BLESSED ISLE

WAY BACK IN JULY 2009 I wrote a Blog entry entitled Iona and the not knowing:

“plans for our celebration pilgrimage to Bishop’s House, Iona next year progressed a little further tonight.  I don’t fully know yet how our little group of 20+ will get there, nor what we’ll find when we arrive, nor how we’ll get along in living together for a spell. But somehow I just sense that all will be well. And it strikes me that that’s been true for pretty much most of my life’s journey actually, and that that’s true for pilgrimage generally … the not knowing, alongside the present sense that somehow all will be well. Even at this distance I’ve an idea that some words I love from one of the Iona Community’s eucharistic liturgies are going to come alive for us:

Heaven is here, and earth, and the space is thin between them. Distance may divide, but Christ’s promise unites those bounded by time, those blessed by eternity. Let heaven be glad; let the whole earth cry glory.”

Today in May 2010 I’m able to write that it was indeed a celebration pilgrimage; that people journeyed in different ways, all of them successfully; that what we found in Iona delighted us and far exceeded expectations; and that 22 pilgrims lived and learned and prayed together in wonderfully warm fellowship – and no-one was in a hurry to leave the blessed Isle.

Iona is, literally, extra-ordinary: something, somewhere, outside our usual norms. Tiny and weathered, warm and windy and welcoming, the very air feels different there and the deep azure blue of the Hebridean sea is, literally again, a sight for sore eyes.

Someone joked, as we stepped off the ferry onto the island’s tiny harbour, that I should follow the example of the late Pope John Paul II (and maybe St Columba before him?) and get down and kiss the ground. Joke, or maybe not, spirits were high anyway, and I did just that – and I felt a jolt as the island kissed me back! And I’m sure the island and its very, very present saints kissed each of us, thereafter, every day.

It’s said that Columba talked frequently with angels on Iona. It’s certainly one of those places where one can expect to “find an angel on every corner”. On one of my own solitary wanderings I came across the equally solitary figure of Joseph, Roman Catholic Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, who, appearing out of the sunlight behind him, seemed to me to be “lost in wonder …”

Since our return to Bramhall all sorts of happy events have taken place, but for me, as I’m sure for every single fellow-pilgrim, something of my soul is still on the Isle of Iona. As the liturgy put it: “heaven is here, and earth, and the space is thin between them”.

Hospitality extended by the resident Warden and his small and delightful staff at Bishop’s House was outstanding. Raspberry pavlova, cheese and chutney sandwiches and a spiced and glorious meatloaf were among many highlights for me.

Then there was the freedom to roam, in absolute quiet or in cheerful company, individually or with others. The wildlife included sea-eagles and otters and dolphins and puffins. Huge herring gulls appeared to me to be the real “Lords of the Isles” and the shy Corncrake could be clearly heard even when not seen.

Sunrise and sunset were amongst the loveliest I’ve ever known. The quality of light was, at all times, a photographer’s delight. Churchwarden Ralph tells me that between us nearly 2000 photographs were made!

Dianne Goodwin slipped effortlessly into the role of Sacristan and I bless her for quiet and efficient preparations for our daily Eucharist. It’s her quietness and efficiency in the task that I most appreciate. Likewise, Jill Fairhurst served as “pilgrim’s pianist” with a generosity appreciated by us all.

And I want to pay tribute to the excellence of the offerings made by all our pilgrims, in one way or another, whether by sharing in the leading of worship, or in wonderful, erudite and delightfully delivered accounts of the lives and deeds of the Celtic Saints. What a marvellous and extraordinary thing it was and is for us to reflect upon the tenacity, the courage, the sheer dogged enthusiasm of the saints who have borne witness to the Gospel in every generation.

Common room gatherings at various times during each day and evening were always delightful occasions, with sometimes profoundly moving accounts of experiences encountered. Wonderful, inspiring and gentle leadership offered by Wendy and Ralph, by day and by night, set a superb example to any would-be retreat leader. All of us will be permanently indebted to them.

And then there was the worship. Whether the daily Eucharist, or the Night Office of Compline in the little St Columba’s Chapel in Bishop’s House, or the Ecumenical Sunday Eucharist in Iona Abbey, I was lifted to the heights and plumbed the depths of praise. Breathing as one, each pilgrim taking care to be more aware of his or her fellows than of themselves, the space between earth and heaven was found to be very thin indeed.

On the Sunday evening I prayed the closing collect in the Scottish Episcopal Church’s Order for Evening Prayer: (incidentally, the SEC’s 1982 Liturgy – offices and Eucharistic – is wonderful, a real treat itself) …

Lord, God almighty, come and dispel the darkness from our hearts, that in the radiance of your brightness we may know you, the only unfading light, glorious in all eternity. Amen.

No words of mine could give proper account of what happened to us, as a little group of fellow pilgrims, when the Chapel suddenly blazed with evening sunlight and the figure of the crucified Christ above the altar seemed to be saying, in company with Columba and the Saints living and departed:

You see. I AM with you until the end of time.

And that means His being with us here in Bramhall, too. If, breathing as one, each “pilgrim” takes care to be more aware of his or her fellows than of themselves, the space between earth and heaven will be found to be very thin indeed.

Distance may divide, but Christ’s promise unites those bounded by time, those blessed by eternity. Let heaven be glad; let the whole earth cry glory.

full screen slides here