Iona: A Celtic Pilgrimage


By Matthew Davies, Episcopal News Service 

The ancient Celts described Iona as a "thin place," where the veil between heaven and earth is lifted, and where one might glimpse the divine.

For centuries pilgrims have traveled to this small island off the West coast of Scotland, leaving behind their chaotic lives to rest, reflect and walk in the footsteps of St. Columba, the Irish missionary who founded a monastery on Iona in 563 AD.

Columba was forced into exile allegedly following a dispute concerning the ownership of a psalter he'd copied in his home county of Donegal. His subsequent missionary work is credited with the spread of Christianity throughout the British Isles.

May 2013 marks the 1,450th anniversary of Columba's arrival on Iona. His feast day is celebrated on June 9 throughout the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

The Rev. Nancy Brantingham, a priest from the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota and a long-time student of Celtic Christianity, visited Iona for the first time in October 2012.

"Columba had a role here, situated at the monastery with his monks, teaching them and then sending them out two by two, and look what happened," said Brantingham, who was leading a group of pilgrims mainly from her home diocese. "Was the world ready to hear from him, and are they ready to hear from us yet, I don't know. But numbers certainly aren't the only thing that matter when it comes to getting the word out ... touching people's hearts."

Group members began the week discussing why they'd taken this two-day journey over land, air and sea to the island and if they'd brought any questions with them.

For Brantingham, Columba "is a great patron because he loved writing, had gifts for teaching, loved to study, was a good pastor. I hope I am, too. So I think that's why I came."

The Rev. JoAnn Ford said she had come with many questions about who she was as a retired parish priest "and where do I go from here, what do I do?"

But she arrived "being open," she said. "Not with any need to find an answer."

"How do I know what is God's will?" asked Maren Mahowald. "How do I recognize it? How do I know if I'm responding? That's why I'm here."

Although the pilgrims had brought many personal questions, they also acknowledged the importance of community along such a journey.

Athene Westergaard noted that, "when traveling in a community that you trust, it's the community that supports you, which is what the faith is all about. The faith is not a lonely experience."

Bishop Kevin Pearson of the Scottish Episcopal Church's Diocese of Argyll & the Isles, under whose jurisdiction Iona falls, also visited the island in October and joined the Minnesota group for part of its pilgrimage.

A pilgrimage "helps you journey within," Pearson told ENS while walking with other pilgrims around the island. "[It] brings together the spiritual, interior world and a world that's hard-and-fast. So the actual physical exercise is a part of the spiritual exercise as well, and you're drawn into God's life almost whether you want to go or not."

The Scottish Episcopal Church's St. Columba's Chapel and the adjacent Bishop's House have served as a place of prayer and study for pilgrims to Iona since 1894.

"People are increasingly drawn to journeying and to making pilgrimages, whether they call them pilgrimages or not, to holy places, to places that for centuries have meant a lot to people," Pearson said. "And, basically, they're journeying within themselves; they're searching for God."

One of the highlights of visiting Iona is connecting with the Iona Community, an ecumenical group formed in 1938. Under the leadership of its founder George MacLeod, the community set out to rebuild parts of the medieval Iona Abbey.

Today, the community has a strong commitment to peace and justice issues and offers weekly pilgrimages around the island, stopping at places of historical or spiritual significance and reflecting on the journey along the way.

Rebuilding the abbey "was to be a symbol of the need for the church to re-engage with ordinary folk and a concern for the need to rebuild community," the Rev. Peter MacDonald, (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland priest and leader of the Iona Community, told ENS during an interview inside the abbey.

Julie Hooper, one of the Minnesota pilgrims, has visited Iona four times. She keeps returning, she said, because "there is something that settles the soul here.

"It's very peaceful and nurturing, and I don't think it matters what your religious or spiritual inclination is. I think there are a lot of people who come here who aren't necessarily Christian, but they come because they feel that nurturing and peacefulness here."

Making her first visit to Iona, Dorothy Ramsdell of the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada said that she felt an energy making it "possible to just be loving. It is truly a model of living together with the land in community."

The pilgrims found peace and tranquility everywhere on Iona: in the organic gardens that feed the travelers, in the nature and the wildlife, in the ancient stones and monuments, and in the memories of those who've gone before. But mostly, they observed how that peace is found in the community that is formed during any visit or pilgrimage to the island. It's a reminder of how Columba lived in community with his fellow monks who helped to evangelize the British Isles and engrave on it the legacy of Celtic Christianity.

Reflecting on Columba's influence, MacDonald said: "It could be argued that the Columban mission to Scotland and further afield actually helped form Scotland as a nation state. Columba was often engaging with the chiefs of various tribes and peoples around here, and their reasons for inviting the Columban monks to go there was as much political as spiritual. So I think we see that integration, that wholeness, of Columba and the Celts as something that we try to live out today."

"The ancients knew about the value of pilgrimage as a metaphor for life's journey, and I think people today recognize that as a spiritual discipline," said MacDonald.

For many pilgrims new beginnings and possibilities open up after visiting Iona.

"You never get to go home from pilgrimage empty-handed," Brantingham told ENS. "One of the beautiful things about pilgrimage is that you go as a solitary traveler, but then the community begins to form around the experience of being vulnerable, of being afraid, of having questions about where God is right now in our lives, how God is at work and what's next.

"In some sense, the pilgrimage never really ends," she added. "To be sure, we will go our separate ways, but we are also bound now to one another forever by the stories, experiences, and memories we shared; by the awareness that however far we are from one another in the physical world, we are, nonetheless, still together on the journey that leads to knowing and loving God more deeply. And everything about the experience, from the first awareness of being called to make the trip to the homecoming at journey's end, holds potential insight and wisdom we can draw on for the rest of our lives."

- Matthew Davies is an Episcopal News Service editor and reporter.