2014 - Trip to Iona 2014, the ‘Pilgrimage of Life’
In the sixth century a group of Irish monks, led by St. Columba left their native Ireland for Britain and landed on the remote Hebridean island of Iona. Their aim was to bring Christianity to pagan Britain and the monastery they established on Iona was the starting point. They were very successful and when St Columba died in 597 the Christian faith had a strong foothold in Northern Britain. The first wooden buildings were replaced by a stone Benedictine Abbey in the late middle ages which fell into disrepair after the Reformation in the 16th century.
In 1899 the ruined building was gifted to the Church of Scotland by the owner, the Duke of Argyll. A minister in the Church, George McLeod began the task of restoring the place in the late 1930s inviting unemployed construction workers from Glasgow. They worked in community as equals which over the years developed into the Iona Community, an ecumenical movement which now attracts people from all over the world. A resident staff of professionals and seasonal volunteers receive many guests for open and theme weeks spent in community with twice daily services in the Abbey church, and a variety of programs with an emphasis on reflection, spirituality, meditation and prayer but also great fellowship and a lot of fun.
There are elements of the Celtic church with a strong belief in a direct relationship with God and meaningful stewardship of God’s creation. The Iona Community strives for social justice, nuclear disarmament, peace and ecological awareness. Furthermore they work for a renewal in the Church with appealing themes, new liturgies and hymns with sometimes surprising lyrics.
And so our party of 13 set out at the end of September full of expectation and thrill, our journey itself a pilgrimage of sorts. After a smooth flight to Glasgow and a very scenic train ride along the Clyde, Loch Lomond and ever higher hills, we reached Oban to spend the night. The following day the ferry brought us to the island of Mull where we changed for the bus to Fionnphort and a final short crossing to Iona. Very welcoming Abbey residents met us at the jetty and relieved us of our suitcases.
After a short walk to the Abbey we had tea, were shown our rooms, had the first evening meal and a service of welcome in the church.
We had been asked to mingle with the other guests and before long we became one with the Swedish church group, the American groups and the British from all parts of the UK and joyfully performed our daily chores together, divided up in ‘puffins’, ‘seals’ and ‘otters’.
On the Monday we had our first session with Alastair McIntosh (scholar, writer and broadcaster) on the ‘Pilgrimage of Life’ theme. With humour, strong opinions, funny anecdotes and quite a bit of substance he led us through the sub-themes of Departure (what are we seeking), Initiation (trials and tribulations) and Return (back into the flow of life), one morning session for each. Apart from that he had an open ear for those who wished to share their own private matters with him.
He invited input from the participants and after each introduction sent us out in small groups to discuss themes and also, on one occasion, poems.
One afternoon, John Philip Newell, teacher, writer and former warden of Iona Abbey came along for the launch of his latest book, ‘The Rebirthing of God’. He delivered a powerful introduction on the theme of the collapse of the Christian Church in the Western world in our days and advocated a new beginning.
The pilgrimage around the island was on Tuesday, drizzly, with a downpour at the end. At various points Alastair and others delivered readings, prayers and information. At St Columba’s Bay we had our (packed) lunch.
All of us quickly adapted to the daily routine of the morning and evening services in the Abbey, the highlights being the two communion services (with a potent sermon by Alastair on Sunday) and the healing service. All services had a theme and followed a pattern of frequent involvement of readers and congregation, different liturgy but not unlike our own church. Some of us were blessed with the offer of an active role: Simone did an excellent reading, Erica and Louw were in the choir and I took part in the distribution of the bread.
The weather on the Wednesday was so good that the trip to Staffa was on and a number of us took part and returned with pictures of dolphins, scenery and of course Fingal’s Cave. In the evening there was the ‘Concert’ in the MacLeod Centre with contributions by many, often of high quality. We performed ‘Green Grow the Rushes – o’ which went down well.
The island was explored by all, individually and in small groups. The Iona Community Shop and the Historic Scotland gift shop were frequented by all.
There was a nagging feeling of sadness when we said our goodbyes on Friday morning. It had been good, we had been inspired, had enjoyed a strong community spirit and had had meaningful contacts, not only within our own group but with a variety of people.