Our group arrived at Iona on a Saturday, converging first in Glasgow from east and from west, eager to reach the holy island via a successive means of conveyance: plane, bus, ferry, bus, ferry. The way of the pilgrim should not be easy— but in our impatient age the greatest inconvenience we endured was the pace of travel, the completion of a leg, then the wait to begin another, which would be completed in its own time.
Here St. Columba had arrived from Ireland in the sixth century, self-exiling himself from his beloved Ireland— there are a variety of theories offered as to why, but the story is that he kept sailing until he could no longer see the island of his birth. Setting out boldly on choppy seas in a leather-skinned boat, he arrived here with a few companions, he climbed the tallest hill nearby, and, when he could no longer see Ireland from it, it is said that he came down and set the boat on fire so that he couldn’t return home, perhaps thinking of Jesus’s instruction to those who would follow him that anyone who looked back after putting their hand to the plow was not fit to follow him— harsh words, but forthright. Nonetheless, there had been a push, there had been a pull, and Columba listened and went.
What does it mean to be a pilgrim? Perhaps it starts with feeling the push and the pull, and giving way to that force, allowing the wind of the Spirit to fill your sails, then to run before that wind until it takes you where it will.
We’d worshipped in the restored Abbey, and walked among the fallen stones at the Nunnery. The footsteps of pilgrims have resounded here since before Columba’s time, sure, but especially after his arrival, his founding of the monastery here, which itself spawned monasteries from Lindisfarne to the mainland of Scotland and southward into Ireland. When Viking raids forced the retreat of Columba’s monks back to Ireland, soon Benedictines arrived, and Augustinian nuns, and Columba’s wooden buildings were replaced with stone, defiantly proclaiming their intention to stay. This small island is hewn from some of the oldest rocks on the planet— many times older than on the island of Mull just to the east and visible across the sound. You can feel the ages here, and the song of the ages in the rocks still resound in the stones which were also used to build these buildings in which we now pray.
What does it mean to be a pilgrim? Perhaps it means to carry forward with determination, to establish and re-establish a base for yourself, to recognize and treasure the holy spaces when you encounter them, to feel the ancient song of God in your bones, calling you forward despite the obstacles.
We were hiking on a narrow sheep path that wound along a broad, sandy extended beach called a machair. Our guide, Sarah, was explaining how the machair was transformed and fertilized by the people of the island by laying kelp upon the ground. On this tiny island this was what seemed to be the sole broad, flat area on this rocky little outpost lying off the bigger rocky outpost of Mull, which lies off the rocky coast of Scotland proper. But here was a plain, covered with tiny white and yellow flowers, The earth seemed to ripple from the narrow plots that each villager had been given to till years ago: it was too hard to turn the plow, they’d found, so each villager received one long strip exactly a plow’s width wide. And now that no one farmed it, the islanders had converted the machair into a golf course, groomed by grazing sheep. Of course.
What does it mean to be a pilgrim? Perhaps it is to encounter the resistance to turning, and to find a way forward nonetheless.
At one point in our long hike it had started to rain hard, and we were all soaking wet, and when we would stop for a meditation we all huddled in a circle, listening, praying, and singing. At one moment I looked up and noticed the sheep who could not find a bunker on the golf course were huddled in a circle exactly as we were, butts facing outward against rain and wind. But then the sun broke through the clouds, and we made our way down to the beach where Columba had landed over a millennium ago. We were encouraged to pick up two stones from the rocky shoreline. One was to represent all that you wanted to cast away, all that weighs you down— that one was to be flung into the waves. Another was to represent what you hoped to carry away from the pilgrimage, to carry back with you into your everyday life to further strengthen you in the path you follow in the day-to-day. That one was to be brought home with you, to abide with you as a gossamer remembrance reminding us of that intention, that promise given in God’s name.
What does it mean to be a pilgrim? Perhaps it means knowing what to cast off, and what to treasure and to retain.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher, and an Episcopal priest serving as priest-in-charge at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, a suburb of St. Louis in the Diocese of Missouri.