Pilgrimage to Iona

by Dorothy Balch

There were many questions going through my mind as I prepared for my pilgrimage to Iona, a very small island on the west coast of Scotland, Aug. 12-25, 2010. Some of these questions were easier to answer than others.

Who would be going with me? Eight other women from church, in every age bracket from the 20s to the 80s.

How would we get there? By plane, train, buses, and ferries large and small.

What would we be doing? Basically living a bit like pilgrims; walking, thinking, praying, absorbing the beauty of creation and a closer walk with God, in addition to enjoying the fresh air by hiking, beach-walking and a lot of sharing!

Why on earth was I going? This would be the greatest unknown – until we arrived there.

Nevertheless, on a beautiful summer day in Seattle, the nine of us set out for this rather unusual adventure. We had been briefed by one leader who had been there two times before, as to basic travel planning, what to take, or not take – “travel light” they said – and also we had books and a video to watch.

Out first leg of the journey was a flight to Philadelphia, followed by an overnight flight to Glasgow, Scotland. “Overnight” meant we each had a pillow and a blanket, of sorts. We all tried to catch a few hours of sleep here and there. Perhaps our excitement superseded our bodily weariness, so none of us slept very much. We arrived with all our baggage, each carrying one large suitcase, and another smaller one or a backpack. So much for “traveling light!”

Thus, after a fun overnight in Oban, we were on our way, and landed on the shores of this tiny haven of peace and reflection.

“Peace came down with a cool drop of rain, falling on a window or our faces:
Peace came with seeing a slow ripple on the ever-moving sea;
Peace came when a fluffy lamb would bleat on the green hills above us.”

Within just a few hours, we felt and knew that we were in a “thin place,” as we were told it is called. “Thin” because, mystically and mysteriously, heaven and earth came so close together. It seemed like a thin film between worlds. Through this veil we could see upward, to the changing colors of the sky, and the feeling of nearness to God. This is difficult to describe, but it was truly a sense of holy peace and contentment that settled upon each of us – and still seems to remain with us, on returning home.

Not only could we see upward, but we felt God looking downward to us, to me, to my heart and my soul. One could almost see all four sides of the island – not quite, but almost – this tiny island, three miles long by one mile wide, completely surrounded by water. And every side held its own beauty. Lovely hills, even a rustic golf course. Calm and gentle sheep and lambs and reddish oxen, with long reddish hair covering their eyes, the little black cat, perched on the window-sill of the ruins of an old nunnery.

For these nine days we lived, walked, hiked, ran on these hills and paths and shores, from the little ferry dock, up and down narrow by-ways with small houses, inns, cafés and shops lined up together in an inviting setting. Up and down and over the hills in every direction, collecting rocks and the famous green stones, tiny shells, big and small multi-colored rocks, branches of trees, flowers, bits of wool from the shedding sheep, and so much more!

Above all, we collected memories, thoughts and prayers, all while feeling the unmistakable presence of God, and vowing to take that aura of holy peace and spiritual security with us back to our homes, families, and our lives.

We shared daily in meals, and in morning gatherings about what we sensed the day before, expressing our feeling or sometimes simply keeping silent. Such incredible beauty of sunrises and sunsets, cooling fresh air of Scotland, feeling the gentle winds and the strong winds that would either creep or roar over the isle, causing waves to blow sideways, the tall grasses to bend down to touch the earth, and animals to huddle near a shed or a ruined fence or building. In all of it, the peaceful

calming touch of nature was upon me and around me.

In this marvelous setting, we met and prayed and worshiped daily, always interspersed with a lot of fun time indoors and out, with one another. And at eventide – every evening – we would wend our way to the stately Abbey nearby, ancient and beautiful, which welcomed us within its rough, sacred walls. Being there gave us the spiritual security of this time-worn sanctuary, where we paused, listened to music, heard words of inspiration, and experienced this with scores of people from around the world. The corridors and the cloistered areas held the memories of the saints and sinners who have knelt and worshiped there for centuries. One can hardly be the same after an experience on blessed Iona.

Christ is the world’s Redeemer
The lover of the pure,
The font of heavenly wisdom,
Our trust and hope secure.
The armour of the soldiers,
The Lord of earth and sky,
Our health while we are living,
Our life, when we die.
—St. Columba of Iona, circa 563 AD

O, to return to Iona, to feel the peace of that small isle

O, to again sense that ‘thin place’

O, to be there just a while

SEE the skies, the waves and flowers around me

HEAR the sound of the cattle and sheep

FEEL the wind, gentle or roaring

TOUCH the rocks that circle the deep

SMELL and TASTE of the vine and the berry

Use all of the senses God gives

O, to return to Iona, where all of one’s self truly lives.

Dorothy Balch is a retired special education teacher and member of First Free Methodist Church in Seattle.

See all articles by Dorothy Balch