A Celtic pilgrimage

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The author at Iona Abbey. Photo: Contributed
The author at Iona Abbey. Photo: Contributed

At the beginning of May, I took a deep breath, stepped out the door and began a Celtic pilgrimage. Ringing in my ears were the words of Bilbo Baggins: “It’s a dangerous business going out of your door. You step onto the road and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to…”

Well, I had done quite a bit of reading, thinking and planning before I started this pilgrimage. But I can tell you that nothing prepared me for the mental, emotional and spiritual places I was swept off to… The currents and eddies of the flow conspired to touch me in ways that were personal, prophetic and pastoral.

Personal, in that I’ve reconnected with my Gaelic ancestors; prophetic, in that I feel the need to keep a sharper eye out for when something is not life-giving; pastoral, in that my prayer relationship with God is now in and through creation—not reaching somewhere above and beyond creation.

When I was planning this pilgrimage, I knew that there were certain places I wanted to see, and certain things I wanted to do. But I also knew that it was important not to have a full and rigid itinerary. It was important to allow mental and temporal space for chance encounters—space to follow the unexpected opportunities that presented themselves.

For example, I knew that I needed to stay overnight in Edinburgh, but I had no idea that the bed and breakfast I was staying in would be owned by a Muslim family from Morocco. It was wonderful to hear how they came to Scotland a generation ago, and now their older son is heading off to university.

Another example. I knew that I wanted to go to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, but I had no idea that I would have a chance to visit with one of the authors from the Northumbrian Community. He writes Celtic prayers and his wife does wonderful Celtic artwork.

Also, at my Lindisfarne bed and breakfast, the first morning there I discovered that the person in the room next to me was the suffragan bishop of Los Angeles, Diane Jardine Bruce. It just so happened she was on sabbatical, too. Being a fan of St. Cuthbert, she had just done the long walk from Melrose Abbey to Lindisfarne. The next day we went for a walk and talked about why the Celtic tradition is now so important for the church. She and Terry Dance and Linda Nicholls all went to Bishop’s School together in the U.S., and she was delighted to hear that Linda was our new bishop!

Here is another example of a chance encounter. In order to get to the Isle of Iona, first you take a train from Glasgow to Oban, then a ferry from Oban to the Isle of Mull, then take a bus along a narrow, twisty road to the other end of the island, and then finally you take a little ferry across to the Isle of Iona. Well, on the train from Glasgow to Oban a woman named Clare came and sat in front of me and we started talking about the logistics of all these connections. It was her first time to Iona as well. It turned out that she worked for the British organization Christian Aid and was leading a workshop on current strategies for social justice—”Being Change Makers.” She was interested in what I was reading, and we have been emailing and sharing ideas with each other ever since I got back.

These are all examples of why it is important on a pilgrimage to leave space for chance encounters—and let the currents of the river of life touch you in unexpected ways.

Now, once I reached the Isle of Iona, there was one thing that truly caught me by surprise. Yes, the abbey was lovely and historic—and the community inspiring. But as I walked up and down this three-mile island, I had a strange feeling, as though everything on the island was speaking to me—the rocks, the plants, the animals, the sky and sea. Because of this, I spent a great deal of time walking the island and being open to what it was saying to me. It was truly an amazing experience.

Towards the end of my sabbatical, I starting writing down some things that I felt were important. Here are a few of the characteristics I focus on as a Celtic Christian.

Being a Celtic Christian

  • All created things in the universe are sacred; there is something of God in all things.
  • Therefore, all created things deserve to be shown respect: rock, earth, sky, stars, sun, moon, clouds, plants, animals, people.
  • All created things are in a personal relationship with each other and their Creator.
  • If you slow down, stop and be still, your relationship with creatures and all created things becomes more clear.
  • When you slow down, look and show respect for the created things around you (rather than charging around and showing no respect), then created things, in turn, take more notice of you, and can speak to you,
  • A pilgrimage is very different from a trip or vacation; a pilgrimage is not about checking off the list the beaches, gardens, castles and cathedrals seen. It’s about leaving on a walk and letting yourself be deeply touched by the people you meet; by the places in which you dwell; and by the created world all around that can speak to you.
  • I am created by God, in the image of God, and therefore when God looks and sees the deepest part of my being, behold, God sees that “it is very good.”
  • At the same time, I must take very seriously the reality of sin and evil that can over time grow within and without of me, like weeds and thorny bushes. I must be vigilant first about this reality in myself, and then about this reality in the world around me.
  • There is no duality of matter and spirit. One is not bad and the other good. The worlds of matter and spirit are deeply intertwined. The challenge of sin and evil is a challenge both for matter and spirit.
  • The realms of heaven and earth are not as far apart as many think. There are many places and moments where they touch and interact with each other. Not just in prayer, but in moments of everyday life. We simply need to practise paying attention.
  • Christ has come to reveal the essential love relationship between the Creator and created and to end all feelings of being alone, alienated and unloved.

When I arrived home in Canada, I started reflecting on my journey and started to write things down. For some reason, the words that came seemed to take the form of poems. And so I would like to finish this reflection by offering you one of those poems.

 

Iona

As you walk, tread gently,

Breathe deeply, and quiet the body like a sunset

Let the cares of the mind flow out like a river

Let the birds of the air speak to you

Let the ancient rock of the island speak to you

Let the sheep of the field speak to you

Let the clouds and rain speak to you

Let the distant mountains speak to you

Let the sea and sky speak to you

Let the wind and waves speak to you

Let each pilgrim you meet on the way speak to you

For the Kingdom of God is near

Let the God of all life speak to you

 

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Canon Lorne Mitchell

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