Interview with Iona Community writer Jane Bentley

Earlier this week, we reported on the release of a spiritual guidebook to the legendary isle of Iona—destination of countless pilgrims from around the world. In Around a Thin Place, Jane Bentley and popular Iona writer Neil Paynter have produced a spiritual guide to the experience of an Iona pilgrimage. The book is not available via Amazon (although an occasional Amazon re-seller lists it). The best place to get it—and all of Neil’s books—is the Wild Goose Publications site, which is the media-production arm of the Iona Community.

TODAY, please meet Jane Bentley in our weekly author interview …


DAVID: What brought you into a relationship with Iona—and the community of people who live with Iona at their heart? Tell us how you discovered Iona.

JANE: I was born just west of London in the 1970s and I’m 38 now. This has been a long journey for me. I was raised in the Church of England but I left that all behind when I was about 14 and went to atheism for a while.

It was a trip to Iona that made me take a second look at faith. People think they’re coming to Iona for answers, but that’s not the purpose. Principally, Iona is a place that asks people questions, rather than giving them answers. That’s what it did for me. I came here with a general interest in the history of Christianity.

And, eventually, I found myself led back to Christianity. I saw on Iona people who feel that it’s truly a part of our Christian calling to care about peace and the environment and the needs of other people. I felt myself, over a period of years, moving from my atheism to being an agnostic and eventually back to Christianity. It took a long time but that journey back to faith began on Iona.

ST. MARTIN’S CROSS just outside Iona Abbey, where the daylong pilgrimage begins each week.DAVID: You’re a co-writer and editor of this guidebook. But you’re much more than that professionally, right?

JANE: I am a musician. I’ve just graduated with my doctorate in music and education that I completed through the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. For my doctorate, I worked through different schools there and studied the way Iona uses music with people.

DAVID: You’ve worked with music on Iona, and I know that you also work with music extensively in hospitals and other settings. You’re a professional in theater arts and, we might say, a professional in the spiritual and therapeutic use of music. But you didn’t come to Iona as a professional. You came as a lay volunteer. That’s one of the fascinating things about Iona. A lot of the people running the place are ordinary folks who are given these remarkable jobs.

JANE: That’s right. I first came to Iona in 1997 as a volunteer layperson. I ended up doing six weeks on the island at that time. One of the great things people discover about volunteering at Iona is that they show a lot of trust in people. Even if you don’t have a lot of experience in leading worship, at Iona you are trusted to plan worship and lead it. Obviously there are clergy persons leading Eucharist, but everyone on the staff is encouraged to lead worship. That experience taught me a lot.

DAVID: So, here you were as a skeptical artist, experienced in theater and music but certainly not very experienced in matters of traditional religion. And suddenly you were immersed in this community that had you leading worship and leading pilgrims on these daylong walking retreats of the island.

JANE: Yes, Iona grew around me.

DAVID: The pilgrimage around Iona that you and Neal describe in the book is a bit like that, isn’t it? People may think it’s a personal quest to reach a destination, but the pilgrimage really is a living, ever-changing way of reflecting on your own life and the lives of the other pilgrims around you. The pilgrimage is quite dynamic. I’ve completed the long pilgrimage twice and I have to say: It was dramatically different the second time, compared with the first.

JANE: The long pilgrimage is a great way to see the island and see more sights than if you were just day-tripper to Iona. Lots of people are interested in the history of St. Columba, who allegedly landed all those years ago on the south side of the island and then founded the original Christian community there. But most people would never find and reach that point without a pilgrimage group. The tracks that lead down there to the south end of the island are barely discernable. The ground we cross is difficult.

As we walk together on that day, the experience is more about the other people around you than it is ticking off sites on some tour. You get into conversations with people as you walk. There’s time and space for a lot to unfold as we walk. I didn’t expect that the first time I went on the pilgrimage.

Eventually, the pilgrimage can become an act of prayer—and it unfolds as you’re discovering this community of pilgrims. In our book there’s not a lot of historical information. That wasn’t our goal. We’re offering readers much more reflective pieces in this book.

DAVID: People who haven’t been to Iona or made any global pilgrimage may be wondering: What’s so special about this place? Why couldn’t I just go for a walk in the woods with friends close to home and experience the same thing?

JANE: On Iona, there is the sheer physicality of this landscape and the fact that we don’t have absolute control over it—or the weather that comes in off the Atlantic. In the winter, the ferries to Iona sometimes won’t sail over for days because the conditions are so bad. We discover that we are less the masters of our own destinies there. Iona strips away this illusion of control we have in our ordinary lives. We find that we have to adjust our own living patterns within something much bigger than we are.

Plus, many people come to Iona at a period in their lives when they are looking for something—searching for something, even if they’re not quite sure what that is. To encounter lots of other people from around the world in that same situation in their lives means that there is real potential there to open up in ways we might not ordinarily do.

Iona has been a sacred place for millennia, even before Columba arrived on the island. On Iona, we sense this very long continuity of human engagement with the sacred. That creates a powerful momentum. And, of course, then we return to the rest of the world, hopefully looking for more fresh ways to rediscover God.

Care to read more about Iona?

READ A PILGRIM’S STORY: In 2007, we published a series on our first pilgrimage to Iona.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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