I was whipping through the channels on the radio one night as I was driving home from a long and tiring day when I came upon one of the most beautiful songs I had ever heard. It had a different feel than most music, with tin whistles and guitars and mandolins and accordions, and certainly a vocal with a different accent. Its name was "The Valley of Strathmore," and it was performed by the Scottish band Silly Wizard. When the soothing, lovely voice of a young woman named Fiona Ritchie came on the air, I learned I was listening to Thistle and Shamrock, a syndicated radio show which specialized in Celtic music. I've never been the same since.
Celtic music led me to Celtic history, Celtic history led me to Celtic spirituality, and Celtic spirituality led me to Celtic pilgrimages: the rocky crags of Skellig Michael rising seven hundred feet out of the North Atlantic off the coast of Ireland; the Holy Island of Lindisfarne rising out of the North Sea off the Northumberland coast of England.
The most important was to Iona. I want you to take that particular pilgrimage with me.
The five-hour drive from Glasgow to the Isle of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful trips you will ever experience. Driving past Loch Lomond and into the highlands, before cutting west to the coast via ferries and one-lane roads, will bring you face-to-face with explosions of mountains marked by countless waterfalls pouring off their sides, cascading into valleys of vivid green. When you come to the Hebrides, you see that green run straight into the bright blue of the sea - no transition, no melting into each other - just side by side in stark, beautiful contrast, leading to countless islands built of jutting rock serving as tiny sanctuaries of land and hill.
As I boarded the ferry for the final leg of my journey, a short cross over the water with Iona and its medieval ruins in full view, it was as if I were crossing over into another world. I felt a kinship to the place, as I did when I first stepped out on to the moors of England. Indeed the two places do not seem dissimilar. Both separate you from the world. The sky envelops you, the wind runs wild and free, and you are thrust before God and God alone.
Iona is, for me, a spiritual place.
It feels like you are standing on the edge of the world, alone with your spirit before the Spirit, in nature's great monastery where buildings are only a part of the cloister. But why is this small island, only three miles long and half as wide, set apart from all others for pilgrims such as us? Because of one man, and the community he unleashed. Columba came to Iona from Ireland in 563. Although related to one of the ruling families of Ireland, Columba left his native land and founded the famed monastery of Iona. Columba brought Christianity to much of Britain, and according to Adomnan's Life of St. Columba - written by Adomnan, the ninth abbot, on Iona before his death in 704 - was purported to work such miracles as calming storms and raising the dead. By the time of Columba's death, sixty monastic communities had been founded throughout Scotland. It is said that Columba left Ireland for Iona to make penance for a conflict he felt responsible for instigating that resulted in over three thousand deaths, with the hopes of reaching an equal number for Christ. He succeeded.
After Columba's death, pilgrims made their way to Iona, specifically to visit the shrine of Columba, which can still be entered to this day: a little stone building just to the side of the west door of the restored abbey. They would also come to see the large standing crosses, now iconic to Celtic Christianity, with their deep engravings carved into the stone and the circle around the arms. The crosses actually marked the path to the shrine, with the oldest and most famous of them all, St. John's cross, just outside the entrance.
Columba and his heirs labored from their stronghold on Iona until repeated Viking raids made the treasures of their island too vulnerable to loss. They bought land in Kells, Ireland, and moved their locus of activity there. Yes, the famed "Book of Kells," so associated with Ireland, is actually believed to have been created on Iona. After Columba's spiritual descendants left in the 800s, the abbey fell into disuse until a Benedictine abbey and Augustinian nunnery were established there in 1203. Though built on the site, little of Columba's original church was able to be preserved. This, too, fell into disuse after the Reformation.
Yet pilgrims continue to make the trek to Iona, seeking a sense of spirituality, along with a connection to a vast history of worshiping saints. The island lends itself to that, not least of which through its restored twelfth-century St. Oran's Chapel and the nearby ruins of a similarly aged nunnery. Because of Iona's place in Celtic Christianity, centuries of kings are buried on its grounds, including the famed Duncan and his murderer, Macbeth. You can still see the medieval "Street of Death" that leads from the ferry landing to the abbey where bodies would be carried to their final place of reset. An ecumenical community was founded in 1938 by George Macleod which sought to restore the abbey and reestablish an ongoing worshiping community within its walls, which exists to this day.
When I first went to Iona, I did not know what meaning it would hold for me. I suspected that it would remind me of my affection for the earthy and physical nature of Celtic spirituality. I had a sense that I would resonate with the deep history and ancient nature of the place, particularly its vestiges of medieval life.
All this turned out to be true, but there was something more.
Deeply rooted within Celtic spirituality are what are known as "thin places." The Celts believed that the other (spiritual) world was always close to us, but that it was at these places that the veil between the two worlds - the material and the spiritual - was lifted. Islands were particularly noted for their "thin" nature. "Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle on the crest of a rock, that I may see often the calm of the sea," Columba wrote. "That I may see its heavy waves over the glittering ocean as they chant a melody to their Father on their eternal course."
Iona is, to me, a "thin" place. And as the symbol of Celtic spirituality to this day, it should be. Avoiding pantheism (the idea that God is everything), as well as panentheism (the belief that God is in everything), the ancient Christian Celts saw God through everything. The reality of God's immanence ran strong and deep within their spirits. A deep awareness of God's presence informed their daily life to such a degree that any moment, and any task, could become the time and place for an encounter with the living God. They simply assumed that God was present, and lived accordingly. Iona brings that presence to bear on all who land on its shores.
After checking into the small inn, one of only two on the island, I would recall the simple but compelling nature of faith the Christian Celts embraced. Consider the daily task of rising and starting their fire. The act would be accompanied by the following prayer,
I will kindle my fire this morning
In presence of the holy angels of heaven.
Then, throughout the day, with every endeavor - from the milking of the cow to the cooking of a meal - the presence of God would be recognized. At the end of the day, when the fire was banked for the night, the last prayerful recognition of God's immanence would be offered:
The sacred Three
Oh! this eve,
And every night,
Each single night.
To the Celtic soul, God could be seen as revealing himself in every occurrence of life. John Scotus Eriugena (810-877), arguably the greatest thinker the Celtic church produced, liked to speak of the world as God's theophany (the visible appearance or manifestation of God). And this presence, perceived and looked for in everyday life, was deeply personal.
This was the lesson of the Celtic soul: they opened themselves fully to God.
But this was no passive quietism. Iona was the beachhead on which Christianity came to Scotland and Northern England. Yes, Augustine came to Canterbury a few years later, and St. Ninian before either of them, but Columba was the real evangelist. Under his leadership, Iona was never some cloistered community that retreated from the world to contemplate and pray. It was the fortress from which Christianity would assail the world. The contemplation and prayer were the spiritual calisthenics that developed a muscular approach to mission. This raises a significant issue; it is only a spiritually transformed life that will transform the world.
Put another way, if you wish your one and only life to be active in the world, then Christ must be active in you.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom.