In both this and my other regular spiritual formation course, we explore pilgrimage as a spiritual practice and talk about some of the unique flavors of Celtic Christian faith.
This is the second year that our school has sent pilgrims to Iona. Both years, author John Philip Newell has been our pilgrimage host and guide. John Philip has written around twenty books, including prayer books and poetry books, and has led the Iona Community and Iona Abbey worship with his wife Ali for several years. His most recent book, A New Harmony, was required reading for our pilgrimage. Those who were students had also read Newell’s excellent Listening to the Heartbeat of God in prior coursework.
Our group associated with The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology was part of a group retreat on the themes of peacemaking and a new harmony. We made up half of the pilgrimage group, with other pilgrims coming from both western and eastern US, Australia, and the UK.
The first evening of our group pilgrimage, the village of Iona hosts a ceilidh (key-lee). It’s a gathering for traditional music, dance and storytelling hosted at the town hall. We had heard that this was not to be missed.
My wife and I named our daughter Kaileigh in honor of this celebration, so I knew I needed to at least show up. Although I’m not a dancer, I wanted to see what a Scottish and pilgrim blended party would be like. I planned to stay for two or three songs, sneak back to my room and get a good night’s sleep.
But by the first or second song, it was clear that this ceilidh designated, “No observers—only participants.” I begrudgingly stepped onto the floor and began to learn folk dances similar to the ones I learned back in my Montana grade school for a square dancing portion of our physical education class. And I was surprised to see that the villagers, members of the Iona community, and we pilgrims all had a wonderful time together. I had a wonderful time dancing.
I heard God reminding me that it is good not to get too set in my ways, and to prepare for surprises—in everyday life as well as on pilgrimage.
Staffa’s basalt columns are the same geological structure as the columns at Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, and are uniquely beautiful. I heard the pilgrims on our boat excitedly hoping for a puffin sighting. We made loose plans to explore Fingal’s Cave and perhaps to sing inside it, to hear a glimpse of what Felix Mendelssohn had heard on the visit to the Hebrides in 1827 that inspired him to write the Hebrides Overture.
As an avid photographer, I’m mesmerized by light. I always try to notice its unique beauty in a place, and Staffa was one of those places. The light we had inside Fingal’s Cave in the early afternoon was gloriously golden—just strong enough to give us hints to the cave’s wonder. And as we sang a Gloria, the resonance in the sea cave was striking.
I hadn’t realized before this moment that puffins burrow to create nests. They create and occupy holes in the hillside, and we could see puffins poke their heads out of their burrows to look around, unafraid of our presence. (The captain had told us that the puffins like human presence, as we scare away the gulls which prey on the puffin eggs).
It was here, on the northeast coast of Staffa, that I started photographing the puffins that launched and returned from their hillside nests. And it was here that I captured one of the silliest, and most entertaining, images of my amateur career.
When I look back now on my photos of our group, it was this day—the trip to see the puffins on Staffa—that held the most joy for us. Faces beamed. And that day was the one which was least planned, least expected.
Now, a bit more than two months later, it reminds me that God is often surprising us by grace—upending our expectations and leading us into something that is so much more delightful than we ever could have hoped.
Sometimes it takes pilgrimage to show us that it is the simple, unexpected moments which mean the most when we reflect upon our journey.
How can you release your expectations and be willing to see God in the surprises of life? Leave your response in the comments.