Pilgrimage to Iona Trinity Pilgrimage 2016



Our pilgrimage began with a two-day trans-continental journey, finally crossing the glens and lochs to Oban, a seaside town with some of the best seafood we could hope for!

Iona is a "thin place" - only a tissue paper separating the material from the spiritual.

- George McLeod, founder of the Iona Community

Next morning, we left the mainland to travel over to the Isle of Mull,
Crossing it's early-springtime lonely beauty,
with this extraordinary rainbow appearing just before Iona came into view.
The sky then fully cleared as we crossed the sound of Iona to the abbey and Bishops House (in the background). An auspicious beginning!
We have arrived!
a "thin place" indeed!

Settling in...

Bishop's House

Bishop's House is located at water's edge just down from the Abbey; it's been a retreat center since the late 1800's
Assembled in the chapel for our orientation with Toben, the warden
And discovering that the waves will lap us to sleep!

The rhythm of our days

Each day was different (on Iona, each quarter-hour is different weather-wise!) and yet the daily rhythm was similar as we formed a house of prayer, reflection, and discovery together. The balance of individual freedom and community pattern - all bathed in the intensity and vastness of this very alive landscape - made the week rich.

We began each morning with Eucharist in the tiny chapel.
Then breakfast together before heading out into the day.
Some mornings we walked the island on pilgrimage.
One morning we went off-island to a neighboring rock, Staffa, (4th-generation islander, Davy, was unforgettable!)
- another thin place.
Afternoons we convened an optional discussion to dig deeper into our reading and reflections, (Highly recommended reading: 'Listening for the Heartbeat of God' by John Philip Newell).
Before dinner we circled up for the only required event of the day: the evening meeting. "What did you notice?" was always our baseline question, a way of paying increasing attention to the outer and inner journey of each day.
Dinner was hearty, home-cooked, and packed in tight!
Finally, Compline ended each day in candlelight, prayer and song.

Walking the island on pilgrimage

Iona has been a major pilgrimage destination in Europe since the Middle Ages. In modern times pilgrims are again coming to the island in significant numbers. Yet when we arrived, our pilgrimage had just begun. We continued the journey spiritually as we created a community of prayer and reflection, and we continued it physically by walking the island, individually and together. Instinctively, we visited those physical points of connection between the present and the past, like so many pilgrims before us.

South of the Abbey: Columba's Bay

The south end of the 3-mile-long island is the untamed end - rocky and boggy, with a beach that is remembered to be the spot where Columba landed in 563 to begin his work. We made station-stops along the way, circling for readings, prayers, and song at sites of memory and meaning: at the Nunnery / the Crossroads / the Common grazing ground / the loch / and finally Columba's Bay.

the return journey...
What wonders are there to behold.

- Bobby McFerrin

(we sung this song all over the island, everywhere we stopped to read and pray)

North of the Abbey: the Hermit's Cell, Dun I, the Spring of Eternal Youth, and the Reilig Odhrain (burial ground)

Next day, we set out from Bishop's House to gather around the standing cross at the Abbey, then crossed overland to the Hermit's Cell on the other side of the island and then to the top of the highest-point hill, "Dun I". Sounded easy. It was not. We got lost, and sunk into bogs, and the road was steep and cold and windy and slippery. Many of us would not have walked it if we had known what we were getting into (- and the accomplishment of arrival at the top was exhilarating, and the memories of that day are becoming epic). In that sense, it was a lot like life's pilgrimage.

After finally arriving at the top, we splashed our faces from the Well of Eternal Youth and returned back to the Reilig Odhrain (the ancient burial grounds that hold the remains of the monks and 40 Scottish, Irish, and Norse kings), to reflect on the end of our earthly pilgrimage and the further journey.
At least once in your life / Take a crazy diversion / Visit the top of a mountain / Be storm swept by wind and rain... / Stand under a tree and look up / In a rock pool and look down / Spend time in your own company / Listen to the sound of waves through a window / Discover love / Discover silence.

- Fiona Caley

The oldest cross on the island, the Stone of Echodi, early 600s.

Exploring the abbey...

The Abbey building is a world all its own, with a rich history and a strong presence on the island. It's on the site of Columba's 6th-century monastery, which was a major center of learning, arts, and mission in the British Isles and Europe for hundreds of years until it's refounding as a Benedictine community in the 12th century. Ruined and now rebuilt, it is home to a thriving ecumenical Iona Community with a worldwide mission of reconciliation and justice.


The Abbey, of course along with Dun I, is the dominant feature of the landscape (Bishops House in the foreground).
The wild geese (the Celtic symbol of the Holy Spirit) wheel around the Abbey through the day (view from Bishop's House front door).
St. Martin's cross has stood in its place for over 1200 years - it has seen ages of change!
the abbey cloister


A favorite spot for many of us: a door-watch room at the back of the abbey church..

The play of light...

The counterpoint to Iona's ancient exposed rock (2.5 billion years - some of the oldest on the planet!) is the light, one of its most arresting features. Water all around reflects the light up; clouds refract and interpret the light back down in an ever-evolving expression of beauty. At this outer edge, creation feels full, not empty.

the Abbey at sunrise

Sunrise from the backyard of Bishop's House...

The Bay of Columba

The North End

And of course, the light of that amazing rainbow upon our arrival!

Small things

As vast and immersive as the ancient and living landscape was, so much of the beauty of the island was found in the smallest of things, which took time and attention to notice.

spring time flowers coming up everywhere

Wild geese, the Celtic symbol of the Holy Spirit, wheeling overhead all week.

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -- over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

- Mary Oliver

Ferns growing in the Abbey windows.

Grass on the path that has endured hundreds of feet and keeps coming back

The whole worlds that exist on rocks at the shoreline

the moss, brown from a distance but vivid and diverse up close.

The generosity of the islanders on hand at every turn

The isle of Iona framed through the cave on Staffa.

Accumulated pilgrim offerings in a window of the burial chapel in the ancient burial ground of the Reilig Odhrain,

Found objects on our walks were added to a shared altar under the Paschal candle.

The bonds of friendship

Everyone started as a stranger to someone on this trip. About two thirds of the group were parishioners at Trinity; others were friends, spouses, or those who joined from sister churches. But through the week we began to matter to one another more and more deeply. One member said on the last day:

Making this journey with other pilgrims really is what made this a pilgrimage for me.

Through travel...

Two days to get to Iona - the travel together starts to connect us...

On the ferry toward the Isle of Mull
Lunch at the little stone stable-turned-pub before we cross the Isle of Mull.

Through struggle...

Nothing brings a group together like a common goal. Setting out on our walking pilgrimage to the Hermit's Cell that led through a bogs and over treacherous climbing became a wonderful connecting event, maybe more than some of the sunny days.

Setting out with confidence
Daniel reads a meditation for pilgrims who have lost their way.
Overcomers! We reach the mountain top and drink from the well of eternal youth!

Through conversation...

"Conversation" and "Conversion" share the same linguistic root. Our afternoon gatherings were rich opportunities to go deeper, using Listening for the Heartbeat of God a wonderful book on Celtic spirituality with which we launched our discussions - highly recommended!

And then of course the hundreds of one-on-one cups of tea we shared over the week wove together many new connections.

Through celebration...

Toward the end of the week we celebrated the 10th anniversary and renewal of marriage vows for Bob and Sandy Blaine!

with a Celtic hand-fasting ritual to bind them together in blessing.
Confetti and feasting afterwards!

No one narrator or slideshow can tell the story of these pilgrims because it was told in a hundred different conversations, solo walks, communions, clean-up assignments, journal entries, etc. Each person made a heroic journey, and discovered God and themselves more deeply on this island, often described as a thin place, where the visible and invisible worlds seem united.

On the last day one of the pilgrims said "I'm realizing that I am the thin place". YES! We have traveled far from home to learn the truth that is closest to us. Now we begin the further, equally heroic work of living out of this awareness in the world to which we return.

Saying our Farewells

One of the most important insights of pilgrimage is that the return journey matters as much as the outbound one. One pilgrim said, "I feel we are returning home but we are not going 'back' - we are traveling forward. So we say our farewells and start that further journey. The pilgrimage continues.

Our last circle prayer turning to the four directions. "What wonders are there to behold."
Ephemeral pilgrim shadows and eternal rocks on the shore at the jetty...
Walk on, pilgrims!
Deep peace of the running wave to you, / Deep peace of the flowing air to you, / Deep peace of the quiet earth to you. / Deep peace of the shining stars to you. / Deep peace of the gentle night to you. / Deep peace of Christ the light of the world to you. / Deep peace of Christ to you. --ancient Gaelic blessing.
Above: Iona, off the coast of the Isle of Mull (upper center)

another old Gaelic saying:

Am fear a thèid a dh'Ì, thèid e trì uairean ann.

"The one who is destined to come to Iona will come not once but three times."

So, till next time!

The pilgrimage continues...

Created By
Daniel Simons


Daniel Simons, 2016

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