By Thy God-inspired life thou didst embody/ both the mission end the dispersion of the Church,/ most glorious Father Columcille./ Using thy repentance and voluntary exile,/ Christ our God raised thee up as a beacon of the True Faith,/ an Apostle to the heathen and an indicator of the Way of salvation./ Wherefore O holy one, cease not to intercede for us that our souls may be saved. (Troparion of St Columcille, Tone 5)
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Secretary's Reflections on Pilgrimage 2004
THE END OF ALL OUR EXPLORING…
There was a delightful paradox about the 2004 pilgrimage. This was a year when, by the grace of God and the prayers of many well-wishers, the Friends of Orthodoxy on Iona managed to explore some entirely new territory. It was also a time when we returned, in a profound way, to our roots, to the beginning of our story.
After seven expeditions to Scotland, FOI made a bold and in some ways risky decision to go instead to Ireland. Not just anywhere in Ireland, but specifically to Columba country: to the lakes, mountains and bays of Donegal where the great Celtic apostle spent his childhood. Both for myself, and for this year's dedicated and supremely efficient pilgrimage organizer Cowey Barbour, it was a moving experience to welcome fellow Orthodox Christians to the island where we grew up.
But there were also logistical challenges: an exceptionally cosmopolitan group (with members from France, Germany and all over North America) had to find its way to the pilgrimage base at Rossknowlagh in south Donegal; and then transport had to be organized to many different places in the county and neighbouring Fermanagh. As it turned out, the whole stay was made vastly easier by the exceptional kindness of our hosts at the Franciscan Friary in Rossknowlagh, a wonderful spiritual haven which is greatly loved by local people.
Veterans of FOI will agree, I think, that we have never been accommodated so warmly, fed so well (with due attention to Orthodox fasts and feasts) or enjoyed such excellent facilities for prayer, talks and social gatherings. This provided a helpful background for a moving cycle of worship, led by our chairman Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia with great help from Deacon James Elliot from Nashville, Tennessee, choir-leader Gregory Gasocoigne and servers James Higgs and Carsten Michael Lorenz.
Given that our pilgrimage overlapped with the feast of Nativity of the Mother of God, Bishop Kallistos led us in a series of meditations on all the feasts associated with the Holy Virgin: the joy of the Annunciation (March 25); the enigma of her entry into the Temple (November 21); the mystery of her falling asleep before being taken, body and soul, to live with her Son in heaven. At the time of Mary's nativity, which was a great and unexpected gift for her parents Joachim and Anna, we reflect both on Mary's vocation - which she was free to follow or reject - and on the tasks, great and small, which each of us has been called on to shoulder by a God who knows us better than we know ourselves, and warns us (in Jeremiah's words) that "before I formed you in the womb, I knew you…"
These meditations on the early life of the Mother of God dovetailed neatly with the countryside and early sites we were exploring. As with so many saints, the stories we have of the birth and early life of Columba were clearly penned by writers with a deep knowledge of the Annunciation story, and therefore a keen sense of the poignant, bitter-sweet miracle which attends the coming into the world of any human being who has been "called blessed" and chosen to do great things in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are told, for example, that while pregnant with the future apostle, Columba's mother Eithne was visited by an angel who presented her with a gorgeous multi-coloured robe - and then took it back, whereupon the robe flew into the air and covered an enormous space, "broader than the plains and exceeding in measure the mountains and forests…"
As we were reminded, it was the mountains and forests of northwestern Ireland that moulded the young Saint Columba, and he never ceased to hanker for this landscape after moving in mid-life to Scotland. So a visit to Donegal was an ideal stimulus for a reflection on the saint's childhood and early life: his birth as a high-born prince who might have aspired to supreme power in Ireland's complex tribal politics; his upbringing by a priestly foster-father; and the spiritual gifts he showed as a pupil of the island's greatest scholars.
Two places in particular evoke the saint and his relationship with his home territory. One is the lake, village and environs of Gartan, where at least three sites are associated with Columba's birth and early life, and there is a newly-established Colmcille Heritage Centre, offering a wealth of information about the saint's life and local history in general. The other place is Glencolumbkille, an isolated coastal valley at Donegal's southwestern edge with some astonishing Christian carved stones, and an tenacious attachment to the Irish language. This is a place of very ancient settlement, where there is a palpable sense of what T.S. Eliot called "the communication of the dead, tongued with fire, beyond the language of living".
"Let not the Old Glen be harmed, The place of the slabs of heaven" St Columba
This "communication" is articulated in many different different ways. According to Manus O'Donnell, a 16th century Irish chieftain who put together a colourful biography of his saintly forebear, it was in Glencolumbkille that Columba had one of his most spectacular victories over the forces of darkness. The story goes that some of the demons which Saint Patrick had driven away from the famous holy mountain, Croagh Patrick, migrated to the remote Donegal glen and surrounded themselves with mist.
Under cover of this haze, the demons cast a spear at the saint and killed his servant; but Columba threw the spear back, dissolving the mist and driving the evil spirits into sea. Any modern edition of this tale will caution the reader that such narratives tell us about the popular lore of medieval Ireland than about the life of a saint who lived many centuries earlier. But however we understand these stories, they tell us profound things about a people, a landscape and the holy figures who are intensely present in the collective consciousness. For Orthodox Christians, who believe devoutly in the communion of saints and the reality of spiritual warfare, the story of Columba's battle with the demons is not "just" folklore or "just" an eccentric sort of history; it speaks to us of an ever-present reality which can be felt with particular keenness in areas like the Columba country of Donegal. We thank God for the opportunity to visit these holy places.