Thursday, December 6, 2012

Endings and Beginnings

The final week of my journey was a pilgrimage to the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland. To reach Iona, I had to take the 8:21 train from Glasgow to Oban, a spectacular 3 hour trip, then a ferry to Mull, past the Lismore Lighthouse, glowing white against the mountains behind.  A one hour bus ride across Mull and a 10 minute ferry to Iona. I stood up top on the ferry, loving the cold wind against my face.

It was called Quiet Week.  Nineteen of us stayed in the Abbey, eating communal meals, washing up afterwards, sharing stories by the coal fire in the cozy Common Room.  We attended daily sessions with Stephen Wright, an interfaith minister, learning about the Contemplative Way, meditating and praying. We attended two services a day in the tiny Michael Chapel that was lit only by candle light.

It's difficult to find the words to describe how I feel as I come away from Iona.  I wish I could always carry Iona with me.  I spent a lot of time alone, meditating in the cold, empty stone Abbey or hiking to the sandy rock-strewn beaches that surround the island. The  weather this November was clear but cold with a raw wind.  I collected stones on the beaches, lots of green and white marble ones.  Iona marble it's called. There used to be a marble quarry on the island.

St. Columba landed on Iona circa 560AD, exiled from Ireland, bringing Celtic Christianity to Scotland. The Book of Kells was started on Iona we learn.  It's a sacred place.  Pilgrims come from all over the world.  Mostly in the summer.  There were few tourists in November.  Thanks be.

It is said that if you pick up a stone or two on Columba's Bay at the southern end of the island, you could give to them something you wish to  throw away.  Your doubts or fears or worries.  You throw that stone into the ocean.  You might also wish to pick up another stone which would represent something to carry home with you.  I threw a few stones.  And I brought home lots.

People come to Iona again and again. Perhaps it's impossible to hold onto this place.  Many of the group I was with had been many times.  Nine times for one man.

 In his essay, Why we Travel,  Pico Iyer, says that travel is like falling in love.  We come to travel open-hearted, awake to every moment, present....."it's a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed."  We come to Iona like this.  And we leave on the early morning ferry in the predawn moonlit darkness, clutching our white and green marble stones against our chests, feeling that Iona has changed us, determined to come back.  "Most people do", says the shopkeeper at the Craft Shop near the ferry.