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Iona, Day 1, May 21

The concept of pIlgrimage is ancient, but across the centuries there is, arguably, one common thread — stepping outside one’s comfort zone to journey elsewhere to meet God.

How, or if, that occurs is personal. Pilgrimage may be a mostly inward journey, though there is something unique about the process of venturing outward over geography. Doing so may aid the inward journey. Some say it may be vital, for in doing so, there is the chance for the geographical path and its traceable map to become overlaid and enmeshed with one’s inward journey.

The physical landscape of this region over which we have journeyed (Oban, the Firth of Lorn, the island of Mull, the Sound of Iona, and Iona as itself), is home to great and rapid weather changes. The weather of this place seems to have been a feature of this place forever. It certainly has been since the time of St. Columba, who established the first monastery at Iona in the 6th century. A century later, the ninth abbot of Iona, Adomnan, recounts in his work, “The Life of St. Columba,” a series of the saint’s prophetic revelations, miracles, and angelic visions. And it seems that equal to these accounts are the numerous mentions of the weather, storms, and fog that is encountered by those journeying to and from this remote island in the Inner Hebrides.

Perhaps it is the very real process of coming through the fog and storms that speaks somehow to the hearts of pilgrims and travellers who have ventured here through the centuries. It is an apt, if not obvious, metaphor for the intentionality of such a journey.

Our arrival at Iona on Saturday, May 21st has also been marked by such weather—wind, rain, and rolling seas. We were welcomed with hot tea, shown to our cozy rooms with windows looking out onto the mossy crags and green hills in one direction and sea, white sand, and a large, rusty coloured highland cow in the other.

This far north, it is still light until after ten at night. Inside the old stone church, dating back to the Middle Ages, candles light our first worship together. The journey, already begun, begins its next part.

~ Anna Gebauer


Iona, Day 2, May 22

I’ve been to Iona before. This is my fourth visit. Each time has been so different. It depends on the season, the weather, the company, what you leave behind and much more. Today we shared Eucharist with those staying in the Abbey and visitors on the island. My task group prepared the Abbey for the service: cutting up bread, pouring little cups of wine, lighting candles, and checking the books. The liturgy was simple and very moving with some of our group helping pass out the wine. The music was beautiful, with familiar songs and hymns.

We remembered you at St Mary’s and offered our prayers with yours for justice and peace, loved ones and giving thanks for the Holy Spirit alive in us and in the world.

Outside the weather has been wet and cold today, very changeable, but inside this week, we are part of a caring community where hospitality and inclusion are lived out in the power of the Spirit.

~ The Reverend Christine Rowe

Iona, Day 3, May 23

We are beginning to settle into the rhythm of life here at the Abbey. Each of us has been assigned a daily task for the week, which could be setting up for breakfast, preparing the church for worship, dusting and vacuuming, or (everyone’s favourite) cleaning bathrooms. There is plenty of time for activities of your own choice as well, between delicious meals and interesting programs. Each day is bookended by worship in the ancient Abbey church, with various liturgies which feel familiar to us as Anglicans, but with words that somehow expand and enhance the prayers that we say each Sunday.

Today after morning worship, some people chose to participate in a session called Pandemic Psalms, an opportunity to reflect on the experience of the last two years, after which they wrote a psalm about their feelings or observations.

In the afternoon, some of us had the wonderful experience of going on a tour boat trip to the tiny island of Staffa. The crossing to Staffa was calm and unexpectedly sunny, and included sightings of seals and cormorants. For some, the highlight of the trip was seeing Fingal’s Cave, the inspiration for music, poetry and art since its discovery in the 18th century.

For others the goal was to see puffins, and we were not disappointed. After a short hike across craggy fields dotted with wildflowers, we came to the place where our boat driver had assured us we would see them, if we were patient. We could see dozens out on the water bobbing about, and it wasn’t until we were almost ready to leave that they suddenly started flying up to the top of the cliff where we were waiting, landing right in front of us and totally unafraid. Of course, many photos were taken!

Each day brings new discoveries and insights, through worship, conversations, and living in community.

~ Gail Helmcken

Iona, Day 4, May 24

Tuesday, May 24, was pilgrimage day. It was a lovely sunny day. The strong and fit took the longer walk. They coped with mud and rocks but came back with some interesting stones from the beach. They stopped at points of interest to hear the stories and sing a hymn. Some stories were ancient - back to the time of St. Columba in the 6th century while others were more recent like the memorial to the island’s fallen soldiers from WW 1 & 2.

The rest of us took the shorter walk. We visited the ancient nunnery which is still in ruin but enough remains to be able to reconstruct the life the nuns led and the ways they served their community. Of particular interest was a window from the refectory opening onto the street where those in need could come and ask for help.

This evening there was a ‘concert’ where those who were able to entertain did so with an amazing variety of acts including comedy, story, song and audience participation. Some real talent here!

Much of the liturgy in the Abby services is partly familiar but with a bit extra. This has been the case every day but today we sang a hymn which summarized our experience ‘joining hands across the nations, finding neighbours everywhere.’

~ Jan Rups Levett

Iona, Day 4 (part 2), May 25

This is 4th day of setting up for breakfast. Gail and I are together on this team and we are getting the hang of it. Today all was setup and the toast was a lovely golden brown as our hungry fellow pilgrims arrived.

At our gathering, after morning worship and the completion of our work assignments, we pondered worship. What is worship? Community, hospitality, public sharing? I liked "playing in the presence of God".

We then gave some time to considering ‘what to hold on to’ and ‘what to explore’. Zoom, language renewal scripture as oral/aural tradition, favourite scriptural hymns, and seasons/earth/solstice were some of the ideas shared by the participants. In which category you ask? I leave that to you to ponder.

Our discussion formed the base for our very practical task of planning the Evening worship - A Service of Commitment. Together, using materials from the Iona Book of Worship, we crafted a service with song, prayers, a storytelling of Jesus's call to the fisherman to "follow me" and an act of commitment. Our individual commitment happened through inwardly choosing an intention and outwardly choosing a stone from the Altar to be carried out of the church to St Martin's Cross. Here we concluded our worship with words of commitment, sending and a blessing. Then a rainbow arched across the sea to the field next to the Abbey.

The shape and language of the songs, prayers and other elements of worship used here at the Abbey have enabled a deeper worship experience for me.

Our day is done, and so to bed.

~ Lea Starr


Iona: Day 6, May 26

One of the features of life here at the Abbey is the tasks we are assigned. I am on kitchen duty, which means chopping enormous amounts of vegetables. Food, like everything else here, is very intentional. "Where possible", says the information book we are given, "food should be purchased and cooked in ways that avoid damage to the environment, provide a largely plant-based diet, supplemented by dairy, eggs and the occasional consumption of meat and fish, provide a diet which is safe and healthy, and recognize the importance of seasonal food." Provision is made for special diets, including vegan, gluten and dairy-free. This all fits with the general commitment to justice in the world.

The pilgrims here are from a diversity of places. My "task group" (we are divided into these on the first day) in the kitchen includes me and four men - two from Britain, one from Holland, and one from the States. The pilgrims also represent a great diversity of Christian denominations - United Church of Christ, Methodists, Presbyterians, Church of Ireland (like Anglican), among others. This diversity is particularly interesting in the discussion groups which are part of most of our morning workshops. Today's topic was "Columba: A Call to Action". The leader led us through a potted history of St. Columba - who is credited with the spread of Christianity in the Celtic regions, but who had a checkered history, including a temper that got him kicked out of Ireland in the first place. The questions which grew out of this topic included how we might be complicit in war, whether we had ever run from something, what issues should we take a strong moral stand on, and if we could pass one law, what would it be? Food for some fascinating discussions coming from a variety of backgrounds.

Brigid, we bless you for teaching us all the hymns of John Bell. He is very well represented in the Abbey hymn book, and so our St. Mary's contingent know all the tunes! Several of us have bought the book of services used by the Abbey, and we can't wait to bring back new words and ideas for our congregation. 

I am so very grateful for the opportunity to come to this wonderful place.

~ Nichola Hall


Leaving Iona

Last Day, Day 7, May 27

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
(From Little Gidding by TS Elliot)

Today we have to leave this blessed isle after our week-long pilgrimage. It has been such a joy to spend this time with friends from St Mary’s, alongside those from England, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands and the States, living in community in a pilgrimage which (for our group) had been several years in the making.

Together we have made breakfast, cleaned toilets, and lit and extinguished candles. We have attended twice-daily worship, walked across the island, made new friends and eaten hearty and healthy meals.

We have been especially blessed by exceptional weather with four sunny days for this wild, west coast location (think Tofino). The endless light and shade of the sea, the other islands, the green and rocky landscape of Iona itself have been a constant source of wonder and joy.

Going to Iona is not an escape but an opportunity to enter more deeply into the life of this ecumenical community as well as your our life. When you step back from the everyday you tend to see yourself more clearly. At the same time, it is the chance to take stock and evaluate your life, especially from a spiritual perspective.

Living at Iona for a week is to live in the rhythm of prayer, work and community. It is a profound and deeply rooted experience. We have studied, had conversations, we have been in groups and had time alone.

The Abbey building where we spent our time together has motion sensors which light your way through the building. Yesterday, as I left the morning service, I was the first person to return to the part of the building where guests were staying, and as I returned to our room on came the lights. It reminded me of the song we had just sung, the chorus (from a hymn by Bernadette Farrell), a reminder of our journey in life, a journey which is always accompanied …

Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts
Shine through the darkness
Christ, be our light!
Shine in your church gathered today

The Reverend Stephen Rowe

Many thanks to the folks from St. Mary's for sharing these photos of Iona with diocesan communications