Pilgrimage to the Holy Isles of Iona & Lindisfarne

September 9, 2023

Submitted by The Rev. Terri M. Murphy, Deacon

Why did they do it? What could drive anyone to go, in a rickety boat made of cow hides and willow poles, across the sea to establish a place of prayer and learning, to a small, remote island – an island filled with hostile tribesmen who did not want them? Why would anyone do this? Something drove Columba and his men to risk all to do the impossible. There may have been practical reasons but for sure, there were spiritual ones.

One could ask the same of so many throughout the history of the church. What drove the Baptist to speak truth even in the face of imprisonment and death? What drove Jesus to freely choose the cross when He could have walked away? What drove the Apostles to hang on to their faith in Christ though torture and death awaited many of them? And there are many more – those saints who have chosen to forgo creature comforts in order to serve – those who have chosen to serve the sick and needy, even to placing themselves at risk to do so. What drove Columba, Aidan, Cuthbert and the rest to risk all to try to accomplish the impossible? Two things, I think – an insane connection to the Holy Spirit and insane courage. Why else would they be there?

On my first day on Iona, I asked myself the same question. As I sat on a hill above the Abbey, where Columba himself is reputed to have sat and thought and meditated, I looked over the comings and goings of pilgrims. Seriously, why was I here? It took no great courage to come. It is a time of modern conveniences and no risk. But Columba might look at it differently. He might ask, “Why would you sit in a metal tube and be shot toward the heavens, over thousands of miles of water, hoping you would arrive safely here?” Good question, Columba!

I came for several reasons – to touch history; to let history touch me; to listen to God; to talk to God; to learn from saints of long ago; to remind myself that Spirit and courage are still two real things; to remind myself that though the world is twisted, God is not. I went to renew my commitment to God; to think; to leave my footprints behind and to allow myself to be changed by God’s holiness…

Columba and the others went to Iona and later, Lindisfarne, to worship, to establish a community of prayer, to educate, and to spread the Gospel. In establishing these Abbeys, the monks provided structure to the community and improved it economically. I wondered, how can we do likewise? And then it hit me. We together are doing these things, as they did. With every hymn we sing, with every prayer we say, every sermon we preach, every class we teach, we are sustaining a place of prayer and worship, increasing devotion in our community. With each of our Outreach Ministries, we do for this community what Columba and the others did for residents of Iona and Lindisfarne – providing resources for those in need, improving their lives in some small way. We provide a focal point for the community. We serve as they did. As John and Jesus did. As the Apostles did. As the great saints did.

The courage we need to do this may look different from the holy ones of old, but it does have its modern challenges. We here, are all doing the same impossible work. The seemingly impossible work. The Holy isles are touchstones for the work of the Gospel that has gone on before us. That is why I went. That is why I needed to be there… and that is why I am here.