Wednesday, 20 February 2008
Saint Columba was a tough guy
"Alone with none but Thee, my God,
I journey on my way;
What need I fear when Thou art near,
Oh King of night and day?
More safe am I within Thy hand
Than if a host did round me stand."
The above candlelit chandelier, a real candelabra in fact, hangs above the Iona community inside the refectory of that famed Abbey. My pilgrimage had brought me there at the absolute quietest time of the year. January 24th was the day I very luckily managed to get on that ferry from neighbouring Mull island to cross the sound of Iona. It was only on the following day as serendipidy dropped me in the arms of the resident Iona community, that I was told it was a wonder I had made the crossing. The ferry was halted after that and could mean me getting stuck on the island for days. It was winter after all. Winter means gales in Scotland. Gales mean that even the mainland ferries from Oban across to Mull are stopped. Gales isolate islands and that is precisely why a royal Irishman had chosen this barren rock upon which to found his monastic community in the sixth century. Yes, sixth. They made people a lot tougher in those days..
Iona has always been my spiritual home though I travel the world constantly and have pilgrimaged from Chichen Itza to megalithic monuments in the hinterland of Japan that even the locals don't know about. Iona is permeated with that peace that 'surpatheth all human understanding' and if it is true that a human consciousness can literally imprint an environment then here was its proof. Driven by a holy need to completely leave the world behind, early Christian monks had created a new civilization, maybe the only one we ever really had, in the deserts of Egypt. The desert fathers were then to influence the Irish prince called Columba.
When I first arrived I had already been to pyramids , climbed into sacramental cave orifices and Inca temples as part of a ten year pilgrimage of the world's ancient civilizations. But when one considers that there was nothing civil about using human slaves to build monuments to dubious gods I dare to call such remains conquerzations. Pretty to look at, astronomically correct and very balmy to be in but here in Iona it is a different story altogether. Being Scottish helps pound the lesson home, of course.
There are no restaurants open. No hotels. The B&B's are all cosily closed. One hostel at the far North was open and one Spar shop sold biscuits, fruit and cheese as well as canned food and so on. And hot coffee. Important.
The Abbey is deserted. I film inside its chilly stone walls undisturbed. The wind howls ever stronger. A massive swell moves from right to left across the sound-at right angles to any ferry that would be fool enough to challenge seas that have killed often. Though happy to be here I am slightly concerned since I have planes to catch and places to go. I have long planned interviews with important people the next day. It takes an hour to drive across Mull to Craignure. Then a wait for the ferry to Oban. One and a half hours later a drive to Edinburgh airport that even at my driving speed is a four hour jaunt-and on snowy roads. Hmmm...will I make it?
Iona dispenses with any attempt at a welcome kiss and 'nice to see you again Echan'. The people are guarded. I meet one guy on the road with a dog. The dog responded to my hello but not its owner. Islands are the same the world over. 'Us islanders and you mainland folks', just about sums it up. No blame. It is as it is. Life is pretty harsh out here. Sharing feelings has never been a superb trait of the Scots anyway, thus the liberal use of fire water to loosen up the craggy interiors of their solitary souls. We may have invented the word 'independent' amongst all those other inventions.
But I am here to breathe in the astonishing presence of a true saint. And what is a Saint? A man or a woman whose sole reliance is as quoted above surely. By the next morning it is obvious I have been held close to the bosom of this sacred place and will not be allowed to leave. And I am getting hungry. No hot food to be had as I ply my way to and from the ferry to check the announcements that electronically flow across the port's message sign. 'Ferries suspended due to inclement weather until further notice. Next announcement in two hours.' The ferry captains are known to lurch into action even with a slight lull as supplies must be carried across so unless you keep checking you might miss that one ferry of the day..
I take refuge under a fishing boat and decide to do what any sensible pilgrim must always do under such circumstances: leave it up to the will of the Holy spirit and accept whatever is given. Cheese. Oatcakes and an apple would have seemed divine fare to the anchorites who under Saint Columba's brilliant leadership lived lives we can scarcely contemplate, let alone attempt to emulate in our nanny-state psychosis of security.
A van pulls up at the ferry port. Inside are the hardy members of the Iona Community, a spiritual enclave of committed souls who live, pray and work on the rock. Taking pity on the traveler with the large backpack looking across the whitecaps at nothing but boat- less sea they invite me to give up and drive me to the hostel.
Today is the 25th of January and as every Scot knows it is Burns Supper day in honour of the great Bard who had succintly noted, 'The best laid schemes O' mice and men gang aft aglay,' meaning of course that things do not always turn out the way you expected. Like today.
I thus find myself on that stranded day in the company of this wonderful community in the refectory of the Abbey, a guest at the Burns supper. Who would have thought that this would be the first time to enjoy it in my own country? Across from me at the table as we get stuck into neeps and tatties and haggis is an interesting man. I immediately recognize great intelligence in his curious face and soon find out that this island attracts the most unusual people.
Up stands a hefty lass who begins to recite that most ghoulish and awe inspiring tales of the bard, 'Tam O' Shanter'. It concerns the devilish fate of one Tam who after getting well stewed in the pub gets on his horse for a ride home that will make The Exorcist look like Mary Poppins.
Warlocks and witches in a dance:
Nae cotillon, brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o' beast
The dinner ends and I walk into a force 8 or 9 gale with the unusual man who turns out to have been long involved in the energy department of the Washington State government. We had a wonderful stroll through conditions that only people attracted by the lure of that great saint could happily endure. Man does not live by bread alone but by the power and the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The next day I made the ferry and lost an airline ticket and a hotel reservation that had to be paid but what small price to pay for two howling nights on the sacred isle, nights and days I will long treasure as the pilgrimage inevitably wends its way ahead. In Japanese and English I filmed the walk towards the Abbey on Rabbie Burns' day, January the twenty fifth in the year of our Lord two thousand and eight.