Sacred Places Journal
29 September, 2001: Iona: The Feast of Michael and All Angels
The pounding wind has gone down, now rain streaks the long windows standing sentinel to the altar in the apse of our tiny chapel. The rain-soaked grass and tossing bay are more eloquent than any stained glass-and give new meaning to our morning hymn: "Sweet the rain's new fall . . . like the first dew-fall on the first grass."
The gulls' cry joins our canticle from Benedictus es, Domine, Song of the Three Young Men, in The Book of Common Prayer (alt): "All you works of the Lord, O bless the Lord . . . and you, all you breezes and winds, O bless the Lord . . . And you, showers and dew, O bless the Lord. To him be highest glory and praise for ever."
Even in our solidly built retreat house we feel so close to nature, so exposed to creation. What it must have been like for Columba and his small band of missionaries in their wattle-and-daub beehive huts! Little wonder that Celtic Christianity is so formed by nature, by the rhythms of the seasons, by the patterns of plants and animals.
The sun comes out as we cross the island. At the end of the path we cross the Machair (Gaelic for plane) where Columba and so many medieval saints sweated and toiled to wrest a living from the thin, rocky, wind-battered soil. It is now a sheep-grazed golf course.
Catriona (Katrina), our hostess at the House of Prayer, has given us a pilgrim's manual with prayers to pray at various stations on this holy island. We gather little volcano-shaped seashells and pebbles of amazing colors-red, green, gold, and 4-year-old Esther gives me her pebbles as a sandy offering of friendship. Then we sit on the white sand of the Bay at the Back of the Ocean-next stop New York-and pray while a red-clad toddler, all of two feet tall, flings pebbles into the water. The solemn prayer for the world:
"Father, it is good for us to be here and to lift our arms on behalf of the world. We rejoice in it, because it is your beautiful creation. We weep over it, because it is so full of suffering and tears. May we always hold it in our heart and bring to it the truth and goodness of your Son's Gospel. We pray this through Christ our Lord. Amen." (John J. O'Riordain, CSSr, The Iona Pilgrim's Manual, p. 33)
As we hike over the hill, accompanied by lark song, I begin shedding layers and am amazed to be donning my hat to prevent sunburn. I pick a small posey of heather and pose for a snapshot with a band of obedient sheep, who then trot off at their ram's behest. Then we walk over the crest and down to Columba's Bay, traditionally the spot where Columba and his companions came ashore on Pentecost Sunday in the year 563. The story is that when Columba determined that he could no longer see his beloved Ireland from which he was exiled as penance for having started a devastating war-over a book-he and his fellow monks gathered stones from the beach and built a cairn of thanksgiving. The beach is now piled with numerous cairns. I select a lovely pink and grey stone and an unusual one of red and green to add to a cairn.
It is important, also, to participate in the Iona pilgrimage tradition of gathering a small serpentine stone to serve as the Iona pilgrim's symbol-considered equivalent, as a pilgrim's symbol, to a scallop shell from St. James Compostella or a palm from Jerusalem.
We sit on the rocky beach with the waves washing up below us and pray a third-century Egyptian prayer from the pilgrim's book:
"May none of God's wonderful works keep silent night or morning. Bright stars, high mountains, the depths of the seas, sources of rushing rivers: May all these break into song as we sing to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. May all the angels in the heavens reply: Amen! Amen! Amen! Power, praise, honour, eternal glory to God, the only giver of grace. Amen! Amen! Amen!"
It has been a day of prayer and praise already, and there are still a communion service and compline to go. And between the two, a Celeidh (pronounced "KAYlee"), or party, in the village hall to celebrate a wedding on the island today.