And God said:
Let there be a place made of stone
out off the west of the world;
roughed nine months by gale,
rattled in Atlantic swell.
A place that rouses each Easter
with soft blessings of flowers
and shocks of white shell sand;
a place found only sometimes
by those who have lost their way.
We know Saint Columba landed on the south coast of Iona in AD 563. All the same, frustratingly, far more questions remain surrounding his arrival on Iona than answers. Why was it he chose that island, and what exactly did he find once he arrived? How much did he know of what he would find before he landed from Ireland with his twelve followers? How was he received on Iona and how did he deal with those he found? And where exactly did he visit on the Scottish west coast before he made his famous landing on the beach that was to become known as St. Columba’s Bay? It’s important to remember that at that time Scotland’s west coast was being settled by waves of Irish Celts; important to remember too that because only a few miles of sea separated the north of Ireland from Scotland, the settlers didn’t truly think of this as different country: it was as though one simply flowed into the other.
I had experienced Iona as a remote place, out off the Scottish west coast and difficult to reach – the end of a long day’s pilgrimage. I exulted in the quiet and rejoiced in the fact that this was the way things must have been from the beginning. It felt to me an edge place: when I stood on the west side of the island on a wild day looking out to sea, it might have been there was nothing between me and America. All this suited the romantic notions I had about this island where I felt such a profound sense of what I call wildscape. This was for me both where I felt the deepest awareness of the divine and the place where words flowed from the pen, first and foremost as poems.
I suspect that once those ideas had taken shape in my mind about Iona as the place of pilgrimage and remoteness, I didn’t want them to be taken away or changed. Then one day I happened to be listening to an illustrated lecture by an archaeologist from the University of Glasgow. His first slide showed Iona, but not as I had seen it before on any map or as ever I had imagined it. Now Iona – an island a little over three miles long and perhaps one and a half miles in breadth – was at the very center of the map rather than the edge. To the south was the north coast of Ireland and the islands that lay between it and Iona; to the east was the jagged edge of the Scottish west coast, what the early Celts knew as Dalriada and we today call Argyll.
The archaeologist explained how Iona had been at the very heart of the sea roads of the time. We are so ruled in our thinking, understandably enough, by paved roads. We live truly urbocentric lives: we go out to edge places and think of them as such. But early peoples thought in terms of the sea roads, and Iona was perfectly placed at the heart of them. And they were busy: the vessels that plied them were fetching and carrying, bearing travelers. Iona had been no edge place back then.
But that wasn’t all. The archaeologist went on to talk about how life had been at the early monastery Columba founded – a collection of wooden structures, not the beautiful granite medieval ones, the iconic set of buildings we know today. It had been the polar opposite of how I had imagined it: this was a vibrant center of learning, and not just religious learning. In many ways it was an early university: a place where ideas of all kinds were studied and doubtless argued over. The copying of manuscripts would have been of prime importance, just as it had been at Celtic monastic settlements back in Ireland, at Kildare, Clonfert, Clonmacnoise and others.
What came across, more than anything else, was that Iona would have been filled with excited noise and chatter. That only increased after Columba’s death, for his fame spread far and wide, and new scholars and pilgrims sought out Iona because this had been Columba’s island. In fact, the archaeologist told us, Iona simply became too loud for the hermit monks, the papar. They went away to find solitude and quiet; they traveled further out to the remotest reaches of the Western Isles where they hoped to hear more easily the voice of God, or they voyaged north to the islands that make up the Orkneys and Shetland. And most likely they traveled on, until they reached Faroe and Iceland, and even Greenland, for stories of their visiting all three are still whispered, though concrete evidence has never been found to substantiate the claims.
We know for certain that long after Columba’s death the greatest treasure of the Celts, the Book of Kells, was created on Iona. That would have meant the bringing of precious inks to the island for the painting of those precious pages. It was only later, once it was complete, that the book was taken from the island and back to Ireland because of the Viking raids.
I still imagine that quiet was possible in the more remote corners of Iona at the height of those Celtic Christian days. The early settlement, where the first wooden monastery was built (and where the rebuilt medieval cluster of buildings is situated) is in the northeastern part of the island. This would have been the epicenter of the chattering and the creating. Iona may look small on the map but it’s far from small to anyone who has tried to walk all round it on a blustery day. There are any number of secret coves and beaches; there are small glens and hidden dells. Obviously they were present every bit as much back then as today, but nevertheless the island must not have felt sufficiently remote to the hermit monks. Perhaps disturbance was too likely: perhaps they needed to know being disturbed wasn’t possible at all. My feeling is that Iona felt too lush and plentiful to them: the landfalls the papar chose for their times of solitude were invariably barren and bleak – in fact, it would seem, the more barren and bleak the better. Iona is almost equally divided between wildscape of gnarled granite and bogland, and good ground for farming. The two fold around one another, but my strong suspicion is that the island would have seemed too full of green and plenty for those particular monks.
That is to a large extent built on my knowledge of the importance of martyrdom to the early Celtic Christians. They were supremely aware of the suffering the early Christians had experienced for their faith. When the gospel was brought first to Ireland there was an expectation that those who carried the new faith would be persecuted and even killed. You might almost say it was a hope: the honor that came with martyrdom. But that was not what happened at all; almost without exception the new faith they brought was accepted. It was folded into the existing belief system; it was fitted around those existing beliefs. And because martyrdom didn’t happen as they had expected, it needed to be understood in a new way. There were now several grades of martyrdom, a hierarchy described in colors. The highest level was white. Now the desert with its endless thirsty sands and marauding lions was replaced by the sea. The greatest act of faith was setting out over the ocean to be taken where God wanted you to be. For when you were on the sea you were at the mercy of the winds and the waves and the currents and the creatures of the deep. Hermit monks set out from Iona to be taken to one of these ‘desert’ places. They remained there, possibly in silence and without food, for forty days and nights before returning to the sanctuary and relative prosperity of Iona.
But it is what these Celtic Christians believed and put into practice that I find most exciting – and applicable for us today. I can’t help feeling that in all manner of ways the modern church, across the denominations, has gone backward from the ground on which those Celts stood rather than forward. What seems to have been of prime importance was that we are loved by God for what we could become rather than rejected by God for what we are not, the belief that beyond our fallenness is the possibility of the perfect person, and that God seeks to form us into that wholeness day by day and year by year. The Celtic Christians’ love and honor of the natural world, of a God-made creation, was paramount. That’s evident in the surviving stories about the earliest saints of the Celtic Christian world and their bonds with nature. One of the best-known and most beautiful concerns Columba himself and the last day of his life, when the white horse he so loved sought him out. It was as though no one else guessed this would be his last day, but the horse came to weep against the old man’s breast. Stewardship, caring for the earth and all we have been given, lies close to the beating heart of Celtic Christianity.
The Iona Community that grew out of the rebuilding of Iona Abbey in the 1930s, under the leadership of the extraordinary George MacLeod, sought to embody something of the core of Celtic Christian thinking. Of huge importance was the leaving behind of Iona to go back out into a troubled world: to Soweto, to São Paulo, to San Francisco. Iona was the well to which one came back to drink but it was not the place where one rested for ever. There was work to be done and urgency for the completion of that work.
In the same way Columba’s monks had gone out or been sent out, not only to rocky islets to encounter a greater sense of God and his voice, but with the gospel, to convert. Doubtless it was to be there for others in every way as Christ had been there for friend and stranger. For that reason the Iona Community was not resident on Iona: it was out in the world – challenging, questioning, building, and praying. And in the same way neither of these manifestations of Celtic Christianity is to be romanticized. Those early Celts were never gentle monks huddled in the granite headlands of Dalriada singing beautiful chants, any more than George MacLeod’s community. Iona Community members today are to be found protesting at the gates of weapons factories: for them Christianity is about love in action, overturning the tables in the temple.
For me, the best blueprint of what Iona must have been like during the high days of Celtic Christianity is to be found on another island a few hours distant. Eileach an Naoimh is even closer to the north coast of Ireland than Iona: this could well be the Hinba written about so often by the scribes of the day – the place that became the retreat for Brendan, for Columba, and for Bridget. We know it was established as a monastic settlement by Brendan a generation before Columba’s landing on Iona.
My wife Kristina and I had the privilege of visiting the islet a couple of summers ago. It was a still and perfect day in May; the shores of other islands and the mainland were clearly delineated. We came to the place where the beehive cells and the chapel stood in the shelter of the island’s east side: there was barely a breath of wind. Ahead of us, clearly visible among the rocks, were the tiny fields they must have created all those hundreds of years before. It was as though the monks had left early that morning and would be returning before dark, Kristina observed. And that was precisely how it was. Special and priceless as Iona is, it is a built-over island. It takes imagination to take away all that is medieval and all that is modern to see again how it must have been. On Eileach an Naoimh every element is there; all that’s absent are the monks who have gone away. But it doesn’t take much, nor does it take long, to feel their presence again – the vibrancy of their lives and the fire they carried inside.
The Holy Isle
What was the point of going there
except to be apart, to leave behind
the babble of the voices that could never know
how many angels there were dancing on a pin.
This was beyond: a place where silence spoke –
a few fields scattered in between the rocks,
a well of water for the quenching of their thirst
and beehive cells for shelter come the dark.
These were the simple things that made their lives.
What mattered more was breaking through
from out of solitude and quiet, now and then,
into somewhere else; a realm
where they could know the voice of God,
that took them from the ordinary
into a deeper light and out of time.