We met off the western coast of Scotland, on the small Isle of Iona. We were both drawn by the island’s reputation as an early center of Gaelic monasticism and also by its incredible natural beauty.
In 563, St. Columba of Ireland left his abbey at Kells for Scotland, a perilous sea voyage at the time. As soon as he walked on the white sands of Iona, he knew he had found the site for his new monastic community, one that would also draw pilgrims in the coming centuries. Later, in the 13th century, Benedictines were invited to establish a new abbey where Columba’s monastery once stood.
The ruins of the Benedictine abbey in turn became home to a new ecumenical community beginning in 1938. The present-day Iona Community continues the tradition of both Celtic Christians and Benedictine monastics. Its members are dispersed throughout the world, working for peace and justice while living contemplatively. Though the abbey church and its community are no longer explicitly Benedictine, the community’s very Benedictine sense of place draws modern-day pilgrims to this wind-swept, rocky island.
What a beautiful setting for two oblates from Minnesota to meet by chance! In the modern-day Iona Community Bookstore, Becky overheard Suzanne mention Saint Benedict’s Monastery. Immediately we felt connected by this shared experience, even if our circumstances on Iona were very different. Suzanne had arrived on a French cruise ship from Dublin. Becky was on a four-day retreat after a tour of the Scottish Highlands.
The repaired ruins of the abbey church and monastic quarters are quite beautiful, located on a picturesque bay. The original abbey site during St. Columba’s time has been rebuilt as a small chapel in front of the church. St. Martin’s Celtic cross from the ninth century stands in front of the rebuilt church. A replica of an eighth-century St. John’s Cross also is placed in this location with fragments of the original cross displayed in the abbey museum.
Only the feet of an original statue of Columba are displayed in the church with a rebuilt replica of the rest of the statue superimposed on the pedestal. Legend believes that if one prays at the St. Columba statue and touches the original pedestal feet, the prayer will be answered. Many pilgrims come to pray at this site.
A small ferry took me across the narrow sound to Iona, rocking heavily from side to side in the rough sea. As we came ashore, waves sloshed over the gangway and rain began to beat down in earnest. Though tired from my pilgrim’s journey of bus-ferry-bus-ferry, I noticed an unexpected sob arise within, a deeply felt sense that the island itself was welcoming me.
The Celtic sense of a thin space, where the spiritual world meets the physical world, has long been recognized on Iona. The rocky shore meets the sea at every turn, encircling visitors and pilgrims with a very tangible welcome. I was awed by the beauty of rocky beaches alongside green pastures of sheep and highland cows.
During my stay, I joined the Iona Community for prayer twice daily in the monastic choir stalls of a sanctuary that (intentionally) has ferns growing from the stone walls, signs of centuries when the church was literally open to the heavens.
I sensed that my days on Iona were not about me, but about the land I stood upon, hallowed by the many who had come before me. My task was not to somehow conjure up a meaningful retreat but to receive the stark beauty of Iona with gratitude and with awareness of those whose holy longing had preceded mine. Participating in community liturgies, enjoying local food, and taking rambling walks were my “yes” to the invitation to enter this sacred space.
Prayer From the Iona Abbey Worship Book*
You, God, have brought us to this thin place
where earth and heaven embrace,
the past interweaves with the future,
different nations and languages mingle,
and what we want is replaced by what we need.
God, you are good to us…
Bless those we have left behind,
reveal your wisdom through those we meet,
rest your peace on what weighs heavily on our hearts;
and plant your purpose in what we deeply desire,
so that when we leave we can say with truer conviction,
God, you are good to us.
*Iona Abbey Worship Book by the Iona Community. Reproduced with permission of Wild Goose Publications through PLSclear.
Becky Van Ness, OblSB, and Suzanne Miller, OblSB
This article was featured on pages 10–11 in the spring 2023 issue of Benedictine Sisters and Friends.