By: Emily Meeks
We felt it when we step off the ferry – the wind ripples through cinched rain jackets and wakes any sleepiness or stiffness from a long travel day from Glasgow. We just made the last crossing from Fionnphort to the isle of Iona.
I, along with 28 others, have awaited this moment – through delays and changes – to be on this tiny island, eager to discover what makes a “thin place” of holy presence and to connect to the deep wisdom of those who came before us. St. Columba arrived on the south side of the island in 563 A.D. and built a monastic community that served as inspiration for Christianity throughout Scotland, England and Europe.
Iona is barely three miles long by one mile wide, but there is a surprising spaciousness. (I joked about not being able to get lost and then thought for certain I was.) There are must-visit sites, such as the abbey and nunnery, but the walks where I could roam and explore are what truly tutored my soul. Places where I took in the lessons of sea, sky, land – where eternal rocks meet white sandy beaches and rolling green pastures.
Gravel roads end and grazing land begins, and you follow what at times appear to be a trail defined by pressed grass and onlooking sheep. The ground can be spongy, textured by the layering of plant material and water. Step over a fence by way of a “stile” or foot step that provides passage when you think you are at a dead end.
At each turn, I noticed the constant presence of wind from my hair tickling my face to the smell of salt from the sea. Not every day is like our first – with blustery air swelling the seas – but there is a steady presence of movement tumbling through marsh grass, pressing against stone walls, and wobbling wildflowers.
My rain jacket served as the light layer I needed to hold the breeze even when the sun comes out in full. I imagined what it must have been like for Columba and his fellow monks to experience the wind as they arrived on the island and began to establish a new way of living and being.
As we explored, I contemplated how the wind is something that has shaped and formed this land gradually over time. The formations that I saw have occurred because of the continual movement and energy of something that I cannot actually see. I reflected on all the ways in which I want to change, see change, and be changed, and how frustrating progress can feel.
I was not fully prepared for the pivot to Edinburgh where we were to spend two nights before crossing to England to visit the ancient missions of Northumbria. A long travel day resulted in an evening arrival, and I could sense our group connection shift as we slotted into a much larger hotel without the daily rhythm of dinner together. “Nimble,” one of our leaders, says of pilgrimage.
I awoke on Sunday to walk before Eucharist. For the many things I missed about Iona, that morning, I noticed that Edinburgh has more trees. I noticed the leaves bending. There wind is there.
We departed Edinburgh the next day to arrive in Lindisfarne in time for safe crossing. Lindisfarne, also known as the Holy Island, is only accessible when the tides recede to travel over a coastal causeway. We gathered for Eucharist and met with the Rev. Kate Tristam to learn of this place of St. Aidan’s influence as the wind ricocheted through the stones of St. Mary’s parish. We walked to the castle and see cord-grass swaying and sheets of water moving across the sea. A sign describes the habitat as a dwelling place for “wind-stirred” lives. There, too, is wind.
Our journey continued to Durham, Jarrow, Hexham, Whitby and York. In each of these places, there, too, was wind – guiding my day and connecting me if I begin to lose the footing of pilgrimage in my thoughts and questions. A message of sorts as if saying, “Emily, listen and look for what is pulsing through. Consider all that is at work that cannot be seen or measured. What moves and shifts can never be fully seen or known and yet when it comes, it has the power to change any and all that it meets.”
Iona is called a thin place because of its perceived close proximity of heaven and earth touching – where one can rest in a sense of the divine without being bound to past, present or future.
As I have re-entered into my non-pilgrimage routine of virtual work and screen time, the immersion of a thin place feels as far away as an international flight, bus rides, and ferry crossings. And, then I remember, as I observe the leaves stirring from my window, the wind is here, too. The Spirit, like the wind, is the movement in which we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Each day we started and ended our day in prayer shaped by Celtic liturgies. These words from a morning prayer adaptation of The Iona Abbey Worship Book remind me of the rhythms of Iona and the movement of the Spirit and invite me to be fully present in this time and place of daily pilgrimage – to be continually open to being wind-stirred.
With all creation
The miracle and wonder of life
The unfolding purposes of God
For ever at work in ourselves and the world
Emily Meeks loves finding adventure and connection outside, especially while running, biking, hiking and kayaking. She attends and serves at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle.