Video & Feature – Iona: A Celtic Pilgrimage

By Matthew Davies
Posted May 6, 2013

[Episcopal News Service] The ancient Celts described Iona as a “thin place,” where the veil between heaven and earth is lifted, and where one might glimpse the divine.

For centuries pilgrims have traveled to this small island off the West coast of Scotland, leaving behind their chaotic lives to rest, reflect and walk in the footsteps of St. Columba, the Irish missionary who founded a monastery on Iona in 563 AD.

Columba was forced into exile allegedly following a dispute concerning the ownership of a psalter he’d copied in his home county of Donegal. His subsequent missionary work is credited with the spread of Christianity throughout the British Isles.

May 2013 marks the 1,450th anniversary of Columba’s arrival on Iona. His feast day is celebrated on June 9 throughout the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

The Rev. Nancy Brantingham, a priest from the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota and a long-time student of Celtic Christianity, visited Iona for the first time in October 2012.

“Columba had a role here, situated at the monastery with his monks, teaching them and then sending them out two by two, and look what happened,” said Brantingham, who was leading a group of pilgrims mainly from her home diocese. “Was the world ready to hear from him, and are they ready to hear from us yet, I don’t know. But numbers certainly aren’t the only thing that matter when it comes to getting the word out … touching people’s hearts.”

Group members began the week discussing why they’d taken this two-day journey over land, air and sea to the island and if they’d brought any questions with them.

For Brantingham, Columba “is a great patron because he loved writing, had gifts for teaching, loved to study, was a good pastor. I hope I am, too. So I think that’s why I came.”

The Rev. JoAnn Ford said she had come with many questions about who she was as a retired parish priest “and where do I go from here, what do I do?”

But she arrived “being open,” she said. “Not with any need to find an answer.”

“How do I know what is God’s will?” asked Maren Mahowald. “How do I recognize it? How do I know if I’m responding? That’s why I’m here.”

Although the pilgrims had brought many personal questions, they also acknowledged the importance of community along such a journey.

Athene Westergaard noted that, “when traveling in a community that you trust, it’s the community that supports you, which is what the faith is all about. The faith is not a lonely experience.”

Bishop Kevin Pearson of the Scottish Episcopal Church’s Diocese of Argyll & the Isles, under whose jurisdiction Iona falls, also visited the island in October and joined the Minnesota group for part of its pilgrimage.

A pilgrimage “helps you journey within,” Pearson told ENS while walking with other pilgrims around the island. “[It] brings together the spiritual, interior world and a world that’s hard-and-fast. So the actual physical exercise is a part of the spiritual exercise as well, and you’re drawn into God’s life almost whether you want to go or not.”

The Scottish Episcopal Church’s St. Columba’s Chapel and the adjacent Bishop’s House have served as a place of prayer and study for pilgrims to Iona since 1894.

“People are increasingly drawn to journeying and to making pilgrimages, whether they call them pilgrimages or not, to holy places, to places that for centuries have meant a lot to people,” Pearson said. “And, basically, they’re journeying within themselves; they’re searching for God.”

One of the highlights of visiting Iona is connecting with the Iona Community, an ecumenical group formed in 1938. Under the leadership of its founder George MacLeod, the community set out to rebuild parts of the medieval Iona Abbey.

Today, the community has a strong commitment to peace and justice issues and offers weekly pilgrimages around the island, stopping at places of historical or spiritual significance and reflecting on the journey along the way.

Rebuilding the abbey “was to be a symbol of the need for the church to re-engage with ordinary folk and a concern for the need to rebuild community,” the Rev. Peter MacDonald, (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland priest and leader of the Iona Community, told ENS during an interview inside the abbey.

Julie Hooper, one of the Minnesota pilgrims, has visited Iona four times. She keeps returning, she said, because “there is something that settles the soul here.

“It’s very peaceful and nurturing, and I don’t think it matters what your religious or spiritual inclination is. I think there are a lot of people who come here who aren’t necessarily Christian, but they come because they feel that nurturing and peacefulness here.”

Making her first visit to Iona, Dorothy Ramsdell of the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada said that she felt an energy making it “possible to just be loving. It is truly a model of living together with the land in community.”

The pilgrims found peace and tranquility everywhere on Iona: in the organic gardens that feed the travelers, in the nature and the wildlife, in the ancient stones and monuments, and in the memories of those who’ve gone before. But mostly, they observed how that peace is found in the community that is formed during any visit or pilgrimage to the island. It’s a reminder of how Columba lived in community with his fellow monks who helped to evangelize the British Isles and engrave on it the legacy of Celtic Christianity.

Reflecting on Columba’s influence, MacDonald said: “It could be argued that the Columban mission to Scotland and further afield actually helped form Scotland as a nation state. Columba was often engaging with the chiefs of various tribes and peoples around here, and their reasons for inviting the Columban monks to go there was as much political as spiritual. So I think we see that integration, that wholeness, of Columba and the Celts as something that we try to live out today.”

“The ancients knew about the value of pilgrimage as a metaphor for life’s journey, and I think people today recognize that as a spiritual discipline,” said MacDonald.

For many pilgrims new beginnings and possibilities open up after visiting Iona.

“You never get to go home from pilgrimage empty-handed,” Brantingham told ENS. “One of the beautiful things about pilgrimage is that you go as a solitary traveler, but then the community begins to form around the experience of being vulnerable, of being afraid, of having questions about where God is right now in our lives, how God is at work and what’s next.

“In some sense, the pilgrimage never really ends,” she added. “To be sure, we will go our separate ways, but we are also bound now to one another forever by the stories, experiences, and memories we shared; by the awareness that however far we are from one another in the physical world, we are, nonetheless, still together on the journey that leads to knowing and loving God more deeply. And everything about the experience, from the first awareness of being called to make the trip to the homecoming at journey’s end, holds potential insight and wisdom we can draw on for the rest of our lives.”

— Matthew Davies is an Episcopal News Service editor and reporter.


Comments (17)

  1. Ann Fontaine says:

    The boat skipper who took us to Fingal’s Cave on Staffa told us Columba made all the women residents of Iona move to a nearby island so his monks would not have to look at them.

  2. Donna Hicks says:

    And while Iona is indeed one of those ‘thin places,’ it’s where I learned that there is never bad weather only wrong clothing.

    1. Zam Walker says:

      The banning of women is one of the myths that some love to tell. However archaeological evidence shows that there were nuns who lived on the island at the same time. Also in Adomnan’s ‘Life of Columba’ written only 100 years after the death of Columba, there are stories of Columba’s concern for men and women in various forms (including relief of pain in childbirth and for a couple to have a good sex-life….)

      (BTW there are no vines on the 1200 year old St Martin’s cross – they are snakes!)

      It was lovely to see this film. I am the one in the cyclamen pink waterproof jacket and I was the back-marker on the pilgrimage, co-leading it with Becki. It was certainly a privilege to meet with the group from the US and share the week. I was on Iona this week and we had much better weather last October.. however, it was still very nice to be on the island!
      Every blessing from the west of Scotland

  3. Paul Rider says:

    I’m making my fourth trip to Iona this summer, staying at Bishop’s House for the third time. Thrilled to be the chaplain there for the week. What a wonderful, holy place is this Island! Of you go, be sure to go on the pilgrimage with the Iona Community. They occur each week and the community welcomes pilgrims from all over. Just be sure to bring good boots and waterproofs….

  4. Jo Ann Ford says:

    Matt truly captures the essence of Iona and of pilgrimage with this video. Thanks Matt.

  5. M. Sue Reid says:

    The Iona Community is a great place to volunteer. Hard work but great people and environment. I spent three months there two years ago. If you’re looking for a place to be in transition, consider this spot.

  6. Mollie Douglas Turner says:

    I’ve visited Iona twice and hope to go again, to walk the hills to Columba’s Bay, to sit in silence and solitude inside both the abbey and the other chapels, to watch the moon ride the Sound as it rises over Mull, and to dance and laugh with friends old and new at the ceilidh and over superb food and drink. It’s a magical, holy, truly thin place that calls one back and back. I can’t get enough, and I long to return. As before, I will plan to stay no less than three nights–it’s essential to abide.

  7. Joseph Lane says:

    Thank you so much for this. I’m going to Iona in just over a week!

  8. I took a group of J2A teens in 2011 to Iona. We stayed in the Hostel at the end of the island. It was one of the best pilgrimages that I have taken. On our way to Iona we stayed in Oban for a few nights. Bishop Kevin was the preacher at the cathedral that Sunday. He was absolutely lovely and really connected with the teens.

  9. The video was wonderful. Thank you Matt. I hope to go one day. Although I’ve never been there it feels like home.

    1. dee renner says:

      Carolyn, I was there on my birthday, May 6 2013, for he fourth time. I also can’t wait to return. Do go when you can. deacon dee renner

  10. Kzren I Ford says:

    This video just strengthen my desire to go to Iona. I have been interested in Celtic Christianity for many years. Our parish uses many pieces of music from the Community and several parishioners have been to Iona on pilgrimage.

  11. Richard W. Wright says:

    I’ve been there three times. Scotland is the land of my heritage. Iona is the soul of Scotland. It is a place where the creative “wind (Spirit) of God” blows. Last time I was there the wind just about literally blew me off of Dun I , the highest point of Iona. I planted a rock from my island (San Juan Island) in the cairn and took a wee rock from Iona, which I carry in my pocket as a talisman. But, then, all of creation is a magical talisman according to the Celts. Iona is truly a “thin place”…if one lets it be.

  12. Nancy Brantingham says:

    We did have a lovely, lovely experience. I would go back in a heartbeat. Zam, how wonderful to see you “here” (online)! You and others in the Iona Community were so much a part of the blessing we experienced on Iona. To those of you about to make the trip, blessings and peace. You’ll be in my prayers.

  13. dee renner says:

    BJ, Couldn’t have said it better myself, as I was with you and sharing the experience. dee

  14. Elizabeth Darlington says:

    My partner and I found ourselves on Iona in 1999 while traveling around Scotland. We missed the last ferry of the night and got “stuck” on the island with little money. We decided to sleep under the stars in the Nunnery ruins. A kind person at the pub told us that if we got cold, the Abbey is always open and we could sleep there, which is what we did halfway through the night. I will never forget waking up to sunlight streaming through the windows and music playing for the morning service! 5 years later, we returned and were married by a kind Presbyterian Pastor, Syd Graham, in the Nunnery. It wasn’t a legal marriage (we did that back at home), but it was an unforgettable ceremony of spiritual love and beauty. We will surely be back one day with our two kids, one of whom bears the name of “Iona” as her middle name.

  15. Loraine Tuenge says:

    I realize that personal info is not shared on this site, however, am planning a pilgrimage group to Iona in 2016 and would appreciate not having to reinvent the wheel. How does one go about booking the extra stuff – I have accommodations on Iona, but not sure of where to land and spend the extra nights. How was your tour structured?

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