When I changed my course at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology and decided to study pilgrimage, I remember sitting down with Dan Allender (a co-founder of our school) in his office and talking about my new sense of direction.
Apart from the frighteningly accurate and revealing analysis that he tends to offer during office hours (“I wonder what it is within you that longs to wander, Lacy? What are you wandering from?”) I remember him mentioning Iona as a site of pilgrimage.
Of course I nodded, implying complete understanding without having any idea what he was talking about (I swear to you that I am not the first to do this in his presence). The truth is, however, that I had never once heard of Iona, but the way Dan said the word made me feel as if the place carried quite the sense of mystique (oh how I wish you could hear the way Dan Allender speaks–I have a feeling all that have are smiling at this moment and thinking “Dan talks as if everything has a sense of mystique,” but that is beside the point).
As I left his office (thinking, “ugh–caught in the act”), Dan suggested I speak with Tom Cashman about pilgrimage, as many others had been suggesting. As I learned more about this place, often described as being at “the edge of the earth,” and thus a ready place for spiritual encounter, I became more and more intrigued and realized I, too, needed to journey to Iona.
When I finally made it to Iona on a whirlwind trip in 2012 (note to self: Iona requires more from you than a whirlwind trip), I consulted Tom as I made plans. Who better to prepare me for my journey than the one who implanted the ideas of both Celtic Spirituality and pilgrimage to Iona within me?
This interview with Tom first appeared in the first few months of A Sacred Journey’s existence over three years ago (feels like forever), but since I’ll be visiting Iona again in the spring (hopefully with you?), I thought it was time to dust it off and use it as a primer once more. Read on…
Tom: The story of St. Columba and Iona are entwined. Columba was disgraced by a great bloody battle on his behalf over ownership of a book of Scripture, and in repentance he self-exiled himself from both his monastic community and from Ireland. With a small band of supporters he allowed the wind and tides to take to a place so remote Ireland could no longer be seen from its highest point.
We need to remember that Columba did not choose Iona, but Iona in a sense chose Columba. My guess is that Columba saw Iona as both his personal refuge and the base for further mission to evangelize Scotland and Europe, but probably not as an intrinsically holy place. At least it was no more holy than the many wonderful islands of the Hebrides.
It is the ministry of Columba and his successors as evangelists, and the growing perception over time that this was a “thin place” and a place for the burial of the royalty of Europe that the mystique of Iona grew. The most current chapter of that mystique is that begun by George MacLeod in his restoration of the Abbey and Community.
What do you mean by “thin place”?
The Celts believed that time was not linear, but a spiral, and that it was possible to slip across that spiral to times past, in both directions. There were certain places (and certain times of the year) where this was more likely to take place. These were the “thin places.” That term has been expanded to include any place/time when those who have gone before us manage to revisit us in strange & wonderful ways.
Tell us a bit about pilgrimage to Iona today.
Pilgrimage to Iona has become so popular today that it creates some problems for the Iona Community. Group lodging needs to be booked 2 years ahead of travel. Associate members of the Community are constantly arriving for periods of duty ranging from several months to a year or more. This process needs to continue, while still welcoming those of us who are visiting, who strive to get a real sense of community while only able to experience a few aspects of it – worship daily at 9am and 9pm, limited community in the common area, chapter room and the cloister.
The significant dimensions of the Iona mission today are found in micro-communities around the world, some living in the slums of Glasgow, and in a multitude of similar small mission teams, groups and associate members whose activity primarily focuses on peace and justice issues. All of these associates observe a rule of life similar to those in the core community.
It’s difficult and expensive and time-consuming to get there. Yet nearly everyone vows to return again, stay longer, and more fully receive what the island has to give them as pilgrims. Many become associate members and take a bit of Iona back to Peoria and Pittsburgh.
Tell us about your own journeys to Iona; what draws you there?
Initially I was drawn there as part of a pilgrim group. We joined in fully with worship at the Abbey, and also held our own Eucharist in the ruins of the Nun’s Chapel, roofless and open to the sky. We hiked sheep trails and visited the famous Columba’s Beach. Community formed during our stay at the St. Columba Hotel, in small groups and in a morning yoga gathering as well as in worship and hiking, and over meals. Without question it was the kind of experience that makes one want to return for more.
Journey #2 was coming to Iona solo some years later after a week on the far-flung, lonely Orkney Islands north of Scotland. A great wedding was taking place and I ended up staying in a farmhouse near a hamlet on Mull and “commuting” every day to Iona. A quite different experience this was.
How do you experience God and encounter the Sacred while on Iona?
When you know that you are walking in the footsteps of one of the great Celtic Saints – Columba – who pushed the evangelical envelope, who was self-exiled to Iona with a group of fellow monks, you know that you are traveling out on the holy edge of the Christian tradition.
The great spaces of the Abbey and the ruins of the Nun’s Chapel and Oran’s Chapel, the stone crosses, the gravestone slabs of the kings buried there all contribute to an overwhelming sense of history. The remoteness of the island, looking out into the Hebrides and the North Atlantic gives one a sense of “the end of the earth.” And if you are given the gift of moving through “thin places” you will experience this virtually everywhere on the island.
When you return home from Iona, what do you bring with you from your experience? How does your journey to Iona impact your daily life upon return?
When I have returned home, beyond the photographs and the diaries and the memories, I have indelibly been imprinted by the place. My spirit knows that God’s creation includes some extraordinary places like this where the veil between now and what has been is very thin. To experience physical connection with holy ground cannot be forgotten, or dismissed, once it has been experienced. To worship in such a place is also transformational, something that one goes back to in memory again and again. We long for more of this.
Also, I’ve used the Iona Community Rule of Life as a model in workshops and classes, and the Iona Community Prayer Book is a frequent resource for liturgical design (see resources list below).
Suggested resources on Celtic Spirituality and Iona from Tom:
- “The Iona Community Bookstore is a fabulous resource for prayer and communal worship resources. One bit of advice in the prayer book is permission to copy for use in community worship with asking further permission. What a contrast to the proprietary warnings against copying and use so prevalent in other worship resources. You will also receive a significant orientation to the spirituality of the Iona Community through their prayers – distinctly Celtic, Trinitarian, egalitarian. The music of John Bell who heads the Community of the Wild Goose has a similar wealth of singable, contemporary settings for congregational use and incorporating the same values.”
Additional resources from Lacy:
- Pilgrimage: A Spiritual and Cultural Journey by Ian Bradley is a great resource to learn more about pilgrimage to Iona and the island’s history, as well as the history of pilgrimage and other traditional places of pilgrimage (it was the first book on pilgrimage I ever read!)
- Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality by J. Philip Newell
- Waymarkers: Collected Prayers, Poems & Reflections for the Pilgrimage to Iona by Mary A. DeJong (included in our Pilgrim Pack!)
- If you are traveling to Iona, the Isle of Iona Visitor’s Guide online is an invaluable resource for practical planning
Have you ever traveled to Iona? Also, what do you think about the concept of “thin places,” as described by Tom?
Since we’re on the subject, I’ve shared my photos from my first journey to the Isle of Iona on asacredjourney.net’s Facebook page. Flip through them here, and while you’re there, don’t forget to “Like” A Sacred Journey!