A ten minute walk from the Saint Columba Hotel, where our little pilgrimage is staying next to the benedictine Abbey, is the Augustinian Nunnery (Convent) which are now in ruins after 1400 years. This image of a square room with low, white benches on either side, is the remnants of their Chapter Room in which the nuns would sing Terce and then read a chapter of their Rule of Life – a document of short readings which would remind the sisters, on various subjects, of how they have covenanted to live their life together. (A book on how to write your own Rule of Life will launch in the late summer from Forward Movement and was written by the author of this blog.) I sat there, on one of those benches as we began our Island Pilgrimage – a seven-hour walk around the Island of Iona to visit the holy places of the Island and pray our way through them. I wondered about the women cloistered herein – some to be alone with God, some to escape abusive families and husbands, some even left there as children, and some from aristocratic families as a way to live a serene and quiet life.
After a long walk through sheep and lamb pastures along the seaside, we reached Columba’s Bay, also known as The Bay of New Beginnings. This is the bay at which St. Columba reached land after his exile (or self exile …nobody is quite sure) from the church in Ireland and from which he began his new life with his twelve friends on Iona – a life celebrated by 500,000 pilgrims each year on this tiny island, now 1400 years later. I took off my shoes and waded into the surf to toss in an old black stone representing what I need to leave behind here. I then picked up a new, green stone, soft and smooth, in the shape of a teardrop, and the size of my thumbnail, to carry with me into the new beginnings of my life. The new soft, green stone is being made into a necklace of black cord; warmed by my body while shined by my human oils.
After a long hike back up the island, past a hermit’s circle, we hiked up into the hills at the top of which was Iona’s Saint Brigid’s Well in which Saint Brigid’s crosses of reeds floated in the water overlooking the monastery and the Sound. We drank from this well – said to provide eternal youth. Judging from my mirror, the youth it promises is, well, internal. We then hiked down the mountain to the standing crosses of the Abbey in the early evening, finishing with a Victoria Cake tea back at the Hotel and an evening of music, poetry and dance by John Philip, Ali and their two children Cammie (a fiddle player) and Kirsten (a dancer.)
Iona is a place of new beginnings. It is a “thin space” of rest and revolution, surrounded by an ocean into which to throw one’s blackened stones into, as John Philip says, “the ocean of God’s forgetfulness.”
The night ended alone, with some time in a small chapel over the burial place of Saint Columba – a chapel whose inner floor surface dimensions are too small even to hold a twin-sized bed. But laying down on the stone floor, I noticed the sun setting behind the Saint John’s Cross and took this picture, its rays just evident beyond the tiny arched doorway less than 4 feet high. And there, in that stillness I was suddenly aware of a deep peace. And I was grateful. So I lay down, pretended Kai was with with me, and wept myself to sleep on top of Columba’s grave’s flagstones, in the quiet of that chapel; my friends present in my dreams like a cloud of witnesses.