here last time,” Beth tells us late that night just before bedtime in our monastic cells. “I’m so disappointed for you.”
We are amazed that our leader feels this way!
We rush — almost in unison — to reassure her!
We are stunned that she has missed the significance of the revelations we’ve already had. Just one hour earlier, pilgrim after pilgrim — American, British, Swiss, German, nearly all — reported a similar revelation.
It started for each of us when someone told us simply to step outside the abbey and the cloisters. At first, this seemed pointless in the dark of the night, but for a moment all around Iona the mists, the fog, the clouds had all vanished and the remoteness of the island even erased the distracting glow of urban lights.
We each walked out — one by one — following what we thought of as casual suggestions to take a little cool night air.
We’d just poke our heads outside for a moment and take a look. What could it hurt?
Then, we looked straight up.
Jaws went slack.
The Milky Way stretched like a glistening stream from horizon to horizon and constellations were clear as road signs. We felt as if we merely pushed off our from our toes, we would fall upwards into the heavens. We had traveled backward through time already to reach this place, hadn’t we? We had survived the rise and fall of misty landscapes that left us dreaming in new ways, hadn’t we?
Anything might be possible here!
I couldn’t see any other pilgrim — just those stars. But, apparently Doug Paterson was near me in the dark, head thrown back, because I heard him whisper upwards into the gleaming night sky: “I haven’t seen stars like these in years!”
Talk about a pilgrim’s simple prayer of thanks!
We told Beth not to apologize to us. It was just that she had come looking for songs.
And, instead, our gift that night was stars.
And, this too is a dangerous truth about visiting inns between the worlds. They invite travelers to plunge into uncharted lands, to feel as though they just might fall into the heavens, especially when we are surprised by:
What is coming?