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Virtual Pilgrimage 2021

Note: Video update and pictures at the end of this page.

Day 1 – Journal

This week I’m walking a pilgrimage – the St Conan’s Way from Dalmally in Argyll to Iona Abbey, a distance of around 70 miles over four days. It is a route that pilgrims have walked for over a millennium, in honour of St Columba. Landing on Iona in 563AD from Ireland, Columba and the monks who joined him began a monastery of great academic renown, and founded much of what we would call Celtic Christianity, but more importantly set off around the mainland and the great waterways of the west coast of Scotland to express the Gospel in word and deed to the people of the kingdom of Dalriada. Nearly 1500 years later, we are their spiritual descendants.

In the course of these four days, I will encounter many places associated with them. I began this morning (Monday) in Dalmally at St Conan’s Well, where Conan, follower of Iona is said to have drunk regularly from the spring. I then travelled along the valley to Stronmilchan, past the famous white Glenorchy Parish Church. I then began to climb upwards at the north side of Ben Cruachan, over the pass at Glen Noe. The farm at the foot of the climb is most likely the place where Columba founded a monastery at Loch Awe, and the mountain above is named after his fellow monk and biographer, Adomnan. Over the pass and descending into Glen Noe, I walked passed the ruined settlement of the McIntyre clan, who lived in this Glen from the 13th to the 19th Centuries. Then down to the shores of Loch Etive, and walking from there past Inverawe House to Taynuilt. Total distance fourteen miles, with about 2000 feet of climb – a beautiful day of walking in the sunshine. I hope you enjoy the video and photos, as well as the meditation and prayer to follow.

 

Day 1 –  Meditation

The journey of pilgrimage enables a three-way encounter: with ourselves, with nature around us, and with other people that we come across along the way. The first one can be the most challenging. In the busyness of everyday life, we mask our fears, our wounds, our questions about our existence and the presence of God, our yearning for deliverance from suffering, or to see again those we have loved. Walking in the open countryside, with time to pause and think, no sound but the rhythm of walking, feelings of joy and thankfulness for all the blessings of family, friends and my new ministry begin to emerge, and a re-assurance of God’s continual, guiding presence:

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’ (Psalm 23:5-6)

But so too do the doubts and fears that are often held at bay, and I wonder how to restrain or resolve them – to ‘deal with them’ now, so that I can fully enjoy the beauty of these moments in front of me. Then again, maybe to live fully we should not repress the questions, or expect simple and immediate solutions,  but instead ‘live them.’ The Austrian poet and novelist Ranier Maria Rilke wrote movingly about the tangled strands in our minds that frustrate and perplex us, that cause us to doubt ourselves or God, or question our future:

‘Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to live the questions themselves. Do not seek answers which cannot be given to you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything, live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’

 

Prayer - Christ our Companion, by Jane Leach

Christ our companion,
You walk with us on the journey of our life;
You accompany us even as we are walking away;
You stand with us in our confusion and refuse to let us go.
Open our eyes to your presence
And our hearts to your good news
Guide our feet in the ways that lead to life. Amen.

 

 

Further updates will follow each day this week.

 

Note: Video update and pictures at the end of this page.

Day 2 – Journal

The writer and hillwalker Martin Haworth in his book The Clearing of the Mists describes ‘spiritual glimpses’ in the hills, when ‘our spirit tangibly recognises something pure and holy’. He writes, ‘it is as if we have popped our gaze outside the bubble of the material world and for a second perceived something that is awesome and matters very much, if only we could determine what it is.’

There was such a moment for me this morning as the early morning mist cleared on the road from Taynuilt to Oban through Glen Lonan – suddenly the peak of Ben Cruachan came into view to the East, along with the whole sweep of the mountain tops of the West Highlands to Ben Nevis. It was a spectacular view, at the start of a beautiful sunny afternoon. Poignant moments followed today in memorial gardens – Angus’ Garden and the Cathedral of Trees. A further twelve miles covered. Looking across from Oban Harbour at the end of the walk, I could see the peak of Ben More on Mull, and began to daydream of the beauty of the Ross of Mull to follow tomorrow. Hope you enjoy the reflection and prayer, and the videos and photos from today.

 

Day 2 - Reflection

Pilgrimage is about travelling rather than arriving. When walking as a pilgrim along the famous Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, the now Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, described ‘a journey inwards as well as forwards.’ He was thinking about the thousands who had walked that way in faith before him over the centuries, about who Christ was to him, and ‘feeling a certain sadness for a culture whose moorings have slipped from the Christian way.’ He wrote a poem called ‘Pearl of Great Price’. It is not a poem of nostalgia for what is past, or of judging those who walk other paths, but was written as a ‘quiet celebration of Jesus who gathers up fragments and seeks out what is lost; the one who mends and heals; the one who is not finished until everything is gathered in.’

I thought today of all that have walked the way before me in the Christian faith, whilst sitting on top of the ‘Hill of the Cross’ in Glen Lonan. For centuries, a cross stood on top of the hill, perhaps a waymarker for pilgrims following the same route as me towards Iona. Now, as my photo shows, there is no cross, but the sturdy base of rock remains.

And as I walked into the bustling harbour town of Oban in the late afternoon sunshine, I thought of all those I encountered along the seafront and heard Stephen Cottrell’s words: ‘I want to say to them that there is a good and hopeful way of inhabiting the earth, a way of peace.’

His eye is on the pearl whose price is more
Than all the wealth you store for tomorrow.
His alchemy brings joy from hurt and sorrow.
He can mend damaged hearts, open locked doors.
His work is restoration and reprieve:
Each person is valued, every splinter sought.
His aim is beauty. He doesn’t squander thought
On cost or blame. He works and grieves:
For the possibilities rejected,
The wonder that was broken and blemished.
He knows his labour cannot be finished
Until all the pieces are connected.
His work is revelation and release.
His way is hope and his end is peace.

Day 2 – Prayer

Alone with none but You, my God,
I journeyed on my way,
What need I fear, when You are near,
O King of night and day?
More safe am I within Your hand
Thank if a host did round me stand.
The Child of God can fear no ill,
His chosen dread no foe:
We leave our fate to You, and wait
The bidding when we go.
‘Tis not from chance our comfort springs,
You are our trust, O King of Kings

Adapted from St Columba

 

Updated

Note:  Video update and pictures at the end of this page.

Day 4 – Journal and Reflection

For those who have been to Iona, perhaps many times, you will know that the moment of arrival is very special, particularly on a gorgeous summer’s evening like tonight. On the short ferry crossing from Fionnphort, the sea was calm, coloured azure  blue and the sky near cloudless. As the Abbey came into view, almost shimmering in the heat, this ‘pilgrim’ felt a rush of elation - surrounded by the beauty of creation, and knowing that a place of great spiritual depth and inspiration was imminent.

The long road today began in the early morning at Carsaig, scrambling round the rocks to the Nun’s Cave, and thereafter facing a steep climb with the pack, upwards to the top of the sea cliffs. A tramp over open moorland followed, often on rough ground without tracks or paths. The heat of the sun was intense, with little shade or breeze. It was a relief to reach a Forestry Commission plantation and descend on a track to the main road to Bunessan. 

I had passed close to the ruined villages of Shiaba, scandalously cleared for sheep, and of Scoor, beside which is Kilvicheon Chapel. Buried there is Mary MacDonald, from a family of Gaelic poets who wrote the words (in Gaelic) to ‘Child in the Manger’. Bunessan has given us the name of a famous tune too, to which we sing Mary MacDonald’s hymn, as well as ‘Morning has Broken’

Onward from Bunessan to Fionnphort, with Iona and the Abbey now in sight. About 20 miles covered, partly on very difficult terrain, but now worth it in the moment of arrival. A slimmer and stronger version will be returning!

Thoughts of identity were coming to mind today - this beautiful countryside cannot elicit anything other than wonder at the beauty of God’s creation, and a sense of pride in Scotland. Likewise, on seeing Iona again there is a strong connection for me with the heritage of faith, both in the Reformed tradition and beforehand. But such pride to an extreme can lead to bigotry or xenophobia - see the nuns of Iona fleeing to Carsaig from the zeal of the Reformers.

I read recently Christine De Luca’s poem, written ‘The Morning After’ the independence referendum of 2014. Noting our ‘dragons to slay’, Christine describes the ‘best in Scotland, an open heart’. I am proud in my identity to be Scottish, Christian and Reformed, and to have the privilege of being a minister. But as the hymn says, ‘all are welcome in this place’, and that must be on equal terms - all nationalities, ethnicities, Christian denominations, those of other faiths and none. That desire for peace, justice and an ‘open heart’ rings true on arrival at Iona, from the continuing work of the Iona Community and the legacy of Columba.

From ‘The Morning After’, by Christine De Luca


It’s those unseen things that bind us,
not flag or battle-weary turf or tartan.
There are dragons to slay whatever happens:
poverty, false pride, snobbery, sectarian
schisms still hovering. But there’s
nothing broken that’s not repairable.
We’re a citizenry of bonnie fighters,
a gathered folk; a culture that imparts,
inspires, demands a rare devotion,
no back-tracking; that each should work
and play our several parts to bring about
the best in Scotland, an open heart.

 

Day 4 – Prayer

God of the Tides by Jan Sutch Pickard


God of the tides,
Whose faithful rhythm
Underlies our daily lives
Help us to keep on
With courage and caring
Both when we are full and fulfilled
And in times of ebb and emptiness
Neap and spring tides in our lives –
Within the ocean of your love. Amen.

 

 

Note:  Video update and pictures at the end of this page.

Day 3 – Journal and Reflection

It has been a long, tiring but rewarding day, a lengthy walk of 20 miles in the heat with a heavy pack, so that at times it seemed like double that! A gorgeous summer ferry crossing to Mull, a long stretch along the main road, and then beside Loch Spelve arriving late afternoon in the beauty of Lochbuie. Fifteen miles down, it was a struggle to cover the final five miles on the coastal path to Carsaig. But here I am in the tent, sun setting on Jura and Islay beyond - a blissful end. I recalled Kenneth Steven’s poem about Carsaig as I walked, and many of his descriptions ring true tonight. 
 
I was thinking along the way of vulnerability- how on my own a sudden twist of the ankle over a boulder could leave me stranded without help. I thought of God’s blessing for the road and Peter Miller’s words resonate. God bless you all tonight. I hope the photos and video bring it to life. Iona awaits tomorrow!
 

Journey Blessing by Peter Millar

May our journey ahead
Be blessed with
God’s laughter,
Silences,
Risks,
Challenges,
Healings,
Questions,
Promises,
Protests,
Answers,
Tears,
Solidarity
Often uncomfortable peace and
Compassion-filled surprises
Perhaps all in one day

 

Carsaig by Kenneth Steven

Over the edge of the moon of Mull
The talons of cliff sink into the sea.

Down below beneath the eagles
This is almost a strange Pacific.

Dripping red flowers, birdsong, ferns
In a jewellery of falls and pools.

Bees weaving their own song
In a golden cage of sunlight.

This Eden sleeping strange and rich
In the grey of the Atlantic.

Day 3 – Prayer

Revelations, by David Adam

Reveal in us your glory
Stir in us your power
Renew in us your Kingdom
Develop in us your faith
Show in us your way
Open in us your love
Strengthen in us your hope
Work in us your miracles
Revive in us your resurrection
Abide in us yourself

 

Note:  Video update and pictures at the end of this page. 

Day 5 – Journal and Reflection

Today (Friday) I had the privilege of waking up in my tent on the Iona Campsite and walking down to Iona Abbey for a guided tour. On entering the Abbey as a pilgrim, I felt the presence of thousands before me who have journeyed to this place. It was an emotional moment at the climax of my four day pilgrimage walk. On this island, I am also deeply struck by the beauty before me, the depth of spiritual meaning around me and the well of inspiration from which I will draw for life and faith in the days ahead.

On the ‘spell’ of Iona, these are the words of Fiona MacLeod (a pseudonym of William Sharp):

‘A few places in the world are held to be holy, because of the love which consecrates them, and the faith that enshrines them. One such is Iona. It is but a small isle, fashioned of a little sand, a few grasses salt with the spray of an ever-restless wave, a few rocks that wade in heather, and upon whose brows the sea-wind weaves the yellow lichen. But since the remotest days, holy people have bowed here in worship. In this little island, a lamp was lit whose flame lighted many nations. From age to age, lowly hearts never ceased to bring there burdens here. And here Hope waits. To tell the story of Iona is to go back to God, and to end in God.’

In this journey, I have indeed brought my burdens and found hope. It started in seeking encounters on the road in faith and life. It is complete on Iona in the shadow of Columba - it is going back to God, and ending in God. Insofar as God can ever be reflected in religious structures that are set up by humanity in His name, at journey’s end I feel a rush of optimism for the future of His ‘church’, however that might be composed and despite the challenges it faces. Through faith and love, there is always trust and hope. For the future, I’m inspired by the prayer below of George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community in 1938. I’m reminded too of the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem ‘Ulysses’:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

And now, for the never-ending journey of pilgrimage ahead, in Columba’s words:

May the wisdom of God guide you,
May the strength of God uphold you,
May the peace of God possess you,
May the love of God enfold you,
Now and to the end of days.

 

Day 5 - Prayer

Take Us Outside, O Christ, by George MacLeod (from Iona Abbey)


O Christ, you are within each of us.
It is not just the interior of these walls:
It is our own inner being you have renewed.
We are a temple not made by hands.
We are your body.
If every wall should crumble, and every church decay,
We are your habitation.

Nearer are you than breathing,
closer than hands and feet.
Ours are the eyes with which you, in the mystery,
look out with compassion on the world…
Take us outside, O Christ, outside holiness,
out to where soldiers curse and nations clash
at the crossroads of the world.
So shall this building continue to be justified.
We ask it for your name's sake.
Amen.