026: Pilgrimage to Iona, Part 5: “The Island’s Final Spiritual Riddle”

INDEX to All 5 Parts of our “Pilgrimage to Iona” series:
Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5

     Welcome to the final chapter of our 5-part series: A Pilgrimage to Iona! For today’s VIDEO, there’s a link below.

    Let’s Clear Up one point of confusion that has been voiced by readers: In our story about the pilgrimage, Rick Miller and Beth Miller are not related, although they have the same last name. If you’ve followed our story throughout the week, hopefully you “know” Beth now as the wise and resourceful leader in our fellowship of pilgrims. Perhaps if we stepped into the pages of “The Lord of the Rings,” a trilogy of novels mentioned more than once on Iona, Beth would be a cross between Aragorn and Galadriel—wise leader and visionary. You might envision Rick Miller as the Legolas in our company of pilgrims—quick, quiet, wise and resourceful. And, no, they’re not related by blood or marriage.

    At this point, we know you’re packed for the journey and eager to go … So, on with our Spiritual Adventure …



The Island’s Final Spiritual Riddle” 

“Is a chapel in a graveyard a strange place to end a pilgrimage? I think not.
    Simon de Voil, guide on Iona’s strenuous walking pilgrimage

ona is small.
    Even before the orb of the sun has broken over the shoulders of Mull’s mighty peaks –-
    Even before the winds of day can disturb the silver sheet of water that separates Iona and the abandoned granite quarries of Fionnphort, making it seem inconceivable to a newcomer that four experienced men could have drowned in this placid little sound within recent memory -–
    Even before the sheep stir and call in the pasture beside the abbey –-
    Even before a proper cup of strong tea is brewed or served –-
    Our fellowship of a dozen American pilgrims is pushed into community with Others –- the dozens of pilgrims who have arrived from other lands.
    Each week, pilgrims are herded into the two-story stone residence hall, where the abbey staff sorts everyone into 20 monastic cells. Pilgrims are packed sometimes three and even four into these tiny rooms with the most basic of fixtures: narrow beds, one chair per room, one wooden chest and a wee table no bigger than a footstool tucked between the beds.
    Then, before dawn in this cramped residence, we find ourselves forced into this new community — in the showers.
    The showers are so few and so small that morning showering is a slow procession. “Like lining up for a little eternity, isn’t it, just to get a drizzle of warm water down our backs in a phone booth so small that you can’t even scrub your back,” one pilgrim from Liverpool says.


    It was hard enough dealing with the awkwardness and messiness of living with the dozen pilgrims I knew so well from home. Now, the reality of living shoulder to shoulder with people from around the world is a jolt.
    I poke my head into the narrow anteroom that leads to the one men’s shower on our floor and find a line of other men so tightly packed that I cannot fully open the door.
    A man from Fornby in a fleecy robe and a thick towel around his shoulders sees that I am surprised and hesitant about this cramped situation and he grins cheerily. “Queue up, young fellow!” he calls.
    I cannot back out now. So, stepping into these confines, my towel and soap and shampoo tucked in the crook of my arm — I glimpse in my mind’s eye the yawning chasm that now separates me from the comfortable bathroom I enjoy back in the States.
    Just then, a tall Swiss psychologist, Ernst Meier, leans forward in the line two places in front of me and smiles back in my direction. “David!” he calls out.
    “Ernst,” I say and nod politely, thinking: What is European protocol in a shower line?
    “David, last night when we were talking, do you remember what we talked about?” he asks. “You told me that some of your family comes from Switzerland and you told me of this village that is yours: Jegenstorf. And, you will remember that I said I did not know this village at all.”
    “Yes,” I said nodding. A man from Liverpool is nodding, too. Ernst now has the attention of the entire line of waiting men.
    “Well, I have looked into this!” Ernst says, pointing a long finger at me.
    “You have?” I ask. I am stunned. Over the years, I have casually told thousands of people that my family tree has a good share of Swiss within its trunk. And never before has anyone “looked into this.”
    “Yes,” Ernst says, quite seriously as if he has just run a battery of tests for some exotic disorder. “And I have found this Jegenstorf, too. It was something of a search, because you said your home was near Zurich. And it is in the canton of Berne, actually. But I tracked you down.”

    I try to nod graciously. His turns of phrase are compelling. He tracked me down?

    “You see, here is the problem: Your village is a place that people like us —” and then he chuckles and shakes his head at his own phrase. “I say, ‘Like us,’ and what does this mean?” he says, now mocking himself as he repeats again: “Like us?”
    He continues, “I mean, people like me from the big cosmopolitan centers, you know, like I am from Zurich, very cosmopolitan, or even Berne — people like us from these places would not even know about a village like your Jegenstorf.”
    I am thinking: MY Jegenstorf? I’ve never been there. This is the stuff of family mythology since my childhood.
    “It is a small place, very rural and they have these distinctive houses there. Do you know this?” he asks.
    And, oddly enough: Yes, I do know the houses. How do I know them?
    Then, he actually clears a space in this jammed anteroom. Somehow the queue of robed and towel-draped men — like latter-day monks — parts sufficiently that Ernst can spread his long arms side to side. He dips his knees and looks up at me, lowering his entire frame so that his body forms a low triangle with his arms spread out.
    And, oddly enough: I know that shape. I know what he is modeling.
    “The houses are built like this, aren’t they?” he asks me. “With these long, long roofs like my arms here that nearly touch the ground on each side.”
    He is miming a family home that I have never visited, but that flashes forward in my mind — a Kodachrome snapshot taken decades ago by the first relative in my family to return to Switzerland, after most of a century had past, to find the family homestead.
    Ernst is showing me that home in a shoulder-to-shoulder anteroom in the cells of Iona.
    All I can say is: “That is it! I do remember, now, seeing a photograph of that when I was just a boy.” And, I am seeing it again in Iona.
    “Yes,” he says, kindly. He rises. A man from Fornby now shoulders his way out of the little shower and it now is Ernst’s turn in the booth.
    “Well,” Ernst says. “What I would tell you, David, is this: You should travel there. It would do you much good, I think. That is a pilgrimage for you, isn’t it? You really should go home again.”
    But — in that moment, I have.

    Hot showers are essential, if difficult, on Iona because pilgrims often get wet and muddy.
    The core of a week at the abbey is a one-day walking pilgrimage across the length and breadth of the island itself. This ritual dates to the Rev. George MacLeod’s revival in 1938, when he brought both clergy and craftsmen to the island to rebuild the monastic portions of the abbey that the Duke of Argyll had not reconstructed in his revival of the church just before World War I.
    MacLeod searched Iona for the most memorable geologic and historical points of interest on the 3-mile long by 1-mile wide island. Then, he wrote a guide to reflections that should be read to pilgrimage groups at each point. Often, he performed this delicious challenge himself, even to the extent of standing atop Iona’s highest peak, called Dun I, spreading his arms wide and inviting his weary band of followers to envision Jesus himself standing on this peak in one of the gospel stories.
    “Oh, some of George’s meditations, like the one on the peak of Dun I, were said to be grand scenes, indeed,” the Rev. Malcolm King, current rector of the abbey said. “He was the master of such things.”

    And, ever since MacLeod established that muscular and spiritual challenge for visitors to the island –- each week, pilgrims continue to spend one full day on a seven-mile-long course: hiking, climbing, slogging and occasionally crawling across the rocky ridges and deep bogs of Iona. And, just when the newcomers seem winded or overwhelmed with the weight of their muddy boots, the Iona guides to this day pause for religious meditations suggested by MacLeod.
    This is much like the Muslim Hajj in which the basic pilgrimage is the journey to Mecca, but the heart of the experience involves a strenuous walking course to points of sacred reflection. At one point along the arduous course, Muslims even pick up stones and throw them in a physical demonstration of their rejection of evil.

    In MacLeod’s walking pilgrimage, to this day, men and women stumble over rocky crests and slog through knee-deep bogs to reach the rocky beach where St. Columba and his 12 monks first landed in 563.
    Pilgrims tend to flop down on this beach, despite its lack of sand, and feel the red, white and gray, ocean-worn rocks rattle as we try to settle our weight comfortably on this punishing surface. Rocks are not an ideal bed for over-taxed muscles and sore ankles.
    Our guide, Simon deVoil, a young Scottish staffer at the abbey, lets us squirm and even invites us to eat some sandwiches packed for us that morning in the refectory. But he keeps our focus on the rocks all around us.
    “We want you all to select two of these rocks!” he says at length. “The first stone you pick up will represent all that we pray to cast away from us and leave behind today. So, I’d pick a good sized one, if I were you –- to throw away as much as you possibly can at such an opportunity, right?”
    We chuckle and search the shore for appropriate rocks.
    “Then choose a second to represent spiritual gifts we plan to take home,” he says. “But don’t take too many –- we’ve lots of pilgrims and we don’t want to walk away with the whole beach, now, do we?”
    I laugh again at this line. Then, I watch the other pilgrims around me. This is only the middle of our week on the island and I see pilgrims picking up rocks as big as melons to cast away from them. I see pilgrims pocketing four, six –- even 10 stones to carry home.
    There’s a whole lot of spiritual work unfolding here, after all.
    Pilgrims reach way back and fling their rocks with abandon! It’s a wonder that no one is knocked down in the process. And I remember a Muslim friend who came back from the Hajj with a bandage just behind his ear and he explained to me that an especially high-spirited pilgrim somewhere behind him had unintentionally knocked him cold in the stone-throwing phase of the Hajj.

    Of course, there’s far more than throwing and saving stones.
    We sing. Scriptures are read. We pray.
    There are many reflections involving the geography and geology of the island. An amber-colored pond high in the ridges at the south end of the island, once the source of Iona’s drinking water, is the site for a meditation on the precious nature of water for billions of humans all around the world.
    But we begin to realize that the spirit of this walking discipline is not really in the words or music. There’s something else working in the complex chemistry.
    At some point throughout the day — and that point differs for each of us — we find ourselves just a little annoyed as this realization dawns on us. I begin to suspect: Is this yet another riddle?
    Exactly where in this sodden, boggy, rocky, ankle-twisting landscape is the Spirit?
    And, then we grow weary. Even the fittest among us grow weary.
    Gradually, we realize that at least part of the energy within this spiritual exercise lies in the humbling experience of bruising ourselves — in pride, if not always in muscle. It lies in falling down in the slick ooze of the bogs, scraping our shins on sharp-edged ledges and tripping on the knot-like stems of heather.

    Finally, when the abbey itself actually is within our view — just an easy walk — Simon de Voil waves his arms and leads us away from it to our final point of meditation. No, not inside the abbey where there are comfortable seats on which we could rest. No, he herds us all into the centuries-old stone chapel of St. Oren in the Iona graveyard with its stone floors and lack of seats.
    We stand on aching muscles.
    Now, this is no longer a riddle, but a cruel joke! This is some cheesy attempt to revive the medieval Dance of Death — those grim artworks designed to bring Christians to their knees with visual reminders that the figure of Death comes to dance with each of us.
    Simon solemnly intones: “Is a graveyard a strange place to end a pilgrimage? I think not.”
    Then, he leads us in a weary rendition of the hymn that affirms: “The world is not my home forever.”
    Is that truly the end?

    Not quite.
    Several more waves of revelation await us.

    The first comes as we pull off sodden clothing, wash, gulp down Motrin and ponder how fragile we are as humans when grappling with even the smallest of islands.
    Each wave of Others who cross Iona, even in this narrative that you have been reading this week, claims to understand something about this island and, by making such a claim, to control Iona in some way.
    On the contrary, humans work on Iona like waves crashing on the craggy rocks. Intellectually, we know that each roll of the brine does reshape the rocky shore — but imperceptibly, of course, and this realization that we feel in our sore muscles is one of the truly Celtic revelations in our long quest: We are part of a Creation that should humble us in our fleeting dance across its shores.

    The second revelation comes at dinner as the pilgrims tell their stories over the long oak tables. And this, too, is Celtic because it is a lesson about the spiritual goodness of community. This lesson stumbles from our lips — all of our lips — as a heartfelt litany in the refectory as we remember and affirm these things:
    “You!” we call to a companion. “Yes, you! You pulled me from that bog where I might have lost my shoe and what was left of my pride forever! Thank you!”
    “You had that stick that helped me regain my footing!”
    “You showed me how to rest on the heather!”
    “You laughed with me!”
    “You brought me ice for my ankle!”
    “You pulled me up on that ledge when I know I would have gone head over heels!”
    “You! Thank you!”

    Then, there is a third revelation — and, now, we think we are completely off the boundaries of the neatly printed schedule of abbey programs that hangs each day on the refectory wall. As the week has unfolded, men and women — Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants and people of no specific religious denomination at all — have felt drawn to end their day — even after the nightly 9 p.m. abbey service — with night prayers.
    And where do these pilgrims spontaneously gather?
    It’s only known by word of mouth, so it’s not immediately discernible that night prayers are even taking place. I don’t find my way toward this circle until the night after our long hike, well into the week.
    And, where?
    The pilgrims gather, as they feel so moved — with no formal organization — in St. Oren’s chapel in the cemetery. That is the very place I had dismissed as a cruel joke, a literal dead end.
    And their numbers swell through the week as relationships form and the Spirit works on people to restlessly draw them toward more and more acts of communal worship — so that even the 9 p.m. abbey service cannot  quench their desire just to pause and pray together.
    By the time I finally catch on and head toward St. Oren’s, I have to crowd into the little chapel. Candles glow, but so low that it is not entirely clear who is praying close at hand — until Ernst moves to the front of the chapel and says that, finally, he feels moved to share one of his most treasured gifts from the mountains of his homeland.
    He opens his mouth and, in a resonant bass, he intones a centuries-old, Swiss-German invocation of God’s and the Virgin Mary’s protection on farmers in the unforgiving landscape of the Alps — farmers from tiny towns like Jegenstorf, perhaps.
    Then, and only then, do I recall something Malcolm told us, plain as day, on our first night at the abbey. They were words that I jotted in my notebook with the dutiful discipline of a journalist who jots down everything, in case it might mean something later. But they were words that I immediately dismissed as meaningless — until this moment in St. Oren’s chapel.
    Now, sitting in the glow of Ernst’s bass voice — echoing centuries of faith from the Alps — I realize what Malcolm meant when he said: “You will learn here that we are something different on Iona. We are not a hotel. We are not a retreat center. We are a community. And, in time, you will discover this.”





     Do you see the final riddle, yet — and its answer?
    On the final morning on Iona, Ernst sprinkles salt on his porridge in the Scottish manner. He has learned this from some of the staff on Iona, he says proudly, and rather likes it this way.
    Then, he tells his new friends around the table that he has decided to take a break in his years-long habit of setting out on quests for spiritual revelations around the world.
    Already, he has been to Asia to live for a time with a shaman and to the rain forests of the Amazon to look for tribal healers. He has trekked along the pilgrimage routes to Spanish shrines.
    “Oh,” he says, shrugging. “Ohhhh, there is perhaps one more pilgrimage I want to make in Tibet someday — but that will be some day, I think. Because, now, I may not feel so moved to make these trips — at least not for a long while.
    “There is something about this place. Iona. This place, I think, will have a long, as we say in  German, a long nachklingen,” and he flattens his hand and moves it slowly through the air like a calm wave flowing from person to person. “Iona will go on and on among us for a long time like the lingering sound of a perfect note.”

    Before boarding the ferry at the Iona jetty, we move into the abbey one last time and together we pray these words from the liturgy of parting: “For the path that lies before us now, and our futures in your hands, we thank you, Living God.”
    The entire abbey staff walks the narrow road with us to the jetty and stands, shoulder to shoulder, as the steel ramp of the ferry rises.

    And this is the final spiritual riddle of Iona:
    Yes, Iona is small.
    And, yes, Iona is as big as the world.


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