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On Iona, looking back at Mull.
After passing my defense in 1998, I spent five weeks in the British Isles as a graduation present to myself. One of my favorite bands is an Irish Christian group called Iona, named after an island off the western coast of Scotland. Of course, when I learned where the island was, I rushed off to visit. This evening, I stumbled upon a website that reminded me of it, and decided to share my journal entries from the trip. The visit occurred 13 years ago this past Thursday/Friday. This was one of the top highlights of my entire trip and I hope you can see why just rereading it, I wish I was back there.

Iona is tiny, about three square miles, but it’s historical value is incalculable. St. Columba (aka St. Columcille) was self-exiled from Ireland as penance for being the cause of a battle, and settled on the island and formed a monastery that helped preserve Christianity during the Nordic raids of the mid first millennium. The Book of Kells was created there and many kings are buried, including Duncan, the Scottish king murdered by Macbeth.

{Start personal journal, edited for clarity, but mostly as originally written}
9/15       Here I made a slight change to my itinerary. I was planning to go to the island of Iona on the 16, but shifted it ahead a day. I got up very early and caught a train to Oban on the west coast of Scotland. On the train was a French girl who worked in Edinburgh, but was doing a bike vacation to the island of Islay. We had a nice visit and had lunch and toured around Oban until I caught my ferry across to the island of Mull, which was also very nice.

After a wait there, I took a bus across the island to get the ferry to Iona. The road was one lane, sometimes on a mountainside, and so the trip was quite an experience, especially in the bus, but the scenery in Western Scotland was INCREDIBLE. It was then about a 10 minute ferry ride to Iona, and I could see the abbey from the opposite shore.

What a feeling! I had dreamed of coming here for about 2 years now. I had made no reservations, and was trusting in faith to find something on the island. For all I knew, it was bare rock. There are less than 100 residents on the island. My dream was to spend the night in meditation in the cathedral or a chapel there, but I didn't know if I could or not.

I walked straight to the abbey, which is about 125 yards from the shore. The sun was low, and it was very windy (we had over gale force winds the whole time there). It started drizzling, but was blowing so hard it was coming horizontal at me from the west (the direction I was walking—toward the abbey from the shore) I turned away to look at the shore and there was an incredible rainbow. Get this!!—the end of the rainbow was ON THE SHORE, LESS THAN 75 yards AWAY!!  I had never seen anything like that before. No pot of gold, but it was a treasure nonetheless. I was going to take a pic, but it was out of film, and by the time I changed the film, it had moved offshore quite a bit, but I got a good pic nonetheless. {This is the picture on this page.}

I got to the abbey and found that there is a community of layfolk and ministers that live there and host groups for retreats, and hold services at 9 am and pm everyday! So it is still working in much the same spirit as it was when founded in 537 AD by St. ColumCille (Columba)! The abbey that stands now was built in the 1200's, by Benedictines, but that is still almost 800 years old. I talked with the warden, and he gave me permission to stay in the cathedral itself for meditation and prayer!  What an experience!  I had a medieval cathedral to myself for a WHOLE night (until 4 am when a bird founds its way in and started singing. It was so amazing)!

Anyway, before I started my vigil, I went to the restaurant on the island for dinner.  It was kind of pricey, so I decided to make this my fancy meal for the trip and went to town. I had a starter of fried brie with port and cranberry sauce, and for dinner I had some excellent venison. Very nice.

At the restaurant, there was an American there from California, and we started talking. She was from San Diego, and was touring Britain for a vacation. She had always wanted to come to Iona too, and for the same reasons (had learned of it from the band of the same name). But she thought it was in Ireland, and had promised her parents not to go to Ireland, but when she was at a hotel in Edinburgh a couple of nights before, had looked at a book of Scotland on the landing at her hotel that said it was off of Scotland's coast. So she packed up and went for several days. When she told me about the book, I got suspicious, and asked which hotel in Edinburgh, and it was the one where I had been staying!!  Now there are hundreds of hotels and B&B's in Edinburgh and mine was VERY small. Too weird. Anyway, she, an Australian and I stuck together for the remainder of my time there and we all had a very good time.

We went to the evening service, and it was interesting and nice. Afterwards, there was a Ceilidh at the village hall. A Ceilidh ('kayly') is a lot of fun! We had a singalong, and Scottish folk dancing, and a couple of guys sang songs with their guitars.  Afterwards they had a disco, that I did not stay for. The group having a retreat at the abbey was from a church in Leith (the port city of Edinburgh) and they took me in and I had late night tea and fellowship with them before heading to the cathedral. Their rooms were off of the cloister of the abbey. What an experience.

During the night, I was at the altar praying, and the wind outside was howling and screaming, like a giant tea kettle in labor. Even though it was blowing so hard the sky was clear, and dark with MILLIONS of stars.

There I am in this ancient stone cathedral, with the wind howling and I feel completely safe, knowing how this has stood many worse storms for centuries. As I sat there thinking about this, I realized that we are safe in God's hands, even though we can hear and see the storms around us, we are safe. I was swaying from tiredness, trying to stay awake, and realized that here in the abbey, I could live my whole life, eating, sleeping, working, etc. Likewise, we can live our whole lives in God's hands, even with the storms around.

In reading from Abba's Child, {by Brennan Manning, a book I’d taken with me on the trip} it talked about the nearness of the presently risen Christ- how He IS WITH US in everyday, and how we are to be like children—‘never being disheartened by one's faults, because children often fall, but they are too little to do themselves much harm,' and they never have to worry about proving themselves ad earning God's approval.

9/16       About 6:30 one of the Leith men I had befriended came in to check on me, took me to have some tea to warm up, and I catnapped for an hour or so, then got ready for the morning service. A little bit later, I joined them on a pilgrimage tour of the island. It was SO windy one lady needed help walking against it. She ended up bowing out so as not to slow the group down.

The altar in the cathedral is made of Iona Marble—pure white with streaks of green serpentine running through it—very distinctive. One of the sites we visited was the quarry where they used to get it, and I was able to pick up several small pieces, but I really wanted a nice piece. The next stop was Columba's Bay, where he had first landed on the island to start the monastery.  It was a cobble beach covered with fist-sized stones of all kinds. We were instructed to find a rock, pick it up, think of something we wanted to 'leave behind'—a weight or a burden in our hearts—then throw the stone into the sea. Next, we were to pick up another stone we liked, to symbolize something we wanted to take with us, and keep this stone.

I threw a couple out, and as I looked down at the waves rolling in, I saw a beautiful piece of Iona marble, about two times my fist. It took me about 10 minutes to get it, because I had to dodge in and out from the incoming waves and unbury it. Sometimes I thought I had lost it, because the waves would wash sand back over it, but I kept at it and finally pulled my prize out. As I walked back to join the group, I realized the significance of the event. What I wanted to bring with me was closer fellowship with God, and it takes effort and work, and we need to be persistent, and it not easy because of outside obstacles and our own lack of wanting to 'get wet' sometimes.  My stone was a symbol of what was involved in getting what I wanted.

The scenery was beautiful and amazing. I saw heather, very abundant and pretty. We left the group at lunch, because Kara (the American) was tired, and Jacie (the Australian) and I needed to catch the ferry back. It was a basically uneventful trip back to Edinburgh, and I slept much of the way. I got back to the hotel and slept in, and came to the U of Edinburgh to write this. I need to get a move on if I am to see the castle today.
{End of personal journal}


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