‘Blessed are those whose strength is in you; whose hearts are set on pilgrimage’ (Psalm 84: 5)
Pilgrimage is as old as religious practice: as long as there has been religious people, they have been travelling to places! For the Muslim, it is Mecca, for the Jew, Jerusalem, but for the Christian, we have many places to choose from. Chaucer wended his way to Canterbury, but others went to Walsingham and the North of the British Isles has Iona or Lindisfarne beckoning for ancient as well as modern day pilgrims.
So it was that we went to Iona. 25 of us, mostly from Beaconsfield, though a friend from my old parish joined us, together with one person from Edinburgh with ages ranging from teenagers to 90 year olds. The wide age range felt right – we represented Christians far more numerous than the few of us and to do so with different ages seemed appropriate.
Often pilgrimages are made in the context of pain and hardship. A few weeks before we were due to travel, one of the group had a heart attack and it seemed most unlikely he would come – unlikely to everyone, except for him that is. And he proved himself right and joined the party. The day before we travelled up, Dorothy fell and fractured her upper arm in four places which has ultimately resulted in surgery. We had not thought she would be able to come and of course the children and I travelled with very mixed feelings about leaving her. But she came, despite the pain, and joined us all on the island.
The Bible verse at the top of the page goes on to talk about pilgrims going through the Valley of Baka and making it a place of springs. The image is of turning a place of barrenness to one of bounty. Is that what we were doing as pilgrims? I know that as I travelled I felt completely wrung out – scarcely able to sustain myself, let alone bring nourishment to anyone else.
Getting to Iona involved cars, trains, planes, ferries, coaches – we could be in no doubt that we needed to travel. But that only added to the sense of purpose we had. But we followed a route that had been taken for over fourteen hundred years – and it was much easier for us than it was for them. Ever since the days of Columba in the sixth century, people had been drawn there – and there was evidence to suggest that this small island had exerted its grip for centuries before that. It has been a burial ground for kings, a centre of spirituality, a place where justice is proclaimed and, through the Iona Community, lived out in far flung parts of the world.
So what am I left with? The most moving part of the week for me came on Tuesday when we walked around the island together. It is unlikely that we walked more than about 3 miles, but the whole journey took some four hours as we stopped at a number of places for reading, reflection and prayer. Most of us walked, but it was wonderful that a golf buggy was on hand to carry those for whom the journey was too much. It felt important we did it all together.
And for me, as leader of the journey, there was a huge significance in leading the pilgrimage.
They call Iona a thin place – a point where the space between earth and heaven is tissue-paper thin. So it felt that week. Perhaps the more so because the journey there had involved pain and heart-ache. But however we came, we got there – and having got there, were refreshed and sent on our way again.