New Bearings: A Jubilee Pilgrimage to Iona
Karen Luke Jackson
This article first appeared in
Hungryhearts, Pilgrimage and Place. Winter, 2008.
To journey without being changed
is to be a nomad.
To change without journeying
is to be a chameleon.
To journey and to be transformed
by the journey
is to be a pilgrim.
Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening
From the moment I learned of Iona’s existence off the coast of Scotland, I had an inexplicable longing to visit. So, in 2000, when an Episcopal conference center in my hometown announced a pilgrimage from Canterbury to Iona, I leapt at the prospect of traveling to that sacred island, not as tourist, but as pilgrim.
The timing seemed providential. In 1999, a Poor Clare Sister who knew the radical shifts occurring in my life recommended I observe my upcoming year of jubilee. I had tried to rest in God’s care as I finalized a divorce, resigned from work at a community college, and put the family home up for sale. Going on pilgrimage, however, seemed to be the celebration I needed to bring my observance to a close.
The house sold four weeks before we were to depart. I put what remained of my life’s accoutrements in storage and moved into a 400-square-foot garage apartment until I could regain my bearings. When I boarded the plane for London, I thought about Columba, who established the first Christian community on Iona. In 563 C.E., he and his monks departed Ireland in coracles, circular dish-like boats without anchors or oars, praying God’s wind would carry them to a new life (1). Now I was uttering the same prayer.
Our trip was fourteen days long, seven days visiting cathedrals in England and Scotland, five days on the island of Iona, then two for the trip back home. We began at Canterbury Cathedral, the center of the Anglican world, then visited Salisbury, Coventry, and Carlisle cathedrals before crossing the threshold of water and islands from Oban to Iona. I confess the farther behind I left the pomp and institutional trappings of Canterbury and the closer I came to the simplicity of the small island community, the more comfortable I felt.
The day the ferry transported our group from the Isle of Mull to Iona, the sea was so choppy that the boat could not dock. I disembarked in several feet of water, climbed onto dry land, and dragged my luggage up a paved path to the St. Columba Hotel. There I was given a single room the size of a prayer closet.
Time spent in this “thin place” (2) was full of God’s constantly changing glory. Showers surprised us with double rainbows, then both vanished. Footpaths beckoned us to explore the little island’s farms, marshes, and ruins. Pebbled beaches provided a playground of colored stones to delight our senses.
I engaged in typical activities for an Iona pilgrim--resting, praying, reading scripture, and even ringing the abbey bells that call people to worship. But one particular experience proved to be a pivotal moment of transformation during my time on the island.
The afternoon before we were to leave, a younger woman and I got lost hiking. In our three hours of trudging through bogs, climbing over rocks, and crawling under fences, we stumbled upon the hermit’s cell (3). Several of us had looked for this landmark earlier in the week, but had been unable to locate the site where monks retreated from community life to spend time alone with God.
The minute I spotted the small circular stone pattern, I knew what it was. Earth was mounded up for a chair and a bed. A smooth stone served as a pillow. We entered that ring without a word. I sat in the chair and she lay on the bed. Sheltered from the sea by two rises, we heard nothing except an occasional bird flapping overhead or insect buzzing nearby. So isolated, so alive, listening for the still small voice of God, feeling warmed by God’s holy breath!
Early the next morning, I stole away into the abbey courtyard to say my good-byes to this sacred island. I sat there humming “This is the body of Christ,” while pigeons cooed in the rafters. This was the day I was to begin my journey back to family, friends, and an unknown future. I was at peace and all was well.
Seven years later I find myself on another pilgrimage, this time exploring the wonders of my own region, the mountains of Western North Carolina (4). For I have realized the sacred land I inhabit is as foreign to me as was the landscape of Iona. I am walking ridges and valleys, listening for God’s heartbeat, looking yet again for a new center for my life–one that not only values pilgrimages to far away places, but also embraces the God of hospitality that abides here at home.
1. Douglas C. Vest, On Pilgrimage (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1998), 32-39. For additional information about Columba, Iona and Iona Community, see J. Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1997), Cintra Pemberton, “Iona” in Soulfaring: Celtic Pilgrimage Then and Now, (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1999), 119-127; and the Iona website at http://www.iona.org.uk/.
3. Vest, 45.
4. For a discussion of the need to stay at home as a companion metaphor to pilgrimage, see Sharon Daloz Parks, “Home and Pilgrimage: Companion Metaphors for Personal and Social Transformation,” in Soundings 72:2-3 (Summer/Fall 1989), 297-315.