There and Back Again: A Pastor’s Sabbatical Adventure #11

Iona Pilgrimage – Part 1
Iona is a small island at the south end of the island of Mull – amongst the Inner Hebrides islands off the coast of Scotland. Based on archaeological evidence it’s thought to have been occupied since the late Bronze Age (@1000 BC). While the population peeked around at around 500 in the middle ages the current year round residents number about 150 – but it is enough for a local elementary school (that is currently adding an addition). However after elementary school the children go to a boarding school in Oban (on the Scottish coast – reached by crossing the island of Mull (which takes one hour) and taking a ferry (another hour) and just come home on the weekends.
Getting to Iona is a bit of a pilgrimage journey in itself. I began by taking a three hour train ride from Glasgow to the end of the line in Oban. Then in Oban I took an hour long ferry ride to the Island of Mull. There a bus picked us up for the 40 mile trip across Mull – which is quite an experience in itself. On the one hand because Mull is beautiful with green rolling hills, lakes and valleys dotted with sheep and long haired, horned cows and only the occasional house or small settlement. Buy in addition the double decker bus winds its way up and down the hills and over bridges on a narrow one lane road (on which the cows and sheep like to wander) with frequent pull outs that allow cars, trucks or buses coming the other direction to get out of the way so you can pass (After a number of what seemed like near misses and teeterings on the edge I made sure to buckle my seat belt). While the train and ferry ride were full of talkative travelers and sight-seeing tourists the ride across Mull enveloped us in hushed contemplation that was mostly about the beauty (but also a bit about the terror). The bus drops off at the settlement of Fionnphort where we caught another ferry that carried us across the mile wide gap from Mull to the island of Iona. Fortunately, a van met us at the dock to pick up our luggage and a guide then lead us the final half mile or so to our final destination – the Iona Abbey.
While it’s thought that Iona was an important religious site even in its pagan days Iona’s Christian history began when St. Columba (Irish – Colm Cille, “church dove”) in the 6th century left (either because he was forced to or he wanted to – the sources conflict on this point) Ireland with a group of 12 faithful followers to (escape? and) evangelize the pagans of the islands and also eventually Scotland. Columba was in his early 40s when he established his Abbey and had various (mis)adventures on his way to converting the Picts and becoming a saint. One involved one of his friends/followers volunteering(?) to be buried alive to quell the pagan spirits of the place so they could build a church (St. Orans). Another was banishing a large “river beast” to the bottom of the River Ness (aka the Loch Ness Monster!) after it killed a Pict and threatened to eat one of Columba’s followers as well. Still another were his late night conversations with angels on the “Hill of Angels” secretly witnessed by one of his followers.
After Columba’s death the Abbey flourished as a center of learning and also religious and political life in the area. Among other things the famous illustrated bible manuscript the “Book of Kells” was produced there (and later spirited away for safe keeping to Kells in Ireland). Because of it’s even pre-Christian identification as a “thin place” – a place where the space between heaven and earth is thinner than other places – not to mention the presence of the relics of St. Columba – it is said that in ancient times over 40 kings and great ones of Scotland were taken to Iona to be buried around (poor) St. Orans chapel which neighbors the Iona Abbey. According to tradition Shakespeare’s Scottish King, Macbeth and – the king he murdered – Duncan are buried there. For this same reason, most recently John Smith (not the lover of Pocohontas but the Scottish charismatic leader of the British Labour party (who died suddenly of a heart attack opening the door for the election of Tony Blair as the (Labour Party) Prime Minister of the United Kingdom))) was buried in the small cemetery.
The Abbey and community began to decline two centuries later when Vikings began periodically raiding the coast – pillaging the Abbey of its valuables and wealth and slaughtering the monks. This death, destruction and decline continued for quite awhile until eventually the Vikings were converted to Christianity and instead of continuing their pillaging ways settled on the island themselves.
Around 1200 the Abbey got a new lease on life when it was reestablished as a Benedictine monastery along with a sister convent of similar size just up the road. These grew and thrived as well until the middle of the 1500’s when the Reformation took hold (thank you Martin Luther?) and brought an end to all things Roman Catholic in Scotland including the Benedictine Abbey and Convent of Iona.
Over the next few hundred years the Abbey and Convent fell into ruin (as the Convent still is today) with periodic efforts to restore and renovate it. After one such effort, the Duke who ruled the area and owned the Abbey donated them to what is now the Historic Trust of Scotland at the beginning of the 20th century with the condition that the Abbey be used as an ecumenical worship space.
Not much happened with that until a Presbyterian minister in Glasgow – George MacLoud – got involved. MacLoud was concerned with bridging the gap in working class Glasgow where he ministered between the rich and the working poor. In order to do that he came up with the idea of taking groups of them to Iona where they would live and work together for a few weeks at a time in restoring the Abbey. They lived in tents on the property and spent their days praying (and playing) and working together which, while they were Presbyterians, goes very much along with the “ora et labora” – pray and work – ethos of Benedictine religious communities. The effort was such a success that MacLoud continued to bring groups of men to the Abbey for many years and the present day Iona Community was born.
One of the interesting things about the actual “Iona Community” is that it does not reside at the Iona Abbey. Instead, the community of about 300 is spread mostly around Scotland and England with a growing number of members in continental Europe and a few in North America (all of whom became members and then later moved to North America). While visiting the Iona Abbey and participating in the program there is probably what got all of them involved in the first place being a member means formally joining the community and making a commitment to the follow the Rule of the community. The Rule isn’t especially long or complex and chiefly involves committing to serving by working for peace and justice where you live; meeting regularly in your “family group” made up of other members for fellowship and prayer; and supporting the community financially. The Community has an elected leader (which is a full time paid position) and has a particular focus on working with the poor in Glasgow.
The Iona Abbey; the work, worship and programs that take place there; and all the music and worship resources that have been and continue to be produced and published are a by-product of the Community but not actually the focus of the life of what is formally/officially the “Iona Community.”