One year ago today, I was full of excitement. I was about to embark on a much planned for and much anticipated pilgrimage to Scotland and particularly the tiny island of Iona. My bags were packed and my walking stick was nestled among warm layers of waterproof clothing. I had spent the months previous in conversation and worship with the others who would also make the journey. I remember spending this final day before leaving tending to the little details one needs to accomplish before any effort to leave home and work for awhile. By day’s end, the list I had made was all crossed off.
Today I have been thinking about the pilgrimage itself and the year that has passed. I have been reflecting on the fact that, I believe, not one day has gone by when I did not think of my time on Iona at least once during the day. I will be in traffic and a thought will fly across the movie screen of my brain reminding me of the beauty of green, rolling hills covered with the burnt-orange of bracken. Sitting in meetings that may last too long or are filled with agendas that do not feed my spirit, I will once again imagine myself sitting in the pews of the ancient stone cathedral where ferns could be seen growing randomly out of the moist, cold walls. Yesterday, as the winds blew around my car on the freeway,I felt my tin-can container move slowly side to side and thought of the night on the island when the wind made such a whooshing circle around the abbey that the Presence of the Holy Spirit was known by each of us who worshiped together. The smallest thing can connect me with the gifts of this time of intentionality looking for God’s presence in a place known to be sacred to so many, for so many years.
What makes a place sacred? What makes our experience of a place sacred? I have pondered this question many times over the last year. Each of us on the pilgrimage brought our expectations and hopes, all of them different. We each had our motivations for making this trip, for setting aside the time and resources to be on a walk together in a land that was foreign to us, in pursuit of an encounter with the Holy. Perhaps an element of the sacred nature of any place are the expectations we bring.
But I do believe there are places where the very ground, the air, the people and beings create a container in which others experience the movement of the Holy. On Iona, perhaps the sacred ground is tilled by the hundreds of thousands of prayers that have been said on this tiny piece of earth. Prayers of joy, sorrow, grief, hope, water the soil. Certainly the prayers of expectation each pilgrim carries as they step from the ferry nurtures the garden that will become that person’s experience of the One we call God and plant seeds for those who will come after.
I know that, for me, my experience of the Holy was made manifest by those whose work it was to welcome. Volunteers and residents of the island clearly understand their life’s work is to welcome the pilgrims who arrive daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, as the waters of the sea that surrounds allows. As we were welcomed and sent on our way by those we had only met, I knew that God was in that place. It was holy ground.
And so tomorrow, I will once again remember the gift that last year’s pilgrimage was and how it travels with me still. I will remember and give thanks. For sacred places and for those who welcome.
Is this place really nearer to God?
Is the wall thin between our whispers
And God’s listening? I only know
The world grows less and less-
Here what matters is conquering the wind,
Coming home dry shod, getting the fire lit.
I am not sure whether 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.
~ Kenneth C. Steven, Iona