In the spring of 1999, I participated in a Pilgrimage with Celtic Christians in Scotland, Ireland, and England. One of its holiest hours emerged for me on the tiny windswept isle of Iona off the coast of Scotland.
As we approached the ferry dock in a driving rain, we saw the reconstructed Abbey dominating the landscape, reminding us immediately of the sacred memory Iona carries.
The Christian memory on Iona dates back to the year 563, when St. Columba landed there and established a community of monks. In the 8th century, they began working on the Book of Kells – a colorfully decorated manuscript of the four Gospels.
But in the 9th century Viking raids devastated the island, killing 68 monks. Most of the surviving monks left, taking with them the Book of Kells. But a tiny group remained, and the Christian presence on Iona continued through the centuries.
Then in the 20th century, a renewal movement led by Rev. George MacLeod brought unemployed craftsmen from Glasgow and elsewhere to Iona to rebuild the 12th century Abbey. Since that time, the Iona Community has become a vibrant international movement, with members who bring together concerns for social justice and for nourishing, empowering worship.
Given its sacred history, I went to Iona expecting to meet God. But my holiest moments didn’t spring forth in worship in the Abbey, although I did enjoy singing songs by John Bell and sharing communion oat cakes with visitors from many countries.
What I didn’t expect was that the Holy One would restore my soul in a sheep pasture, on a part of the island the locals call The Bay at the Back of the Ocean. For centuries now, this raised beach has been the common grazing land used by the various sheep crofters of the island.
Even my unpracticed eye could see at least three different flocks of blackfaced sheep grazing there together, each flock marked by a dye of a different colour.
And even though this grassy beach also hosts an 18-hole golf course, I saw no other humans that sunny springtime afternoon. The sounds floating through the air were not the striking of clubs against golf balls, but rather the bleating of many sheep. They answered one another from here and over there and behind me somewhere, with a lamb once running full tilt towards the voice of its mother.
And once…once…I caught the sound of a shepherd using human voice in a way I can’t describe. It danced and laughed and cajoled all at the same time with an eerie pitch that floated on the breeze, sending a ripple through some of the sheep. I wanted to record this moment and take it home with me.
But what technology can replicate the sting of wind and the warmth of sun together on one’s face? What technology can evoke the springiness of walking on a carpet of buttercups and wool towards a lamb standing placidly on top of the 10th hole? What technology can capture the varied sounds of lambs bleating and rabbits scampering and surf pounding and the eerie unmistakable call of a shepherd all at once? What technology can evoke the sense of trust and confidence in God called forth in me by those sheep and that unseen shepherd? Not even a 3-D movie….
I have to admit that for some unknown reason sheep always get to me. So on Iona, Jesus’ word picture of himself as shepherd and us as sheep came alive. I thought about us – individual sheep of Christ’s fold – grazing with other sheep not necessarily of Christ’s fold on common pastureland. In our pluralistic society, that surely describes us. We listen to much the same music, read many of the same books, and visit many of the same websites as folks around us. We take in the same political and economic doctrines, and choose with others our preferred slant on the news.
But what about Jesus’ statement – meant to evoke assurance and comfort – that he knows his own and his own know him? What about his assertion that we’re not fooled by the voice of a stranger? What about his implication that when the voice of the shepherd floats on the breeze, a ripple will go through us; we’ll leave our grazing, and follow that dancing, cajoling voice?
…With that object lesson one sunny afternoon 19 years ago, I added Iona to the constellation of places where I have met God. Now as Lent begins once again, and I recall my experience in that sheep pasture, I wonder: Where and how will I hear the eerie, cajoling voice of the Shepherd this Lent? What will it mean to respond with a ripple and follow?
Question for Reflection:
Has a vacation or other travel ever become a pilgrimage for you? If so, how would you describe meeting God through that experience?
Next week: My childhood home