Columba’s Iona continues to inspire and draw visitors. The influence of Celtic Christianity remains strong here, even after 1500 years, and heaven still seems near on this special island.
These are the turquoise-blue waters of the Sound of Iona with Ben More and the mountains of nearby Mull in the distance. In this beautiful, peaceful place we are soothed by the rhythm of the tides, washing in and out of secret inlets, and bays full of colourful ancient rocks, wave-worn pebbles and surrounded by jagged rocky headlands. All have musical Gaelic names which translate into places like: ‘White Strand of the Monks‘ (above photo of Traigh Bhan), “The Bay at the Back of the Ocean” and “The Cairn of the Back to Ireland”. The latter was where St. Columba first landed in 563 with twelve monks to settle on Iona, turning their backs on their homeland of Ireland.
But this photo is deceptive. The weather is not always like this and frequent Atlantic storms beat in across this island, and clouds hang heavy with rain in winter here. You have to be hardy to live here. Columba certainly was and he loved this place.
These ancient sacred places, like Iona, continue to beckon. They have secrets to tell which impress and challenge us. Their music still rings in the air as we hear the monks chanting the psalms as they did for years. We imagine that scribal monk painstakingly scratching the beautiful design on his vellum manuscript creating the famous Book of Kells, here on Iona. It was, in later years, taken for safe keeping to the monastery at Kells in Ireland.
People have been drawn to this sacred island for centuries. Forty-eight Scottish kings were buried here and today visitors come from many countries. Happily, there is no airport or motorway near to Iona! After a long journey the visitor has to arrive by boat and on foot in the spirit of a pilgrim rather than a tourist.
The impact made by St Columba’s monastery in the sixth century was huge. (St Columba’s Day is June 9th.) Iona became a famed centre for learning as well as a place of prayer. From here much of Scotland was brought into the Christian faith. Aidan went from here to do the same at Lindisfarne, Northumbria. When Columba encountered the Pictish King Brude, the violent Brude was amazed that anyone would come into his presence without weapons. Columba’s act of courage caused the king to take the faith seriously and allow mission work among his people.
‘Is this place really nearer to God?From Kenneth Steven’s ‘Iona poems‘ (Edinburgh St Andrews Press 2000)
Is the wall thin between our whisper
and his listening? I only know
the world grows less and less –
Here what matters is conquering the wind,
Coming home dryshod, getting the fire lit.
I am not sure if there is no time here
Or more time, whether the light is stronger
Or just easier to see. That is why
I keep returning, thirsty, to this place
That is older than my understanding
Younger than my broken spirit.‘
Photo – The 12th century Iona Abbey, re-built in the early 20th century. A lost past has been re-discovered here.
‘I bind unto myself this day
the strong name of the Trinity.’
Kenneth Steven’s lovely poem ‘Iona’ (above) rings bells for many of us. This sacred island intrigues and beckon us. Its ‘music’ calms and calls our restless 21st century spirits. It still has so much to give. Our easy-going age is challenged by those early Celtic Christians’ disciplined daily prayer, worship and rugged faith in the every-day presence of God. Their accumulated prayers seem to have soaked the very rocks, bays and soil of Iona.
Like multitudes of others, this place stirs me to want to share that early faith in the God who is near. That same God is near me too and he loves me in the everyday ups and downs of my life. Always there for those who seek, he does indeed hear my feeble ‘whispers’ of prayer. Through his Son Jesus, he heals my ‘broken spirit’ and satisfies my ‘thirsty’ soul and to him ‘belongs eternal praise’, including mine.
Thank you for visiting. You may like to read more about Iona in ‘The Wonder and the Mystery’.
Top featured photo by Robert Guthrie – Geograph