Sacred Places Journal
28 September, 2001: Iona: Ecumenical Pilgrim
"Oh, yes, the island draws you back," the lady in the shops says, as, in the course of paying for the cross I am buying, I mention that I have been here before.
The first time it was a quick, one-day overview, this time a three-day pilgrimage. In spite of the rain and whipping wind I take time to visit in depth places I missed before: The ruined 13th-century nunnery, now overflowing with flowers; St. Oran's Chapel-the oldest surviving ecclesiastical building on Iona, the chapel and burial place of the Lords of the Isles; the ancient stones moved into the abbey infirmary to prevent further erosion. I find the double-ribboned Columba Cross which I wear often in jewelry form, the 18-foot high St. John's cross-the replica of which stands before the abbey made in 750 to mark the translation of St. Columba's relics inside the abbey church; the tear-drop shaped stone incised with a cross that tradition calls Columba's pillow.
Lunch at the retreat house is vegetables fresh from the garden; homemade bread and a huge pot of leek soup. Evelyn and I contribute a bowl of enormous Scottish raspberries just brought over on the first ferry this morning. The priests swap jokes about religious orders which have to be explained to us.
I had planned to walk right out to the back of the island today, but the comfy chair in the geranium-filled bay window draws me. Wind whips the bright flowers beyond the window and makes whitecaps in the bay beyond the greenfield. Sea birds cry above the sound of the wind.
This is what it is to be a pilgrim rather than a tourist: Peace, time, worship-Morning Prayers at 8:00 in the little chapel of the retreat house, a service at 5:00 here, the Compline at 9:45 at the Bishop's house, and that's missing out two services at the abbey today. The three houses of prayer on the island (Church of Scotland, Episcopalian and Roman Catholic) stagger their services on purpose so that one can attend them all and keep the hours as if in a medieval monastery. Except that in medieval times they weren't so welcomingly ecumenical-even among the religious orders, to hear our fellow guests talk.