“She lies like a gem in the ocean,” although her identity remains hidden on most maps. Yet thousands of pilgrims arrive each year to seek her secrets, her soul. Her rocks are as old as the earth itself and tell of a fiery, violent birth from deep beneath her shores. Legend says that the giant warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill, whom the English call Finn McCool, built the “Giant’s Causeway,” a geological phenomenon of basalt columns lining a pathway on the floor of the ocean, so he could walk from Ireland to the west coast of Scotland by way of the island of Staffa. Mr. mac Cumhaill lives in the mythology of both countries, inspired by these strange vertical columns of igneous rock. It can be seen in all its grandeur on the south side of Staffa, an uninhabited island, part of the Inner Hebrides’ archipelago, home to thousands of nesting seabirds, foremost among them, a large colony of puffins. . .surely a bird designed by committee; home also to Fingal’s Cave, made famous by the composer Felix Mendelssohn who in 1830, after a visit, composed the “Hebrides Overture.”
But our journey began much earlier, in fact, before recorded time, before any microbial animal, plant or human existed. Something special was already in the slurry that was to become Iona; a tiny dot on the best of maps, two islands removed from mainland Scotland, not easily accessible, few trees, but possessing a secret, a power as great as any known, a bewitching spell cast on any landing on her shore. Her secret lies sleeping in every rock, every grain of sand, every plant but cannot be defined. Humans have tried to describe this power, this “otherness,” through legend, myth, stone carvings, music, painting, religion, but each with only an infinitesimal part of the reality. Flowing in the powers of the cosmos, and sounding through the famous Pythagorean concept of the music of the spheres, we can glimpse though a mirror dimly, her secret. But we can feel it; we know it exists because the power is palpable, indescribable, but real.
Since the dawn of humankind, Iona has been a place set apart, a place of spiritual pilgrimage, long before the beginnings of Christianity. Iona was a center of mystical power to the Picts who inhabited the north of Scotland prior to the 10th century. Throughout the ages mystics have known of these centering places where a universal energy seems to exude from the very rocks. Iona is such a place. Some describe Iona as a place where the barrier between heaven and earth is so thin, that one passes between the two unknowingly. Others say Iona stands on the convergence of many Ley Lines, itself a concept well known to the Native American peoples.
This sense of the sacred transcends all religious dogma. People of faith and those with no faith, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, as well as agnostic and atheist– all seem to experience the otherness of Iona. As we weave our individual journey through the reality of our own existence, searching and hoping to discover a purpose for our existence, we are encouraged by seminal events and places set apart. We are privileged to glimpse this Truth, through the ordinary and occasionally, very occasionally, extraordinary revelation. For most of us these are quantum but give us energy, hope and, ah yes, the FAITH to continue on the labyrinth seeking the source of that power. For me, a metaphysical search for Truth allows room for skeptical inquiry. By challenging and questioning my perception of Truth and God, I am able to keep my faith alive and open to that still small voice, a voice I hear most clearly through the music of the church and a voice that permeates my time on Iona with stentorian assurance that my journey has meaning to a single, universal entity. People call it by many names. Christians call it Truth, Faith . . . GOD.
In AD 563, St. Columba, a wealthy, aristocratic, Irish monk, landed on the south shores of Iona. He brought with him 12 monks. They established a community on Iona and began working to bring the Christian beliefs to northern Scotland and eventually, to all of northern Europe. Columba’s community on Iona predated that of St. Augustine, the better known missionary who established his community at Canterbury (England) around AD 590. Columba’s community on Iona grew and became a center of learning, a place which fostered the arts: elaborate stone carvings, copying and the illumination of religious manuscripts, etc. The Book of Kells was likely begun on Iona, completed on the holy island of Lindisfarne, which sits off the east coast of England–another religious settlement created from Columba’s Iona community. Ironically, the Book of Kells now resides in the library of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
Iona is a place of sublime beauty. It is buffeted by an almost constant wind and famous for the ferocity of the gales that have shaped the landscape. 3 miles long by 1-1/2 miles wide, it is a very small island. Getting there is always intentional. No one happens on Iona. It involves a ferry from mainland Scotland to a tiny port on the island of Mull; a 41 mile road trek on a tiny, often precipitous, one-lane road to another village, then a second ferry trip of about 20 minutes, across the Sound of Iona. This past summer was my 31st year of visits to Iona. I am often asked what you do while there. After all, no automobiles are allowed (except the few driven by the residents, and they all leave the keys in them), no radio or television in either hotel, no fast food restaurants, no amusement rides, and the weather can be spectacular or appalling. . .weeks of appalling at times.
My response begins, if bad weather ruins a holiday for you, Iona, or Scotland for that matter, should never be on your itinerary. You can be blessed with fine weather or drenched as if you swam there. During my 3-week stay this summer, we had 2 weeks of sunny days with highs around 72 and nighttime lows in the mid to upper 50s. The 3rd week was cloudy with a bit of rain and on the last morning, it was 44 degrees. Walking is one of the most popular activities on the island. My days of being free to do that are past so I find an outdoor seat and read through the morning and afternoon. In the evening, after the evening meal, I am part of an informal group that meets each summer, at the same time. I am the only American among a myriad of Scottish and English friends.
The evenings are spent in the splendid hotel lounge in conversation. Participation in our group remains fluid. Death has claimed many through the years but new folk join in each season. We number about 18 and have had as many as 27. It is a diverse group of people: teachers, doctors, lawyers/advocates, ministers, musicians, artists, conservatives, liberals, Christians, atheists, etc. Our discussions are lively and respectful of each other’s beliefs. We all learn from each other. Through the years, many famous people have stayed at the hotel when our group was there: Bishop Desmond Tutu’s wife; Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver; John Smith (Labor member of parliament, now deceased and buried on Iona);
Winston Churchill’s grandson; and artists such as Jolomo (well-known in Scotland); and many more. My path has crossed with many people who are part of the Presbyterian family. This summer, sitting near the table I share with my 82 year old Scottish friend, was a United Methodist District Convener and his wife, a music teacher, from Ft. Worth who teaches at Trinity Valley with Harriett Moore and Kay Newton. . .a small Island with global links.
My Iona tenure is 31 years. Others in our group have been coming more than 75 years! only missing 1939-1945 during the Second World War, when Iona was an important lookout for German U-boats and was closed to civilians. What calls me back year after year? Read the first few paragraphs again and this circle is complete. Plan a visit, but not mid-July to mid-August–Iona is my bit of paradise then!
Iona of my heart, Iona of my love,
Instead of monks’ voices there shall be lowing of cattle:
But before the world comes to an end
Iona shall be as it was.
. . .attributed to St. Columba (AD 529-527)