Chapter 2 Iona and Saint Columba of Pilgrims in the Kingdom, by Deborah and David Douglas. Upper Rooms Books, Nashville. 2004 Permission given to reprint for Iona Team.
As I scramble up the lee side of the hill through heather and grazing sheep, I am breathless and exhilarated, a little scared, and wet to the skin-although whether from rain or sea spray it is impossible to tell. I have never been out in a gale before, and a gale here on this tiny Hebridean island off the west coast of Scotland means more than sixty-miles-per-hour wind–it blows right off the North Atlantic, elemental and wild, from just beyond the middle of nowhere.
The wind has already changed my life: I had planned to leave Iona this morning, but the storms have wrought havoc with the ferry schedules, and the locals only shrug when I ask when I will be able to return to the mainland. This is October; this is a remote and tiny island–I will leave when the weather permits and the Lord wills. I managed to telephone David and our daughters before the phone lines went out, so now I have nothing to do but play with the wind–or rather, let it play with me. For hours I have been swept before the wind, blown about like a leaf, from the abbey down to Columba’s Bay and across the grassy, sandy reaches of the machair to the brow of this small hill.
The view from here is breathtaking in its timeless simplicity–rocks, heather, a wild chaos of surf at the far edge of the island, and then nothing but sea until it merges into sky.
I stand on Dun I (pronounced “Down Ee”), the highest point on the island. When I reach the summit, the force of the wind, which the slope had tempered on my way up, actually knocks me down. When I regain my feet, I experiment with my balance and discover that I can literally lean on the wind, invisible but tangible as earth or stone. I rock forward on the balls of my feet and bank into the wind, arms out, head high, poised for a moment on the muscled air like a carved figurehead on a sailing ship, surrendered to the sky, plunging ahead into the storm.
I have a powerful sense of being where edges meet and disappear: horizon and shore are no tidy boundaries here but points of passionate encounter. The air full of the salt and wet of the sea; the sea is whipped by the wild air; the earth is buffeted by the sea and sky alike. The very sky is in motion. I almost feel as though I am present at Creation before God separated the waters from the dry land. I definitely feel I am standing–precariously–on the very rim of the world.
I wonder if Saint Columba felt the same way. More than fourteen centuries have passed since that intrepid middle-aged Irish monk arrived on the island with his little band of followers–but he is the reason that I, like thousands of pilgrims before me, have come to Iona.
One of the great figures of the early history of Christianity in Britain and Ireland, Columba, of noble birth and monastic training, established a monastery on Iona about 563 C.E. (a century and a half after Saint Ninian at Whithorn) to bring the light of Christ to the Western Isles. From this minute rocky stronghold, that light would spread throughout modern Scotland and down into much of north and central England–years before Pope Gregory I sent Augustine, the archbishop of Canterbury, from Rome to convert the Anglo-Saxons in 597.
It is not clear why Columba left his beloved Ireland to start a new life in this wild place. Ancient records suggest political intrigue, possible exile. But whatever the particular reasons, such a journey would be consistent with the early Celtic tradition of setting out as wandering pilgrims to find the place of one’s resurrection. Like the desert fathers and mothers of Egypt, who strongly influenced early Irish monasticism, Celtic Christians often sought out isolated, barren places on the edge of the world to offer themselves to God so deeply as to receive as gift from the risen Christ their own spiritual death and rebirth.
Legend has it that Columba and his followers left Ireland in a small fleet of curraghs or coracles–small, round boats made of willow and animal hide, with neither rudder nor sail, totally surrendered to the current and wind for direction. Thus “abandoned to divine Providence” they eventually landed on Iona and–after climbing a hill to be sure they were out of sight of the beloved Ireland they had left behind–decided that this was where they would stay. As I lean into the wild wind at the top of Dun I, I can imagine their sense of having found, as Mendelssohn described it in 1829 when he visited Iona, “the loneliest loneliness” in the world.
However, it is important not to oversimplify or romanticize those distant days. Peregrinatio or pilgrimage, certainly had connotations of exile, renunciation, searching for God in the wilderness–but Columba and his monks neither sought nor found an escape from the world. In the first place, “monasteries were almost certainly the busiest institutions in Celtic society, constantly teeming with people and fulfilling the roles of school, library, hospital, guest house, arts centre, and mission station.” More importantly, the ancient notion of pilgrimage was not one primarily of flight to the edge but of return to the center: the earliest Christian pilgrimages were transforming journeys to Jerusalem, the axis mundi, the very center of the world. One left stability behind and headed for the place where edges meet, in order to find the heart of things.
Columba, revered as a saint for both active and contemplative values, seems to have combined a passionate mystical solitude with phenomenal missionary zeal: after his death he was honored as cet cell custoit–guardian of a hundred churches.
Scholarly opinion divides on whether Columba and those early monks saw themselves as hermits or as missionaries–perhaps they lived as both. What can seem from the outside to be paradox is often experienced as balance, and the mystics report that the stillness as the heart of God is both our destination and the grace by which we seek it. Living at the edge may also be all about living from the center. As T.S. Eliot reminds us, “At the still point of the turning world” there is “neither from nor towards…neither arrest nor movement”–only the light, “a white light still and moving”. It is that radiant, dynamic stillness that we seek whenever we step away from where we are–it may look like the very edge of the world, but it is also home. Perhaps Columba knew himself to be truly standing at the brink of everything and–simultaneously–rooted at the heart of it.
Almost as abandoned to the whim of the wind as if I were attempting to navigate a coracle through the sea, I allow myself to be blown back down the lee side of Dun I and across the island again, south to Columba’s Bay. One of the remarkable things about Iona is apparent here: a geologic footnote that adds to the aura of the island’s ancient mystery–the age of the rock from which it is made. Apparently the stone of Iona is among the oldest on the surface of the planet–thrust up eons ago from the very depths of the primordial sea. No fossil record exists here–this rock predates all life. Once there was a small marble quarry here, long since abandoned. The pebbled beach is strewn with fragments of white marble, polished into roundness by centuries of wind and sea. These mingle with tumbled bits of quartz, feldspar, hornblende, slate and epidote. The ones I like best are silvery green streaked with white, locally known as “Columba’s tears.” But the sea today is an awesome thing-the spray hurls itself a hundred feet in the air and stings like a whip. This is no day to linger by the shore. Quickly I choose a pebble from the beach and thrust it in my pocket.
It will, however, take more than stones in my pockets to hinder the wind’s having its way with me. Turning north from the bay means turning back to face the wind, and I fight for every step of the two miles back across the island to the ground of the restored medieval abbey. To walk this way is, for a while, to be completely out of sight of the abbey and the tiny village on the eastern shore–to lose, as John L. Paterson has pointed out,
all sight of human occupation and to be aware of the three elements–earth, sky and sea–which not only provide a constant reflection on the temporal nature of man, but also an awareness of infinity. There are other parts of the island which are possibly more beautiful but none suggests with such directness the inconsequence of time as a measure of existence.
I battle my way, yard by stormy yard, past the grazing pasture called Eithne’s Fold, where the monks kept their sheep. I press on past the remains of the ancient Augustinian nunnery, built in the thirteenth century by Reginald, son of Somerled, Lord of the Isles.
Nearly tempted to drop to the ground and crawl by now, I stagger past Oran’s Chapel and across the Reilig Oran, ancient burial ground of sixty kings–Scottish, Irish, and Norwegian–including, it is said, Duncan and his murderer, MacBeth. These are some of the most famous, most atmospheric at the moment, and I struggle with the church’s heavy doors until at last I stand in the comparative quiet of the nave.
Inside the abbey, a group of tourists moves toward the altar at the east end of the church, so I–seeking shelter but not company–duck into a low doorway and up a dark and winding stone staircase to the tower. The narrow lancet windows are unglazed, and the ubiquitous wind roars into the space and whirls downward in a mighty draft. As I grasp at a stone window ledge for balance, I wonder what recklessness or sheer contrariness keeps me, in a gale on a flat island, obstinately seeking the highest points around rather than prudently lying low until the storm is over. Once again I wonder if this isn’t part of the spell of Iona, this longing for higher ground something Columba himself might have felt. I remember a verse of a psalm: “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; For thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy” (Ps. 61:2-3, KJV).
Even in the relative shelter of the tower, the wind whips my hair about my face and flaps the sleeves of my nylon rain jacket as though they were sails. As I stand braced against the sill of the narrow window, I notice what is carved into the stone lintel above it: “Stand fast.” As I make my way back down the corkscrew stairs, riding the current of captured wind like a cork in a whirlpool, I salute the memory of all the monks across the windswept centuries who have, in this remote and barren place of austere blessing, indeed stood fast–lived hidden lives of faith, rooted in God and abandoned to the wind of the Spirit.
Long intrigued by the flowing lines and mysterious symbols of Celtic design, I have pored over ancient illuminated manuscripts and fragments of carved stone in museums in Ireland and Scotland. But those glimpses had not prepared me for the experience of actually standing in front of one of huge freestanding crosses on the grounds of the abbey. One of these, Saint Martin’s Cross, dates from the early eight century and offers a marvelous example of its kind: massive Irish granite, twelve to fourteen feet tall, beautifully carved with intricate designs, a circle joining the intersecting arms of the cross. It stands where it has stood for a thousand years, resolute against the gales, Vikings and Victorian vandals. In the the brutal winds of this October storm, I am tempted literally to cling to the cross–and in that longing I receive, for a moment another insight into the paradox of living on the edge and moving from the center–a glimpse into what it might mean to “stand fast”.
A radiant conviction of the “real presence” of Christ and all the angels and saints is one of the most striking aspects of the Celtic Christian spirituality: the Cross stands firmly at the heart of that tradition, as deeply rooted and as steadfast in endurance as the stone cross standing before me. The Christian Celtic tradition is also characterized by the paradox I have felt so keenly on Iona: the stillness at the heart of the journey into God, the trust and peacefulness in the midst of the tumult. A line of an ancient prayer occurs to me now:
May the shelter I seek be the shadow of your cross.
Perhaps the key to the riddle lies, more than I supposed, in the great stone crosses that stand like sentinels in the wind-scoured land. Perhaps it is only in clinging to the cross of Christ, in finding our only true shelter standing fast beneath its arms, that we can hope to live either on the edge or from the center.
It is night, but still the gale roars. The restored medieval abbey, where a handful of pilgrims has gathered for evening prayer, is lit only by candles inside wrought iron sconces. Even within their glass chimneys, the flames tremble in the wind that cannot be kept out. In this flickering darkness, in the penetrating, drafty cold of an autumn nigh, it is only too easy to imagine life here in the fifteenth century, when the medieval abbey church was rebuilt under the auspices of Abbot Dominic.
Only traces remain in the north transept of the earlier church built by Reginald on this site in 1203–there are no traces at all of the church Queen Margaret is thought to have built here in 1072, restoring the earlier monastic foundation after the savage destruction caused by repeated Viking attacks from 794 to 986. Of the daub-and-wattle buildings erected by Columba, not a straw remains.
Columba’s legacy was a tenacious one, however; for centuries the monastic community he founded maintained its spiritual leadership in the Western Isles. It was not until 1638 that the last bishop of Iona was deposed, ending 1075 years of a continuing line of Columba’s successors. After that, the abbey gradually fell into decay. By the middle of the nineteenth century, sentimental Victorian sightseers, chipping off bits of the high altars as souvenirs, had completed the ruin of the great church, among whose broken walls the islanders’ cattle grazed. It seemed that the first part of Columba’s own prophecy had been fulfilled:
Iona of my heart Iona of my love, Instead of monks' voices Shall be the lowing of cattle.
However, in 1938 the Iona Community, under the formidable leadership of George MacLeod, a visionary minister of the Church of Scotland, undertook the daunting project of restoring the abbey.
The intention of the Community was not only to repair the fabric of the ancient buildings as a symbol of the conjunction of the spiritual and material in modern life but also to create on Iona a center from which to take those principals into the world. Presently, the Iona Community has an interdenominational, international membership of thousands. Their goal is not to recreate monastic life but to commit themselves to one another in the context of their ordinary lives, bound by a common discipline of prayer and work. The Community supports the abbey not as a museum but as a living house of prayer.
Participating in worship on that dark and stormy night, I could believe the final part of Columba’s prophecy to be fulfilled at last:
But ere the world comes to an end, Iona shall be as it was.
Tonight the ancient and enduring faith of those sixth-century monks burns in this place like a flame, more steadfast than the quaking candles in the choir, more robust in its silent witness than our thin voices raised above the wind. I kneel in the choir and pray, “May the shelter I seek be the shadow of your cross.”
Upon waking the next morning, the first thing I noticed is the silence. The wind still breathes (I wonder if it ever stops here) but in the merest sighing whisper compared to the groaning, screaming clamor of the past two days. The storm is over. My farewell walk across the island this morning is the most sedate and uneventful of strolls compared to the elemental tug-of-war it was yesterday. The sky is a rinsed and milky blue in which, high above the earth again, dove-grey wisps of cloud are moving. The sea no longer fills the air but stretches out where it belongs, iron grey ruffled with white. Earth, sky, and sea are separate again; once more the elements keep their appointed places. As I walk through the village, I see the jetty stirring with life again, preparing for the resumed ferry service across the mile of sea between Iona and Mull.
I climb to the top of Dun I and find (almost to my disappointment) that I can stand upright on the summit, this time neither bowled over nor held aloft by the powerful air. I find in my jacket pocket the small, smooth stone I picked up on the beach the day before, and I finger it idly, thinking about Columba and his monks who lived here in the sixth century, about the Augustinian nuns who lived here in the Middle Ages, about George MacLeod and his stubborn dreams of restoration, about all the faithful who have ever sought the edge of the world in order to find the center. I remember my earlier visit to this small hill, exhilarating and a bit alarming in the sheer force of the elements, the sense of being where edges meet and disappear.
I am beginning to realize that living on the edge involves us in constantly moving on: the horizon disappears as we approach it, is revealed in fact to be an illusion. There is no edge. There is no end. The sphere is unbounded. There is only the still point of the turning world. Our only hope of wholeness lies in the dynamic integration offered us by the Cross–there can be no stasis, no escape, no fixity. Only a joyful ever-moving-on where the winds of the Spirit take us, secure only in the knowledge that wherever we are, God is with us. As Thomas Merton said,
“We cannot arrive at the perfect possession of God in this life, and that is why we are traveling…But we already possess God by grace, and therefore in that sense we have arrived. …But oh! How far have I go to find You in Whom I have already arrived!”
Near the summit of Dun I, not a yard from where I stand, a heap of stones rises taller than I am–a cairn, or memorial marker, spontaneously created at sacred places by those who make pilgrimage to them. I gaze at the cairn for a long time, wondering how many thousands of stones compose it, holding in prayer all the people who have traveled to this place and marked their presence in such a small, concrete, and anonymous way. I realize this cairn represents a whole communion of saints, a community of people to which I belong, although I will never meet them or even know who they are.
Carefully I add my stone to the pile and head on down the slope again–strengthened by my time in this place, light of heart and hopeful of the grace to stand fast and more on, ever deeper into the God in whom we have already arrived.