024: Pilgrimage to Iona Part 3: “A Conversation With Our Pilgrimage Leader, Author Beth Miller”

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

    Welcome back to our series: A Pilgrimage to Iona! In Part 4 of our series, we will continue the dramatic story of our journey, but each Wednesday at ReadTheSpirit we pause for a Conversation With fascinating people involved in spiritual media.
    TODAY in our Video (see the link below), you’ll hear from the Rev. Malcolm King, the current Warden of Iona Abbey about his vision for the future of Iona. And, in today’s Conversation, you’ll read an interview about the purpose of “pilgrimage” with our group’s leader, author Beth Miller.
    But, who is Beth Miller, when she isn’t leading groups to far-flung destinations?
    For many years, Beth has written religiously themed plays and has developed a nationally known theatrical ensemble of high-school-age actors, called Strangely Warmed Players, through the First United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Over the years, some of her plays (and other materials she has written for youth) have been published in book form. 

    But, THIS WEEK, we remain rooted in the rocky, green and boggy turf of Scotland.
    Ready for today’s leg of our journey?
    Here we go again with a Conversation amidst our Pilgrimage …

 

CHAPTER 3:
A Conversation With Our Pilgrimage Leader, Author Beth Miller”

 

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      “I always return home changed. It’s pilgrimage that allows me to know truly who I am and who I am meant to be.
    The Rev. Lawrence Bartel, Niccolls Memorial Presbyterian Church, Old Forge, NY.

    DAVID: I’ve been writing the main story this week about the pilgrimage that you’re leading us on, here at Iona, Scotland. And I’ve been trying to share with our readers –- in my story and in our daily videos we’re preparing –- the voices of other pilgrims.
    But I want to know: What does this pilgrimage feel like to you as our leader, as someone who’s been to Iona, traveling on your own, twice before us?
    BETH: It feels like coming home.
    DAVID: Like home! Really?
    BETH: Yes, I’m like a lot of Americans. We don’t seem to have hometowns anymore. Not real homes like people used to think of a hometown.
    My husband Gil is a minister and, when you’re part of a minister’s family you’re part of the community where you’re assigned to serve, but it’s not really your home. You could be moved somewhere else.
    But, coming here to Iona several times now feels like coming home to me.
    DAVID: What do you mean when you say that? What feels like home about this? Something in the buildings here? The island itself? The ferry ride over?
    BETH: I felt it when I was looking over here across the water from the other side there on the shore of Mull. When I looked over at the abbey walls, I just felt tears coming. Yes, it felt like coming home.
    Before, when I came to Iona, I wasn’t traveling here with a group like this. This time, leading this group has added to my sense of this being home. I thought about the ways we are all sharing this experience as friends.
    This is something that’s very precious to me and I’m sharing it with people who mean a lot to me. That feeling of home – that’s all part of it.
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    DAVID: I’ve reported on religion for more than 20 years and this isn’t something I hear a lot about in Protestant churches. I associate the idea of pilgrimage more with Catholic groups, Muslim groups –- not Protestants as much.
    BETH: Well, our tradition is more practically minded. I’ve heard from critics over the years about pilgrimage. They’ll say: “How can you afford to do that?”
    The truth is that it can be reasonable to do this kind of travel. And, if I had spent the same amount of money to go to a church conference in California –- and that is about what this would cost: the same as going to a church conference somewhere in a another state — people wouldn’t think twice about it.

    DAVID: It’s strange that this idea is foreign to so much of Protestantism. Why do you think that is?
    I’m curious about that because Protestants supposedly are the people who celebrate salvation by grace and not so much by the works of our hands. So, you might think that Protestants would have a more spiritual view of travel these days. Yet most Protestants I’ve met don’t want to travel without working on a hands-on mission project these days. It’s a puzzling situation.
    It’s like the spiritual side of Protestant life takes a back seat for a lot of people. I know I’m not alone in making this observation. Tony Campolo just talked about this same issue a few weeks ago on ReadTheSpirit.
    BETH: It is a problem for us. We’re so practically minded. These days, Protestants assume that we have to go somewhere and build something or paint something to make the religious travel that we’re doing worthwhile. We’re so production oriented.
    Travel to do work projects is a wonderful idea. I’m not criticizing that. It’s important. I’ve organized a lot of trips to do exactly those things. That’s very important, but there’s this wonderful tradition of pilgrimage among Catholics and Hindus and Muslims and other faiths and we need to learn to be a part of this, too.
    I don’t want to downplay the importance of work projects. I’ve organized many of them, but it can get to the point that we equate our religious lives with work. People actually will complain to me about our religious groups traveling if there doesn’t seem to be enough work to do.
    I’ve had people tell me: I don’t think I’ll go because I don’t think my work will be valuable enough. Or, after a trip, someone will say: This person worked all week and all they did was paint a wall? Was that worth it?
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    DAVID: Well, if it’s a work project, maybe they’re trying to evaluate the overall value, I guess.
    BETH: But, when we travel, even if it’s not purely a pilgrimage like this, we always should think of ourselves as pilgrims going to connect with God and with people in other parts of the world.
    The confusion in a lot of people’s minds, I think, is that especially as American Protestants we start to think that travel with our church groups should be about going over to fix things for other people because we have all the answers.

    DAVID: You’re beginning to sound like Rob Bell at Mars Hill Bible Church.
    His church, Mars Hill, does some tremendous mission work projects. They help a lot of people. But they also understand travel as pilgrimage. When Rob talks about this, he’ll say: We don’t travel to take God to the godless, we travel to discover the part of God that is already there, waiting for us.
    BETH: Right. That’s pure pilgrimage.
    For 1,400 years people have been coming to Iona for that reason — to find inspiration here. And the connection with people turns out, in many cases, to be more important than the specific work we do.
    One of the most important things that we need to do in our lives is discover the sacred part of our life and the sacred part in the lives of others. We talk a lot about this idea, but I’m not sure if we really believe it. We say that we have a sacred part within us, that God dwells within us somewhere. But do we really believe that?
    What I’m saying is that, when what’s sacred within us touches what’s sacred within another person –- that’s one of the holiest things that can happen in the world. That’s so important.
    I do cherish that part of this experience at Iona. You have to look through someone else’s eyes sometimes to discover the sacred within your own life, within your own community.

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     DAVID: I’m thinking more about this with each passing day of our pilgrimage. The pilgrimage experience depends on talking with other people.
    BETH: Right! For your interview about this, you really should include other people, you know, even in talking with me. We should talk to someone else. You really need to meet Lawrence here. He’s a pastor from the Adirondack Mountains.
    (She turns in Iona Abbey, where we are seated as we talk, to a young pastor, the Rev. Lawrence Bartel, pastor of the Niccolls Memorial Presbyterian Church in Old Forge, New York.)
    LAWRENCE: I’m here on pilgrimage, too, and today our group will do the challenging walking part of the pilgrimage across the island.
    DAVID: Oh, so your group is off doing that a day or so ahead of our group. Off into the bogs and over the cliffs, hmm? This may be the last we’ll see of you.
    LAWRENCE: (Laughs!) You  mean I may sink into a bog or fall off a mountain?
    DAVID: No, I didn’t mean that. I meant –-
    BETH: You’ll sink into the peat bogs and never be heard from again. We’ll have to start remembering you just as “Old Pete.”
    LAWRENCE: Oh, I hope not.
    BETH: Maybe just up to your knees?
    LAWRENCE: Oh my. (Laughing.)
    DAVID: OK, sorry to scare you. But, please, do tell us what brought you here. What’s this pilgrimage for you?
    LAWRENCE: It’s part of my deep searching for the presence of God. To use the Paul Tillich phrase, this is about looking for the ground of our being. Travel has been a very important part of that for me. Travel in the United States. Travel to India, Scotland, France, Australia, South Africa.

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    DAVID: Why is that important?
    LAWRENCE: It’s vitally important to me, not always in each moment of my travels, but in reflection on the travels. Going to other countries and seeing how other people live with their faith helps me to understand the world in which we live -– and it helps me to identify my own beliefs and traditions on an even deeper level.
    I grew up in a Mennonite family and faith was just part of the fabric in our home. So, it’s part of who I am but in order to claim that part of my life, I had to travel and learn more about the world.
    DAVID: You say this comes through seeing the lives of other people? How else does travel work on you?
    LAWRENCE: It works on me because it takes me out of my routines. It takes me away from all of those things that normally wrap me up completely throughout the day. As a pastor, there’s plenty to wrap me up. There’s so much going on that I can lose the perspective on what is most important in my life and how God is speaking in my life.
    It’s in travel that I rediscover my own sense of call. It’s in traveling and hearing other people’s experiences of faith that I rediscover the depth of my own faith.
    I was traveling in India 10 years ago. It was supposed to be a short trip. I was doing some research there and it was supposed to have been just two weeks. I didn’t expect to find as much as I did.
    I just happened upon a church there that was an Orthodox church. I talked with the priest there and managed to get through the language barrier enough to hear his story that the church was started by Thomas, you know? Doubting Thomas from the gospels who later traveled to India and started churches.
    DAVID: Yes, that’s an important and ancient branch of the Christian church in India.
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    LAWRENCE: I discovered that and I thought: Here is such a different branch of my own church that I’m just now discovering is here in this part of the world. And I sat down with them at dinner and we ate our food together with our hands from banana leaves in the custom of their culture.
    And later I traveled to Hindu temples and spoke with people there, asking them what’s most important about their faith.
    But the conversation I recall most was while I was traveling in a desert area between India and Pakistan. And there were some Muslim camel drivers there. They had brought a young son along.
    I was probably the youngest person on this trip and so he probably felt drawn toward me, since he was young himself. And, he asked me if I am a Christian. And that was surprising to hear that question, because you’re not usually asked that question in the United States, unless it’s someone who’s just about to try to convert you to their church. But he very clearly said that he is Muslim and he wasn’t trying to convert me. He was just curious.
    I said I am Christian.
    We fell into a conversation that wasn’t one of trying to persuade each other about the supremacy of either faith. We were just talking about who we are –- each of us –- as people of faith.
Finally, I asked him: “What’s the one thing you’d like to do in your life?”
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    And he told me: “I’d like to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. But I can’t afford it.”
    And I know that the Quran says that, if you cannot afford to make the pilgrimage, this won’t be held against you. But this young man did consider it the dream of his life.
    It dawned one me, as we talked, that I was carrying enough money with me -– just on this one trip –- for him to be able to afford to fulfill this life’s dream and go on Hajj to Mecca. This is just the little bit of my money I was using for one month, not my whole lifetime’s savings. That was humbling to realize. We have so many resources as Americans. We are called to do much.
    How am I using what I have? What am I doing with my life?
    That’s the kind of thing that a pilgrimage does. That’s how it works on us. We begin to see our lives in new ways. We begin to see who we are and what we have and what our calling really is in new ways.
    DAVID: We might set out hoping to change the world, but we discover that the first thing we need to change is our perspective on our own lives.
    LAWRENCE: Yes. As I’ve traveled and sorted through all of my experiences, I always return home changed. It’s pilgrimage that allows me to know truly who I am and who I am meant to be.

Chapter 4, “Dangerously We Rise; We Fall; We …”

 

023: Pilgrimage to Iona Part 2: “Spiritual Riddles of the Ancient Abbey”

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

    Welcome back to A Pilgrimage to Iona! Remember, we’ve got many treats for you this week: First, the story itself. PLUS, videos so that you can hear voices from Iona.
    Plus:
If you want to read more, just click on the book covers we’ve sprinkled through our stories
this week. And Photos? Click on John Hile’s photos to see a larger image pop up.
    Ready? Packed for the journey? Here we go again …

CHAPTER 2:
Spiritual Riddles of the Ancient Abbey”

    “You will find peace. We all do.”
    An unexpected messenger in Paisley, carrying a lampshade.

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   I
ona is full of spiritual riddles.
    And, the leaders of the world-renowned, ecumenical community based at the centuries-old Iona Abbey seem to toy with pilgrims like Zen masters serving up mind-boggling Koans as shock treatment for over-stressed minds.
    Some of the puzzles are playfully petite.
    Iona is famous for its neo-Celtic style of prayer, concretely related to the needs of daily life and often pulling people toward a connection with the poor or the natural world. The Rev. George MacLeod, the spiritual architect of Iona’s most recent rebirth in 1938 said that the goal of this new style of worship was to make prayers “shorter and more to the point” so that both the privileged and the poor could fully participate in the experience.
    Shorter and more pointed, perhaps. But never dull.

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     Early one morning, pilgrims stumble bleary-eyed into the medieval refectory adjacent to the abbey for breakfast. On the long oak tables, they find a choice of cornflakes or porridge and, standing on a raised platform at one end of the room, a chaplain for the meal prays, “Oh, Lord, may we not be like cornflakes: brittle, thin and crunchy — but like porridge: warm and comforting and full of natural goodness.”
    Who would reach for cornflakes after that? Pilgrims order steaming bowls of porridge all around.
    But, the very next morning, pilgrims find the same breakfast choices awaiting them, including steaming bowls, but the prayer intoned by that meal’s chaplain is twisted: “Lord, may we not be like porridge: stiff, stodgy and difficult to serve — but like cornflakes: crisp, fresh and ready to serve.”

    Pilgrims roar at the joke, then pause in wonderment: So, what is a hungry pilgrim to eat? 

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    Some of the spiritual puzzles are cosmic.
    Iona’s neo-Celtic hymns and prayers, part of a creative explosion in arts and letters that flowered among the Iona staff on the island in the 1980s and 1990s, wound up filling entire new hymnals and prayer books. These new sacred texts often drew upon ancient images of God’s creation. Hymns by Iona’s chief composer, John Bell, sing of the stars and the moon dancing in praise of God.
    A Psalm rephrased by the Iona worship team asks God to make “the mountains bring peace for the people, and the hills bring forth justice.”
    What a fanciful metaphor! Hills could never move!
    But, turning our logic head over heels, the truth is quite different: Iona itself has moved and in a profound way.
    When the world’s highways were oceans and powerful leaders like the Irish nobleman who became known as St. Columba cruised the continent’s coastlines, Iona lay near the center of the earth. That’s why Columba chose it for his Christian community in 563. That’s why it was devastated by marauding Vikings in the early 9th Century and the priceless Book of Kells came to Ireland as a refugee of the bloodshed.
    Since World War II, however, airline routes have become our global highways and, in less than a century, Iona has moved to an end of our world.
    That’s why a journey to Iona ranks among the earth’s great pilgrimage routes today. And that’s why pilgrimage itself is a puzzle — a flipping around of mind, body and spirit to reorient all three. It’s why there’s a global revival of Labyrinths — the practice of prayerfully walking along a spiral path and, after reaching the center, twisting around again to walk back out. It’s why there’s a revival of spiritually surreal films like Luis Bunuel’s “The Milky Way.”

    We enjoy these cosmic puzzles:   
    Yes, the rock of Iona is said to be primeval and unmoving amidst the waves.
    And, yes, God moves even these mountains.

    On our road to Iona, our retreat leader knows all of this already and wisely prepares us for what lies ahead on the little island — even while we are stalled in an insufferably long line for a passport inspection at the Glasgow airport.
    We have flown all night and, as our mostly sleepy pilgrims begin to simmer in this long line, Beth Miller chants softly, “Hurry and wait. Hurry and wait. There’s no point in hurry, ‘cause travel is wait.”
    As always, she is right.

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    A pilgrimage is slow because it is physical. This is not a transcendent flight from a comfortable perch of meditation, while we remain safely ensconced in our bedrooms or chapels at home. The Iona Community knows this, too, and embeds the truth in morning prayer, every day at the Abbey. Pilgrims and staff together pray these words:

    “We will not offer to God
    “Offerings that cost us nothing.”

    So, sleepless and sore from cramped traveling through the skies, we stand and wait respectfully in Glasgow airport, before even approaching our six days on Iona.
    The physical nature of our bodies in motion together is not ethereal at all. This is incarnate faith — an affirmation that the dozen of us moving together in this mindful, if awkward, way must actually MEAN something. It HAS to mean something, doesn’t it?
    But the very next thing we “mean,” after we clear customs, is nausea. One of us falls ill from the next stage of waiting outside Glasgow airport with taxi and bus fumes rising all around us until an otherwise capable professional woman in our group looks flushed and anxious, embarrassed at the burden she is posing on the rest of our company.
    We feel for her.
    For a time, this is our “meaning”: Tending to our physical needs, settling our friend in a better place, navigating restroom breaks for all of us, purchasing and distributing water bottles, buying the list of snacks we have requested, waiting further for a delayed passenger — all before our party can truly head into what we thought of as our pilgrimage road.
    “We will pass some beautiful Lochs today, when we get started,” Beth says.

    That’s another puzzle: We cannot seem to get started, darn it all!
    But, we are started already.

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    The truth is that everything we have experienced — ALL of it — is pilgrimage, which really is the physical challenge and messiness of a dozen humans traveling as one.
    And, as in all things on this journey, the Iona Community knows this even before we set foot on their island home. I am writing this line about the “awkward” nature of our progress and the “messiness” of a group like this on Friday morning as we finally ride westward in a van somewhere between Glasgow and the Atlantic coast — completely unaware that, on the little island still far ahead of us, one of the leaders at the abbey, Rowena Aberdeen-deVoil also is setting pen to paper.
    Rowena is preparing a homily for the following Thursday evening’s communion service, when she will stand in the abbey among us and will tell us that this kind of spiritual adventure, from a distance, “seems wonderful until we are faced with the messiness of being with others in community.”
    Two pens on paper, still hundreds of miles apart, jotting down lessons about our experience of human “messiness.”

    If we could have pulled back from Earth a bit and could have looked down, we might have been able to see pilgrim groups — ours and others — and the Iona Community leaders themselves all in physical motion toward a Center.
    This resonance is not only in our movements. The resonance is not only in the two pens, mine and Rowena’s, moving together miles apart.
    It’s built into the Iona process of reflection.
    Already waiting for us, ready for our welcoming service at the abbey on Saturday evening, is a prayer in which the leader of that worship service will call upon God as “Spirit of unity, go-between God.” Then, printed in the service text, our lines written for us. We will unite in saying, “We have come on journeys of our own — to a place where journeys meet.”

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    Muslims returning from the Hajj speak of these truths.
    They talk about the sheer physical challenge of dealing with heat, the need for water, the press of the crowds, the waiting, all of which is a central physical element of Hajj. But then, they say, the vistas open up and they see the world’s many peoples represented around the sacred sites. The pilgrim to Mecca comes home transformed both by the physical exertion as an individual and by the vision of a larger community than the pilgrim could not possibly have envisioned, safely ensconced in his home.
    Or, in Christian tradition, turn to the 14th Chapter of Matthew and contemplate the messy, awkward physicality of Jesus’ journey. He had just been treated rudely in Nazareth as the chapter opens, then his cousin John the Baptist loses his head. Jesus wants to withdraw, needing time alone, but a great crowd follows him relentlessly. To avoid a humanitarian crisis, Jesus  must feed this multitude.
    That done, he still wants to be alone and sends his disciples off in a boat and — again — he cannot escape the physical concerns of his community. Waves rock his followers’ boat and Jesus walks across the water to reassure his friends.
    That isn’t the end of the physicality of that one chapter of Matthew! The boat lands and Jesus is surrounded by the sick, Matthew tells us, so eager to attract his attention that these ill men and women literally clutch at the hem of his robe.
    He doesn’t flee. He heals.

    This is the concrete reality of moving in spiritual community! It’s messy. It’s human.
    Jews reflecting on the High Holy Days speak of these truths, as well.
    The observances of the New Year, the Days of Awe and the Day of Atonement mean little if the person setting out on this journey of spirit does not repair relationships on Earth. Wrongs must be righted to the extent humanly possible. Apologies and reconciliation must knit the community together again for the fast of Yom Kippur to hold its full meaning.

 

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     And, as all of our spiritual circles near our convergence on Iona, as in days of old, unexpected messengers — perhaps even angels — mark our course and speed us on our way.
    In Paisley, outside of Glasgow, we stop at another medieval abbey, not as old as the site of St. Columba’s abey on Iona, but also part of the religious flowering in this part of the world.
    Layers of the faith are so thick here that a 100-year-old, stone-walled Methodist church seems like a youthful interloper near Paisley’s abbey.
    However, as if we had not had enough puzzles already, we learn that the far younger Methodist church now may be too old to survive much longer, situated in a changing commercial district in downtown Paisley.

    This news comes from an unlikely messenger — a tiny woman with slate gray hair carrying, without obvious explanation, a large lampshade in her hand. She appears suddenly and tugs at my elbow, surprising several of us as we stand on the street in Paisley contemplating the visibly dilapidated Methodist church.
    “Are you developers?” she asks the three of us. Then, eying us carefully, she says, “No, I can see now you’re not. No. No, I just thought you might be developers come to save our building, but — well, at least I can see that you admire our church, don’t you? I’m a member there myself.”
    She casually turns the lamp shade in her hand as we nod and express our admiration for the tall stone structure with a row of mostly down-on-their-luck businesses on the first floor.
    “The building needs work,” she says. “And our membership is so small now. We’re older like me and getting smaller, too,” she says, chuckling softly as if this is just the sadly amusing way of things: Faith ebbs and flows, layer upon layer.
    “I just hoped you might be developers, you know?” she says. “Thought you might have come here to save us by saving our building.  But I can see you’re not. You’re travelers. And, where are you going?”
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    “Iona,” we say almost in unison.
    Her eyes actually begin to glisten in the morning light. She waits for a long moment as her eyes fill.
    “Iona,” she says at length. “Peace.”
    We wait — now carefully schooled in waiting.

    She nods and repeats, “Peace. That’s what I feel whenever I set foot on Iona — peace.”
    “That’s what we hear,” I say.
    “Oh, yes, you heard right. You’ll love it. You will find peace. We all do.”
    One of our pilgrims, photographer John Hile, asks, “May we take a photograph of you?” He raises his camera, trying to frame a portrait of her as she stands beside us, glistening eyes scanning our faces.
    But she turns to scurry away, lampshade now tucked at her side. Over her shoulder she calls to us, “Oh, no, not me. Not me.”
    She’s too quick to properly photograph, but her flight is too late in another way. We may not have been the messengers she was waiting for, but she and her message of peace already have become a part of our pilgrimage.

Chapter 3, “A Conversation With Our Pilgrimage Leader, Author Beth Miller”

022: Pilgrimage to Iona Part 1: “Down the Rabbit Hole to a Wee Island Far Away”

INDEX to All 5 Parts of our “Pilgrimage to Iona” series:

Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0218_Celtic_pilgrimage_to_Iona_Abbey_Scotland.jpg

Welcome to our first ReadTheSpirit travel series: A Pilgrimage to Iona! This series has drawn readers around the world since it first appeared in 2007, the year ReadTheSpirit was founded. Our online magazine has moved through several revisions and expansions over the past four years, so these stories may look a little different than our current offerings: Most of the photos are smaller; some of the video screens are smaller, too. You may see occasional gaps in the typography. But the whole Iona story is here—and it has inspired countless readers to pack up and set off on pilgrimages, too. So, enjoy!

TO SEE THE VIDEO, click on the arrow! (If your version of today’s chapter does not show a video screen — Click Here to see it.)

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1:
Down the Rabbit Hole to a Wee Island Far Away”

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      “We will be following … the Way of the Dead, but we also are following the way of thousands of pilgrims seeking new life.”
    Author and Pilgrimage Leader Beth Miller

We are bound for Iona, land at the end of the world where priceless medieval art and popular modern song were born on a shoe-shaped island so small that it disappears from most maps. This is the story of our journey into this very real, if usually invisible, land of sailing and spiritual rebirth.
    Our leader, author Beth Miller from First United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, convenes our circle near our departure gate at the Toronto airport.
    “Pehh-rehh-greeen,” she says so slowly that it is impossible to understand the connection between the syllables.
    Then, she links the sounds: “Peregrine.”
    “Do you know what it means?” she asks us.
    “A falcon?” someone asks.
    She nods, and says, “Yes, but alone it means wandering. Prone to wandering. It’s a name that has been used for pilgrims for centuries. We are peregrini.
    She pauses to let us ponder this, then says: “We are pilgrims and what we are doing right now places us in an ancient religious tradition. We understand this calling, even if we have forgotten it for a while. The calling is here inside of us. It’s why we love books like ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ But, remember that in Tolkien’s stories, Frodo did not travel alone. He traveled in a community and that’s how we have chosen to travel today.”

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      We don’t feel much like a community, restlessly perched in a booming airport gateway. The plane’s other passengers certainly aren’t interested in us. And, as we eye our fellow pilgrims in our vinyl-and-chrome seats, we each wonder if even the dozen of us who professed a certain commitment to this pilgrimage will get along for nearly two weeks of difficult travel at close quarters.
    But it’s a pleasant idea. Wandering. Frodo. A fellowship of pilgrims.
    We await our flight with Beth and, as she describes our odyssey in more detail, we become mindful that landing in Glasgow, Scotland, tomorrow morning is only one of the steep steps ahead of us toward the rocky peaks of Iona. After Glasgow, there is a bus ride to Scotland’s west coast, a ship to the greater island of Mull, then a night in a cottage near a fishing village, and then a long trek across the treacherous roads of Mull to the granite quarries of Fionnphort.
    Then, there is another boat to cross a sound where four experienced men died within recent memory in stormy seas and then — only then — do we reach the fabled Iona.
    Our destination: a rocky burial ground of medieval kings, most likely the origin of the famed illuminated gospels known as the Book of Kells, the birthplace of a modern revival of Celtic spiritual music — and, perhaps most remarkable of all, a brave brow of stone for millions of years defying the vast might of the Atlantic.

    “We are told that Iona may have been some of the first rock to rise from the seas and, at the end of time, may be the last to vanish,” Beth tells us. “This may be why so many great men and women wanted to be buried there.”
    She says, “Toward the end of our journey, we will be following the final path of high kings who passed away long ago, the Way of the Dead — but we also are following the way of thousands of pilgrims seeking new life.”

Island_of_iona_by_alastair_de_watte
    Who wouldn’t feel they were falling into the pages of “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Chronicles of Narnia” with that kind of overture?
    Then, our leader’s final words are punctuated by a booming voice from the airport speakers: “This is the final boarding call for Flight …”
    As we take a breath and, for a moment, look and listen to the people seated behind our own circle, we contemplate these other passengers, moving so casually to other ends beside us: A young man taps a message on a cell phone. Another reads a paperback thriller and sips a Starbuck’s.
    A mother calls sharply to her daughter: “Come here now! We’re going soon.”
    A man says to a woman: “It will be green there, very green.”
    She says, “I know I’ll love it.”
    He leans his cheek close to hers, pauses, then kisses her cheek.

Pilgrims_to_the_celtic_abbey_of_i_2
     Gradually, we refocus on Beth’s face.
    She knows the timing, the pace of leadership, and she has waited to say this next thing: “Pilgrimage takes us outward to our sacred destination, but it also takes us inward.
    “What are you seeking? Ask yourself that and consider this, as well: We are each traveling as an individual, but I want us to contemplate the community we are forming.”

    Community. There it is again.
    Perhaps, but the truth is that the first stage of most trans-atlantic pilgrimages from the United States is a turbulent, solitary dream.
    We board our airliner close to evening and buckle ourselves into snug, womb-like seats, knees neatly tucked, arms folded at our sides, braced for the transformation about to take place.
    As the plane bumps, then soars, pressure builds in our ears and hearing moves from normal clarity to waves of sound that are barely able to roll over the constant hiss and hum of the plane.
    Soon, the air itself tastes foreign as the scents of food and our companions mix into a gaseous stew, like fish breathing in warm water.
    Finally, the captain dims the lights, “so that you can catch some sleep,” he tells us in a crisp British accent as he concisely explains the time zones we are speeding through backwards, consuming time faster than normal, turning time inside out.
    As the lights fade, only the bright rectangles of movie images glow and flicker form a half dozen screens visible to each of us around the airplane — and most of us cannot sleep.

Celtic_prayers_from_iona_by_philip_
    Then, we sleep.
    We dream fitfully.
    Or do we? Suddenly, I am awake in the wee hours, looking over at the pastor of this Ann Arbor church, the Rev. Douglas Paterson, sitting wide awake on my right with a magazine open on his knees to a bold headline: “Dark Nights.”
    What are the odds of that in the middle of an actual dark night?
    I MUST still be dreaming in this airplane speeding backward — or is it forward — through time.
    But I recognize the reference in Christian mysticism. St. John of the Cross, the great 16th-Century mystic considered a Doctor of the Church, had a famous “Dark Night of the Soul.”
    Others, too: Georgia Harkness, the 20th Century theologian and ecumenical pioneer, the famous author Frederick Buechner — and now myself, apparently.

    I shake my head, reach out for Doug’s magazine to see if it is real.
    “You want this?” he asks. “I’m done with it.”
    I nod and discover that it is, indeed, a real magazine as my fingers touch the smooth pages. It’s an issue of Christian Century magazine, a review of “Come Be My Light,” a recently published collection of private writings of Mother Teresa. The key insight in this new book, the reviewer concludes, is that this candidate for sainthood had many achingly real doubts throughout her long life.

    I shake my head again. Even Mother Teresa had solitary fears and doubts?
     This is just great! Just what I want to discover, bumping along in a darkened plane on what we’ve already been warned will be a challenging pilgrimage.
    My own doubts come flooding:
    Did I pay that last bill before I left home? Back up that computer file? Was it a mistake to set work aside to become a pilgrim?
    I try to settle back in my enveloping seat, re-tuck my knees, re-fold my arms, close my eyes. But I cannot sleep.
    Not now.
    I can’t see much, yet, but I can see this:

    I don’t even care much anymore about the people seated around me. I cannot sleep. I am a person of enormous responsibilities weighing on me like a slab of Iona marble on this dark night so far above the earth.

Chapter 2, “Spiritual Riddles of the Ancient Abbey”

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com.)