Directions for Getting to Iona


So here is the way you get to Iona:  First you fly to Edinburgh and then you catch a train to Glasgow, which is only like an hour. And then you catch a train to Oban three hours away, except this one doesn’t run as often and yours has been cancelled, so you sit under a statue of Sir Walter Scott for four hours in the middle of St. George Square trying to avoid pigeon droppings, and then you catch a train to Oban. 

By now it is quite late, so you carry your suitcase up to the third floor of a hostel over a bar and sleep there.  Then the next morning you carry your same suitcase down all those stairs and drag it to the ferry station, where you catch an hour-long ferry to the Isle of Mull, and specifically the port at Craignure.  (Don’t ask me to pronounce that one.)  When you get to Craignure, go and ask about a taxi to Fionnphort.  They will laugh at you because you have inevitably also pronounced that one wrong, but also because—contrary to what the guidebooks say—there are no taxis in Craignure.  You will need to wait four hours for the next bus.  But then after a long time sitting and drinking coffee at the one place to eat in Craignure, Bus 96 will appear and it will take you and the other fools who have attempted this journey to Fionnphort on a one lane road for about 30 miles.  

These 30 miles will take about 90 minutes because… well, did I mention the road only has one lane? Which means that every time you meet someone on the road traveling in the other direction, you will need to stop and find a little place to pull over that doesn’t result in running your vehicle into a creek or off a mountain side.   The good news, however, is that you are not driving because you would be even more a fool if you were the one driving.  So you just get to look out the windows at the mountains and waterfalls and pray an act of contrition… for all of your sins, but especially the most recent one of taking the name of your spiritual director in vain because they were the one who thought that Iona would be a really good idea spiritually and “it is easy to reach.” 

Finally, you will arrive at Fionnphort which truly sounds nothing like you would think.  And then you will stand with your luggage in the drizzle awaiting a final 10 minute ferry ride to Iona that runs as it will.  Easy peasy.

Now mind you, you will need to return the same way you came in another 30 hours.  But that doesn’t matter because once you are there, you are there.  And it is truly glorious.  I mean like really glorious.  It is true that Iona is a “thin space” where the border between heaven and earth is a bit more porous.

The island was first made holy by St. Columba (also known as Colum Cille) who arrived in 563 AD to start a monastery.   Well, it was surely made holy by God’s hand before that.  Just look at the rugged beauty of the place!  But for our purposes, let’s start with Columba whose tomb became a major place of pilgrimage for hundreds of years.  As the Western Rome wallowed and libraries burnt to the ground, the scriptures and other great works of literature were kept alive in these islands. Scholars are pretty sure that the Book of Kells was produced on Iona.

Vikings attacked in the 800’s and a good number of monks lost their lives in these attacks.  Some protected their illumined manuscripts (and Columba’s relics) by moving to other monasteries on other islands, but some stayed throughout and during the time of St. Margaret (see my last newsletter) the Benedictines rebuilt monastic life on the island for both men and women. Margaret is thought to have helped with that process, as she did with the Dunfermline Abbey, but it is not for certain.

The monasteries were destroyed during the Reformation.  Indeed the “nunnery” is still in a state of ruins.  But starting in 1938 a restoration of the Abbey was begun by what came to be called the Iona Community—an ecumenical community dedicated to peace and justice.  They lead communal prayer for pilgrims of every tradition in the chapel twice a day and share a common life with one another and with visitors from around the world.

I was able to go to prayer there the one morning I was in Iona and could see what a loving place it was. Met a kind family from Kalamazoo, MI (city of my alma mater!) in which the father is a Lutheran pastor on sabbatical and the whole family is spending the summer in Scotland.  The fact that they had three kids and had all managed to get over to Iona still in good cheer helped put my own travel trials in right perspective.

What I enjoyed most about Iona was walking the island—first from east to west (about 1 mile, pretty much all paved) and then from north to south (about 3 miles, and a little more rugged terrain. I now get what a bog is).  Every step you know has been traveled by thousands of people, most of them I’d suspect seeking an experience of God there, but at any given time very few of them are in sight and so you can enjoy silence without ever feeling truly alone.   And na’er a grizzly bear in sight, though plenty, plenty, plenty of sheep.  And a few cows.   All of which leave reminders of their presence everywhere.  Everywhere.  Visitors are given remarkable freedom to roam wherever on the island they like.  There is just the request to keep your dog on a leash and close the gate behind you so that the sheep don’t get out…. though I’m not sure where else they would roam that they are not already roaming. 

What do I feel I gleaned from my time on Iona?  That is a little hard to say at this point.  I am still (Isle of) Mulling it over.  I definitely have a few more observations to share in CGS courses about sheep behaviors. But probably more important, I got a good reminder about patience.  There is has been a message in there for me about being still and not thinking quite so much.  Recalling that all things crumble over time and many get rebuilt and have more than one life.  A reminder that sunshine is not better than rain is not better than clouds, just different. If you are not attached to seeing anything in particular, whatever is out the window at any given moment is pretty darn good. 

Yup, that kind of thing. Nothing that life has not already taught me or you, but things we need to be reminded of every once and awhile, especially if we’ve been moving too fast.  And the fact that I’ve learned these things in the past but have a hard time holding onto the lesson inclines me to believe that I might need to make the trip to Iona again, no matter how long it takes.