I just got back from a week on Iona. Someone asked me today: “Where’s Iona?” Well, it’s off the west coast of Scotland. I took a train to Glasgow from Preston, changed stations in Glasgow to go to Oban. At Oban I caught a ferry to Mull, a large island about 45 minutes from Oban. At the port on Mull (Craignure) I caught a bus to the small port of Fionnphort, a journey of 75 minutes. Then a short ferry ride to the tiny island of Iona. In total it took my from Preston to Iona 9 hours.
I went there for my annual retreat. The journey is itself the beginning of something special. You pass through some of the most barren yet beautiful country in the British isles. Iona is quite extraordinary, though small there is a very varied landscape; there are hills and plains, valleys and high rocks, beaches with sand and beeches with pebbles. The sand is white and the colour of the sea a variety of different shades of blue and green, were the sun hot you might think you were in the Caribean. It is an artists paradise.
I keep coming back to Iona. This must be my sixth visit. People I meet there tell me that when you have been once you will come back again. When I asked one lady why she comes, she thought for a long time, then said, “it’s a bit like coming home”. Iona has a deep effect on people. I certainly let the place speak to me. I am not someone who analyses too much but am content to sit on a rock beside the sea and just watch the waves coming in or going out. The rocks are remarkable. They are so old; the oldest in Britain.
When I first land on the island I make my way to the north end; a 20 minute walk. I sit down on a bench which had been dedicated to someone who ‘loved Iona’. This year I read St Teresa of Avila’s great classic, ‘The Interior Castle’. What would have Teresa thought had she known her writings would have been read somewhere so very different and so far away from her native Castile. It was the perfect place to focus on the soul; for this is what she writes about. The place makes my senses come alive, including my spiritual senses. I read about God’s workings in the human person. What great dignity is ours. There is so much potential in the human soul, if only we realised this. I finished the book some days later in the old abbey church, the largest building on the Island, built 1200 years ago. And yet it isn’t so much to the Benedictine monks that I feel drawn but to the much older Celtic monk, Saint Columba. Maybe because I am a Celt myself.
Sr Jean runs a wonderful catholic centre and house of prayer. She feeds the body with her wonderful food. I tried to paint the view from my room. Going out of the doors you will meet sheep eating the grass just yards away. There are few fences, and you can get the impression that the whole island belongs to you. This time of the year there are not many tourists and fewer pilgrims, so when the last ferry leaves about 6.30 pm the place is all still again. There are only about 130 people living there, few cars, but lots of sheep.
I decided to go without my iPhone. It was a good decision. I didn’t have too many distractions. Each day I walked to a different place. In some places I did not meet anyone else. I can see why Colomba settled here and made it his home. Indeed he died here. I visit the place where he was buried. I could go on but it is getting late. I will go back to Iona again, God willing. I might even do a sabbatical there, in the winter months, when there are no priests on the island; at least while I am there mass will be celebrated. We shall see.
Iona is a great place for thinking deep thoughts. I often think of my family, my father especially; not sure why. He would have loved to sit and gaze. As I child I watched him do this sometimes. He looked contented when he did this. One thought I had was to write about discernment of vocations. I should do that in the not too distant future.