Not I—not anyone else, can travel that road for you.
You must travel it yourself.
A slight wind sweeps over the rocky hill, a cool relief after my quick walk and brief climb. Shoes off, I lean back on the grassy spot I’ve claimed and look around to get my bearings. Wide expanses of blue sea encircle this small island I’ve just arrived on. Green pastures filled with grazing sheep and cows stretch out below me. Occasional white farmhouses dot the landscape. Across the bay, small islands and the rocky coast of Mull are visible. In the distance, I can see the Abbey – outpost of monks and pilgrims, survivor of centuries of harsh coastal weather, and emblem of the holiness that permeates this sacred isle.
I have arrived on Iona—place of pilgrimage, refuge, and prayers. A spot thought to be so holy that only the thinnest of margins separates heaven from earth. The thinnest of thin places. A small western isle where an Irish abbot established a monastic community around 563 CE, and where pilgrims have been traveling ever since.
Our ferry has landed moments before, and I immediately felt drawn to walk to the hill of Dun-I (hill of Iona) – the highest spot on the island. I’ve come as part of a group of pilgrims from across the U.S. and Canada with Shalem Institute, a leading contemplative organization based in Washington DC. We each come for our own reasons, though connection with the holy and with the earth are the themes of our collective journey.
The clouds that began our journey to the island back in Glasgow have given way to blue skies—hinting perhaps, that though we began our journey with questions and wonderings, maybe the island itself or the collective presence of many pilgrim prayers will afford some clarity. Breathing in the fresh sea-salted air, that seems a reasonable hope.
I try not to put the burden of unreasonable expectations on this journey. A mountaintop experience might be too much to expect as I sit on this reasonably small hill. Do I have questions hoping to be answered? Yes. Where is my own journey going? How does one separate vocation from calling, job from identity, livelihood from personhood? Where is God in the difficult and dark places in our world? What does true community look like?
Yet the feel of the rock and the grass under my bare feet, the expanding vistas of remarkably blue and turquoise waters tell me that whatever unfolds will not disappoint. Indeed, glimpses of community will come in our pilgrimage community of nearly forty people. Strangers merely days before, now coming together after our journey to this place. We’ll also be invited to join in with the Iona Community in their daily morning and evening prayers at the Abbey—their collective life of work and worship, justice and fellowship proving to be an inviting glimpse into what Christian community can look like.
But for now, it is good to sit quietly in this spot, alone. Questions and hopes mingle together on the gentle breeze. I sit and simply breathe, receiving this moment as gift.
Bryan Berghoef is a pastor, speaker, and author of the book: Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation and God. He’s also a big fan of his kids, baseball, and a good scotch. He’ll be speaking at Wild Goose Festival with his wife Christine Berghoef this summer on Building Communities of Faith, Justice and Dialogue.