3 March 2017
My Iona Experience
Thomas Merton pointed out that, “spiritual practice is not about an idea or a concept of God. It is about seeking the experience of presence”. I feel it was this search for “an experience of presence” that finally moved me to visit Iona that cold remote Hebredian Island where Columba and his band of monks lived in exile almost a fifteen hundred years ago. In due course, due to their example and life style, this tiny Island would become a centre of learning and a beacon of Christian teaching and practice that would extend its influence throughout the British Isles and beyond.
Our primary school history books introduced us to Colum Cille and the many and varied stories round the “Why” he left his homeland and ended up in exile in Iona in 563. Much has changed and modes of transport have been revolutionized since Columba set out for Iona, all those centuries ago but it still is a challenging trip involving air, train/bus and a network of Island Ferry Crossings. Leaving the tiny harbour of Fionnphort on the Island of Mull, to make the final short trip to our destination, by boat, I get the first glimpse of Iona with its newly reconstructed Abbey looming up on the horizon. It was seven o’clock on a late June evening I would have hoped to experience a glowing mid-summer sunset, but the cold, wet windy weather that greeted us set the stage for what was to be our back drop for the next five days.
The newly reconstructed Abbey of Iona... the cobbled pathway at the lower right hand corner of the picture is part of the Street of the Dead.
However, the warm greeting of the Iona Community, their ‘Céad Míle Fáilte’ and pleasant chat as they met us off the boat and escorted us to the Abbey, brightened the horizon considerably. As soon as we had located our sleeping quarters, a very welcome freshly cooked evening meal was served in the refectory after which we were given an outline of our programme for the next six days. A group of about twenty, we would live in the Abbey and share the community chores, attend prayer services and generally take part in the work and day routine. The fabric, of the Abbey and sacred sites is looked after by Historic Scotland. While the Iona Community and voluntary staff takes care of the day to day organization, spiritual and material welfare of the Abbey and its outreach ministries. This Community, an ecumenical movement of men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Christian church, committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to following where that leads even into the unknown, was founded in Glasgow in 1938 by George MacLeod, minister, visionary and prophetic witness for peace in the context of the poverty and despair of the Depression. His original task of rebuilding the monastic ruins of the Iona Abbey became a sign of hopeful rebuilding of community in Scotland and beyond.
Today there are about 250 members, mostly in Britain, and 1500 associate members with 14000 Friends world - wide. The community is helped and supported in its ministry by a band of volunteers, who come from all over the world for periods of seven weeks, these people, many of them undergraduates, not only assist with the performance of the community chores but join the community life of prayer. The community gathers for prayer twice daily morning and evening and the main focus of this ongoing prayer is justice, peace and integrity of creation. The members are absolutely convinced that the inclusive community they seek must be embodied in the community they live and model.
Being part of that group was truly a life giving experience. Here, were people from all parts of the world, all Christian traditions, all walks of life, young and old working and praying together. In a world that appears to be swamped by materialism it was most inspiring to witness so many dedicated people come together to worship, to take time out to search and to reflect on the higher and more meaningful values . George MacLeod described Iona as a ‘thin place’—only a tissue paper separates the spiritual from the material – a very apt description surely. I felt I was living in a very special place, a place steeped in mystery and history.
Between times and weather permitting , we had ample time to visit the locations and sacred places of special interest The Tor an Aba, believed to be site of Columba’s wattled cell. To get to Tor on Aba from the monastery the pilgrim traverses The Street of the Dead still marked by cobbled stones. This medieval road ran from the harbour to the Reilig Odhrain Chapel and this was the road over which the remains of kings and chieftains would have been carried to their final resting place on the Sacred Isle of Iona. The Torr itself is located on a mound that looks out over the sea, standing on that specially hallowed spot, looking out over the Sound that separates Iona from Mull, time seemed to stand still for me as I recalled that through all the changes of time and seasons, invasions and ravages of war, this is the same sea, sky and land that Columba would have looked upon as he began and ended his day.
There are so many places of special spiritual and historical interest across the Island that any effort to describe them would ring hollow, Iona has to be experienced and that I believe is the reason why the stream of volunteers and pilgrims continue to make the precarious journey to visit, many looking for answers, trying to get in touch with their spiritual needs and find a new vision for themselves and their lives together.
In conclusion I would like to recall this Celtic rune of hospitality frequently used by the Iona community as part of its service of welcome:
We saw a stranger yesterday,
We put food in the eating place,
Drink in the drinking place,
Music in the listening place
And with the sacred name of the Triune God
He blessed us and our house
Our cattle and our dear ones.
As the Lark says in her song
Often, often, often goes Christ in the stranger’s guise.
Kathleen Fitzgerald, RSM