April 11, last Wednesday, was Iona Day.
Never heard of it, you say? That’s because it’s my own private holiday. It’s the day that, two years ago, I visited the island of Iona, Scotland, and it became part of me.
Known as the Sacred Isle, this is the remote place where a community of Irish monks settled in 563 A.D. to fully devote themselves to the contemplation of God. Under the leadership of St. Colum Cille, they built a monastic community that drew saints and scholars from across Europe to worship and learn. (If you want to learn more, the delightful animated film The Secret of Kells gives a condensed glimpse at Iona’s history.)
This tiny island just three miles by one, isn’t on any of the lists of tourist destinations in Scotland: Edinburgh Castle, Isle of Skye, Loch Ness. And it requires an arduous journey, requiring six legs of travel just to get from the mainland to the island and back. Yet, of the two and a half months I spent studying abroad in the British Isles, that weekend side trip is the one that still nestles most closely to my heart.
On April 11, I was looking at the framed Iona postcard on my wall, at the Celtic cross hanging on my desk, and remembering. The day has become an anniversary for me. So I thought I’d invite you to share a vision of the place through an excerpt from the blog I kept while traveling. May it give you a glimpse of why I remember this place:
The water is unbelievably clear–it’s a stunning, Bahamas turquoise blue, with powdery white sand on the Iona shore. It made me feel like I was in a little Mediterranean, in the wrong hemisphere. Stepping off the boat, it was like entering a dream. The island has very limited cars, so the air is serene, and often silent, in a way you can’t get in a city, or even a regular town. This is a sacred city, an island wholly devoted to worship and prayer. It is like a cloud away from earth–a place of solace, a haven and sanctuary from the world. There was an ineffable grace about it that I can’t even describe. It made me want to weep and sing and stay forever. It is not just a city, but an island of God.
It was simply magical, and yet more than that–a stairway to heaven? My companions and I had only 2 1/2 precious hours to spend on shore, but they were beautiful. We had a picnic in the garden of the ruined nunnery, with butterflies on the hyacinths and daffodils in the sun. We walked through the ancient graveyard, where it is said Macbeth is buried (though I tried in vain to find his headstone), and I had the privilege of praying in a 900-year-old chapel. I just about died with delight. The abbey has ancient Celtic crosses in front of it, and peaked windows that let in shifting patterns of light. Sheep graze all about, and it makes sense that the Lord is our shepherd. Candles burn in the windows, and I saw prayers rising like incense. It is truly a place of peace, an island so practiced in worship that it is almost a scent you can breathe in on the air. And to see gardens blooming beside ancient stones–there’s something here that is out of my reach to express, but that touched me deeply. It’s not even worth asking if it was worth it to take six forms of public transportation to get here.
(you can read more about my Britain experiences here if you’d like.)
Iona Day is a time to remember this beautiful and healing place. Someday I’d love to go back.
What places have become a part of you? (home counts too!)