A pilgrim’s sense of place: a trip to Iona
By Dayna E. Mazzuca
My trip to the small and stunning Isle of Iona began as most pilgrimages do, with a sense of place. I had long dreamt of visiting this small island off the southwest coast of Scotland, known for its history of early Christianity. When my husband suggested I go after my mother died, I couldn’t resist.
Iona is just five-and-one-half kilometres long by 1.6 kilometres wide.
Columba arrived on its southern tip with a band of disciples from Ireland in 563. The place was hilly and marshy. At the time it held none of the allure it does now. Today sheepherders and those who cater to pilgrims make their living along its shores. Clusters of yellow daffodils grow up in rocky ruins and long lines of fences made of field stones crisscross the island. Today, Iona is pastoral. But, for Columba, it was a place of exile and survival. The man known for his transcription of the psalms, a royal lineage and a bloody war that killed 3,000, had essentially been kicked out of his native land for stirring up trouble with his superiors. He came to Iona as penance. When he arrived at what would later be known as The Bay of Columba, he climbed to the highest point and named it Càrn Cùl ri Éirinn (the Hill with His Back to Ireland).
SENSE OF PLACE — Dun Craig is the guest house where Dayna Mazzuca stayed on her trip to the Isle of Iona off the southwest coast of Scotland. (D. Mazzuca photo)
Fifteen hundred years later, people seeking spiritual refuge and renewal
still manage to find their way to this otherwise obscure place on the
edge of the world, thanks to the outreach efforts of the Iona community.
The community hosts candlelit services in a reconstructed abbey at 9
p.m., and offers guided pilgrim walks during the day. The ruins of monasteries
are few and far between, but the landscape and seascape is stunning.
At night, making my way to the abbey, I notice only one street lamp for the whole of the island. A slender shaft of moonlight sets off the music of the waves, heard on every side. Large crosses erected along the path to the abbey are carved with interwoven creatures and circular symbols, a reminder of the Celts Columba encountered. The message these crosses share with passersby is that life is eternal, yet fleeting. Death will surely come, but not without its mysteries and life-giving capacity.
That safety is an illusion, and trust in the everlasting
must be paramount.
Iona and places like it, dedicated to the memory of people
who sought God above all else, is not a place of knowledge, but one of
revelation. Iona with its small geographical features and large spiritual
centres does not force you to come to terms with a God you may not know,
but it does compel the deepest part of your soul to drop to its knees
in awe and wonder. Iona, for the pilgrim, is a reminder that we are each
made to know God, and that once we accept God’s great reality into
our lives, we are forever changed. Forever. My mom believed in God, and
I don’t believe God would let her go, not ever.
This truth is the labour of the saints, saints like Columba.
Here on Iona, far from home, I become aware of sounds that are close. I am either in step, or out. I am either at rest here, or not. All is in Christ. Am I? Suddenly these questions matter because I want fellowship with the other pilgrims.
PLACE OF REVELATION — The cloisters are within the courtyard of the Iona Abbey, where candlelight services were held at night. “Iona and places like it, dedicated to the memory of people who sought God above all else, is not a place of knowledge, but one of revelation.” (D. Mazzuca photo)
On Iona there is nowhere to go. It is a place of arrival.
There are no bright lights or hurried greetings between people passing
in church foyers. There is no sound board working during services. There
electrical lights. Yet, the lighting is perfect and the sound of singing
flawless. I even wonder if prayers are better heard in such stillness.
Emerging from the abbey, from this place of prayer and fellowship, I
notice other attractions on this tiny island in the middle of somewhere.
Wolves on the mainland. Fear. Does fear draw the pilgrim
to a place of meaning? Is a pilgrimage nothing more than an escape from
the nuttiness of modern life? Perhaps. Maybe it’s not really an act of faith
and courage at all. Maybe it’s an act of folly and fortune that
may or may not end well. But isn’t that the perfect picture of
what it means to come to Christ? The Bible says if I’m a fool,
let me be a fool for Christ. That even God’s foolishness is wisdom
compared to the wisdom of this world. Of course, going on a pilgrimage
requires a certain amount of foolhardiness, but so does selling all you
own to claim a stake in the kingdom of God. The monks did it, and in
the end, what did my mother take to heaven with her? Only her faith,
her foolish faith in a risen Christ who lives today and speaks through
his saints, even through those who left their mark so many years ago.
I went to Iona alone. I stayed four nights and then braved the hassles
of international travel to return to my husband and two young children,
and all the routine housework that awaited me. What did I gain, on my
stint as a modern-day pilgrim to a land of long ago? Only this: a certainty
that I am not alone. I am not alone in my craziness over the mundanity
of everyday life, with my frustration of church held against the backdrop
of boring white walls. I am not alone with my desire for more, to live
life large, make a difference and feel alive in my relationship with
God and others. I am not alone.
Ironically, this is the mantra of the pilgrim: “I am not alone.” The
pilgrim, who travels alone, is never alone. She belongs to a great company
of sinners turned saints. My mother, when she left this world, left as
a pilgrim, a sinner turned saint destined for parts unknown.
It seems to me fellow pilgrims are those who come alongside us, in the mundane craziness of life, to remind us of this great truth — we are not alone. Like Christ, like the saints of old, we journey together toward heaven, a better place.
Mazzuca is a freelance writer from Victoria, B.C.