The pilgrimage around Iona visits places of sacred significance and historical importance on the island. There are 18 sites in all and can take nearly all day to get to each one. Our group broke the pilgrimage up in a few days-hitting the Abbey's specific spots while we did our tour and hiking up Dun I on a quiet afternoon-so that we could enjoy the heft of the hiking down to the south end of the island to really spend some meaningful time at St. Columba's Bay and enjoy the reflections at holy sites along the way.
I watched our band of pilgrims prayerfully hike the path that Columba, his followers and 1450 years of seekers have sojourned. While not adorned in the medieval garb of the traditional pilgrim (full length tunics, broad rimmed hats, staffs and satchels), their water proof pants and jackets, knit caps and thick ankled hiking boots carried the seeker-spirit of modern day pilgrims on this Sacred Isle. While not barefoot, our blistered, bone-tired and boot-sore feet carried us over sacred pebbled beaches and peaty bogs. We jumped and leapt from rock to rock, attempting to keep out of the muck, as we made our way to the 17th century remains of the Iona Marble Company’s marble quarry, a site that demands acknowledgment of humanity’s exploitive behaviors and pleads for a change in global values and lifestyles.
Scripture verses that speak of Christ as our rock became more than just metaphor as we discovered that we very much needed the consistent presence of the rocks to keep our feet out of the mire. This island journey was clearly emphasizing and highlighting Celtic and pilgrim-ways of seeing. Without the physicality of the outside world to underscore these Biblical truths, these Christian metaphors would be weak words and flimsy fables.
The early Celtic church had a fundamental belief in the revelatory nature of the created world. Every tree, blade of grass, and wild gooses cry was imbued with the Spirit of God and spoke to the character of the Creator. These “theophanies” –God showings—were expected and sought after as a way to understand the sacred mysteries. The ninth century Irish teacher, John Scotus Eriugena believed that God was the ‘Life Force” within all things, “…therefore every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany” (John Scotus Eriugena, Periphyseon-The Division of Nature, 749D). All of the created world upholds something of the essence of the Creator. Eriugena also taught that there are two primary ways in which the sacred is revealed--the Bible and creation: “Through the letters of Scripture and the species of creature…” mysteries of God are revealed.
The historical significance of Iona was underscored as we hiked this island pilgrimage; sacred sites emphasized how very near the works of God are all around us. We were also reminded that we walk the pilgrim path together; we are not alone as we seek God’s guidance in our lives. The road is filled with pilgrims who are seeking after inspiration and transformation, seekers who long for and are called by the saints who have gone before us. And, as a mutual company, we are challenged to live forward in ways that bring about restoration to others and our earth.