Sacred Places Journal
27 September, 2001: Lewis to Iona: Toward Reality, or Away?
We are reluctant to leave the beautiful Isle of Lewis with its perfect weather and outstandingly attractive people. The images remain bright: streets of tiny scattered villages, lined with baskets of overflowing flowers, steep green hillsides littered with rocks and sheep, the landscape dotted with thousands of intensely blue lochs.
The world beyond must be quieter today-the newspapers my fellow British Air passengers are reading are full of Prince William and football. It makes a refreshing change. Was this what it was like for Chaucer? This sense of apartness, of journeying through time and space-is it away from reality or toward reality? Flying low over the highlands I am enrapt by the ruggedness of the mountains, the emptiness of the land.
A short time later, crossing the same terrain by train: luscious green here, beginning to turn rusty gold; along the wooded banks of Loch Lommond, the cloud-filtered sun descends in silver, misty streaks on Ben Nevis. We share our table with a young nurse from Minneapolis going to Iona to work in a camp for underprivileged children. St. Columba, who made the journey from Ireland to Iona with the Christian message, would be pleased that his small grain of land is still drawing those who would share His love 1,500 years later.
Ferry to the Isle of Mull-the stately, red, black and white Caledonian MacBrayne ferry glides westward leaving Oban harbor, ringed with greystone Victorian buildings and ivy-covered ancient ruins behind us. We sail into the sun as it turns the water to molten silver. Everywhere we look in all directions ridges of mountain islands rise in grey, blue and beige layers.
Can this be a spiritual journey? Certainly I'm surrounded by peace and beauty, but it's so much fun. I think of my e-mail reply to my friend who sent condolences from her quiet village in Sussex right after the disaster. She apologized that she was about to set out on a holiday island cruise. "No, no," I said. "Go. Go and enjoy every moment. That is one way we can fight back against evil-by enjoying the good." I recall the prayer broadcast on BBC's Evensong from Chester cathedral to which we listened yesterday when driving through the rugged beauty of the Isles of Harris and Uig: "Where anarchy threatens we pray for the ordinary good things of life in the faith that they may overcome that which destroys."
Now the coach down the longest finger of land forming the Island of Mull on a single-lane road. Our coach meets a truck. The coach reverses. Every cottage garden is mounded with hydrangeas of intense color. Then into the dramatic landscape, rugged and forested, lusciously green. Then steep, ridged hills covered in tough grass that looks velvet from the coach window. We spot heather in bloom here even so late in the season. I keep saying, "Thank you. You did a good job, God." It's so hard to believe I'm really here, really doing this. "Thank you. Thank you." Such peace. Such beauty. Do people live closer to God here?
Ten minutes of gentle rocking on the ferry in the greying evening light. Passengers stand on the deck, awed as the ancient, restored, Iona Abbey draws into closer view. We step out on holy ground-but only a brief step. We are met by Paul-Fr. Paul, actually-a Jesuit priest from Liverpool and fellow retreatant, and whisked up a very steep hill to Cnoc a' Chalmain-the House of Prayer. The energetic Fr. Paul shows us to our tiny, spare, but comfortable individual cells and informs us of the schedule: Cold supper at 7:00, Eucharist in the abbey at 9:00, morning prayers here tomorrow at 8:00. The wind whips my window. I look out over Martyrs Bay, by tradition named for the 8th-century monks who were slaughtered by Viking raiders. How little the world has changed.
The cold supper turns out to be an elegant quiche and salads and the fellowship is warm with Fr. Paul, a scholarly monk who has studied in several countries, and Fr. Mark, an elderly Benedictine who describes himself as a "heather priest"-one trained in the highlands by another priest, not at seminary.
Later, Paul, Evelyn and I make our way in the inky dark, relieved only by the moon reflecting on the bay, to the abbey. The medieval monastery has been lovingly restored and is filled with candles glowing on the ancient stones.
The service was-well, um, er-well, there are Celtic prayers, a few lines of traditional liturgy, a Buddhist reading. I am delighted, however, to experience Eucharist taken around a long table which fills the chancel the length of the choir. Elements are then passed from worshiper to worshiper to those not seated around the table. I've read of it being done that way in Puritan times and some 16th-century churches in England being designed specifically for that purpose, but this is my first experience.
Back in the peace of my room I think of Fr. Mark's comment at supper, "In the old days when the order of service called for silence we would have three minutes of silence. Now the priest spends three minutes explaining why we need silence and we are quiet for 30 seconds."