On the Island of Iona

Encouraged by Fionntulach, I set out to see Iona. Columba and six companions came here by coracle from Ireland in the sixth century.Here on this ill- tempered North Atlantic island, they built a Celtic Monastery. Here the magnificently illustrated text of the four Gospels, known as the Book of the Kells, was begun, perhaps as early as the seventh century.

I reach Iona in the mid-afternoon, having travelled from Edinburgh to Glasgow, then on to Oban by train, and to the Island of Mull on a large ferry. Some dozen young people sprouting backpacks, speaking a cacophony of European languages, are on their way to Iona. One of their number, from Toronto, tells me that the Iona Monastery has a programme inviting volunteers to spend time in service and prayer. After the ferry docks at Mull, it takes another hour to cross the breadth of the island by bus before we reach the dock and the much smaller ferry to the holy island. There, guided by a map of Iona, I walk along dirt roads to the B&B I’ve booked through the internet.

After I settle into my small room on this sheep farm, my hostess points out the road that leads to the monastery. Walking towards it, I recall how the Norman Invasion of the 12th Century replanted the early Celtic Monasteries of the British Isles with those of the Church of Rome. Following the Reformation, Iona’s monastery lay in ruins until a priest of the Church of Scotland, following his heart and his dreams, set about rebuilding it in the mid-twentieth century. As well as hiring local labourers, he used the sweat and toil of young men who wanted to be priests, teaching them to work side by side with those whom they would one day serve as spiritual guides.

Now this monastery is known around the world, sending out hymnals and books of prayer to nourish a virtual Iona Community drawn into its circle of faith, drawing young people from across Europe and North America for a time of work and prayer.

I explore the grassy grounds, soggy with recent rain, looking out at the wild sea that licks its shores. I visit the immense chapel, still being restored to its former beauty, try to hear, to see, the black-robed monks of past centuries chanting prayers that lifted beyond the lofty ceiling. I decide to return for Evening Prayer.

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Walking back to the B&B, I pause before a ruin. Collapsed stone walls offer support to trailing vines. Clusters of early blooming spring flowers, in delicate shades of pink and yellow, look up in greeting from within carefully-tended beds. Small signs on the grass, or within the remains of crumbling stone walls, name the long-vanished rooms: Chapter Room, Refectory, Sacristy, Chapel. A larger sign reveals that this is a former Augustinian Nunnery, dating from the same period as the Benedictine Abbey down the road. Names of some of the Abbesses are inscribed on a stone monument.
No one has yet felt the call to rebuild this. Instead, the sun has blessed the earth and drawn forth soft grasses. I am gazing at the ruin of the feminine heart of Christianity.

I am not the first to see this this place as metaphor, nor am I the only one who feels a peace, a longing to remain in this embrace. There are several other visitors here today, standing, sitting, walking among these sacred ruins. Perhaps they too are listening for the ancient melodies of the sung Vespers. And yet it is utterly still here. A singing silence.

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Later that evening, I am in the small candle-lit Chapel of St. Michael on the monastery grounds. In the choir stalls that face each other across the length of the room, to the left and right of an altar and a reading stand, I recognize the young people I met on the ferry. The prayer feels sacred, led by a woman and a musician who are part of the Iona community. There is a Gospel Reading, a Vespers of psalms and music. I join in the responses, reading from pages illumined only by candles. We pray silently for healing, our own and that of others whom we know and love. A candle is passed from person to person, as the community joins its prayer to that in the heart of each one in turn.

Following the Evening Prayer, I ask about a taxi to take me back to the B&B. “Don’t do that,” one of the young volunteers says, “you’ll be perfectly safe walking anywhere on Iona and the starlight is magical.”

Guided by a small flashlight, my eyesight sharpens in the Phrygian darkness. The stars in their rich and varied patterns, have a different orientation, subtly shifted from the way they appear above my home in the Ottawa Valley.

Suddenly, I feel accompanied. My thoughts are filled with Columba and his companions. As I draw near to the ruined nunnery, I focus on the women who once lived here. I listen to the sea, as if surges upon the shore, wondering about their lives. I trust that they knew how to find their own way to the deep homeplace within. I trust that they knew, on this lonely, often bitterly cold island, that they were held in love. Did they know the wisdom of the Ceile de, the way to seek the Christ within, to listen for the voice of love that they might be guided? Or was Celtic wisdom long vanished by the time they came here, buried under a Rule of Life attributed to St. Augustine? I hope for the former. I fear the latter. How can I know?

In the morning, after a full hot breakfast, with eggs from the farm’s own hens, I pack up my bag, set out for the shore. Fionntulach has told me that her favourite spot on Iona is a place called White Strands. I find it after crossing a farmer’s field, where I am gazed at, with weary disinterest, by cows and sheep. A long stretch of white sand, glistening in the uncertain sunlight, invites a solitary walk, offering memories of long ago walkers. Columba must have walked here. I doubt that Augustine’s nuns would have been permitted such freedom.
I sit on a flat rock, gazing out over the sea.

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It’s time to walk back towards the ferry, to begin the long journey back to Edinburgh.

And a seal crawls out of the sea to offer greetings.

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