Entering the world of the Celtic saints is like pursuing a chimera. We can explore the landscape, and the seascape, which they inhabited; we can ponder their artistic legacy in the form of stone crosses and illuminated manuscripts; and we can study the literary evidence which is tantalizing but compared with the Christian east, relatively slight. Sometimes, when we combine all three kinds of inquiry, and seek the help of the saints themselves, we can experience flashes of insight.
Metropolitan Kallistos knew all that, and he loved the chase. Travelling and worshipping in the holy places of the Celts, especially Iona and the west coast of Scotland, was one of the many dimensions of his pastoral life, and it was one he held very dear.
Over twenty years, he acted as chairman of a loose association called the Friends of Orthodoxy on Iona. This involved leading at least ten full-blown pilgrimages to Iona and other holy places, including the Scottish mainland, Lindisfarne, South Wales, Donegal and Connemara. He also took an active and helpful interest in FOI pilgrimages led by other clergy, including Fathers John Nankivell, Columba Flegg and John Musther.
FOI pilgrimages generally lasted a week, involving walks, boat trips, talks and worship. Participants numbered between thirty and forty and came from all over the world, including North America, Eastern Europe and many parts of the British Isles. One of the great joys of these pilgrimages was the opportunity they gave for Orthodox Christians—and people interested in Orthodoxy—to pool their experience and share in the richness of Orthodox worship. For individual Orthodox living far from any well-functioning parish, it was a chance to meet others, sing and serve—while enjoying the company and wise counsel of one of the most eminent figures in the Orthodox world.
FOI was founded in the mid-1990s by Reader Ignatios Bacon, an eccentrically passionate English convert to Orthodoxy who had moved with his wife Ioanna to the Scottish Highlands and turned their modest dwelling near Inverness into a house of prayer. He persuaded Bishop Kallistos, as well the hierarchs of all the main Orthodox jurisdictions in the United Kingdom, to offer their blessing to a group that would make regular excursions to Iona with the ultimate aim of establishing a permanent Orthodox presence on the island. An experienced spiritual adviser once told Ignatios that his hopes for Saint Columba’s island would certainly be fulfilled, but not in his lifetime. A year on from Ignatios’s death in August 2021, it seems highly likely that these prophetic words will be vindicated.
I took over as secretary of FOI in 2001 and bowed out in 2005. Ruth Nares and Clive Barbour stepped energetically into the fray. Ruth co-ordinated pilgrimages to Lindisfarne in 2006 and Wales in 2007; the following year, in an astonishing feat of organization, Clive Barbour arranged a trip for 40 or so people, led by Bishop Kallistos, to the Holy Land. (That was the group’s only venture outside the Celtic lands - but given the multiple connections between Celtic Christianity and Jerusalem, a very appropriate one.)
I then become re-engaged in 2009; this involved co-organizing a large, exuberant pilgrimage to the holy sites and islands of Connemara, and then excursions to Mull and Iona in both 2012 and 2014. In those last three expeditions, the bishop found himself ministering to a wide range of generations, nationalities and sensibilities. For example, the Connemara pilgrims included a young woman from the Russian Far East who was an accomplished Irish dancer; a Japanese-American deacon serving in a cathedral in Vienna; a half-Mexican architectural historian from Moscow; and two American sisters who curated a historic house in Pennsylvania and were active members of a large Greek parish, despite having no Greek blood.
In 2014, Metropolitan Kallistos concelebrated joyfully with priests from Germany, Russia, England and Romania in the resonant atmosphere of Saint Oran’s Chapel, the oldest intact place of worship on Iona. It was on that pilgrimage that he got to know Dimitry Dubovitsky, a Russian-born scientist who later took him on some enjoyable sailing trips round the Aegean. In summer 2016, I joined seven supporters of FOI in sailing, in the wake of Columba, from Derry to Iona in a sturdy old vessel called the Soteria. The bishop sent his blessings. During the last full-blown FOI pilgrimage in 2017, a tour of Irish sites based in County Down, Metropolitan Kallistos again offered a hearty blessing from afar and delegated the role of pilgrimage leader to Father John Nankivell.
As dozens of FOI veterans will gratefully attest, Celtic pilgrimages were a time when all facets of the bishop’s wonderfully rich but well-integrated personality could be observed—and enjoyed.
In fair weather and foul, he would lead pilgrims around the standing crosses of Iona and find ways to relate these glorious monuments to the daily lives and travails of his listeners. His homilies and lectures were always delivered with perfect pitch. At a retreat centre in Dalmally, he gave a remarkable reflection on the meanings of the word ‘desert’ in early Christian and modern times. In the late Roman era, he noted, the desert was a place of physical and spiritual danger, in contrast to the relative order of the city. In the modern West, he added, much of the countryside has been reduced to a manicured park, while some urban places harbour dark perils from mugging to terrorism to drug crime. Perhaps these urban wastelands are the ‘deserts’ which modern man is called on to redeem, he provocatively suggested.
For many pilgrims, a passing observation during a homily could leave a deep impression. Jane Szepesi, a Scottish-born member of the OCA parish in Ottawa, recalls the bishop making the dead simple point that in life, we should try to concentrate on one thing at time; she also enjoyed his warm collections of Saint Amphilochios, the visionary monastic on Patmos who saved the island’s ecology by urging his flock to love and plant trees.
Many pilgrims came to appreciate the bishop’s gifts as a hearer of confession: at that moment, they realized that behind the witty and learned public figure, there was a Christian pastor of deep sensitivity who stood humbly before God and helped others to do so. Elaine Waller, an English icon-painter, remembers him stopping for a moment at the edge of a ruined but numinous holy site. Planning his foot on a stone, he seemed to spend a moment of deep prayer and communion with the saints who had once inhabited that place, before marching cheerfully on. As Elaine puts it: ‘I will always remember his silences, his pauses, his listening and his gentle humorous stories.’
Nancy Forest-Flier, who joined several pilgrimages with her husband, the late peace activist Jim Forest, also observed the bishop’s capacity to switch seamlessly between gravity and fun. In the course of a day-long excursion to Islay, the bishop led pilgrims on a walk to the Kildalton Cross, perhaps the greatest Christian monument of the Western Isles. As Nancy put it, ‘under a glowering sky, the Cross held us as a candle flame holds moths.’ But the Islay programme also included a rollicking trip to the tasting room of a distillery, where the bishop was spotted triumphantly carrying small bottles of fine whisky under each arm.
He never lost his schoolboy delight in making excursions by land and sea to beautiful places, or simply sharing fellowship, memories and food of varying quality with diverse groups of people. An indefatigable raconteur, he loved telling the story of a vigorous bathe in freezing Atlantic waters in which he was puzzled to see a fellow swimmer with dark skin and whiskers leading him on—until he realized it was a seal. And year after year, he would reduce pilgrims to helpless laughter by leading them in a song he learned as a youngster—in which his own school mocked a more progressive establishment, Bedales, where the food was ‘one banana, all the way from French Guiana…’
The bishop amazed many people with the dexterity he showed when scrambling over Scottish rocks. When scudding across the Hebridean waters in a motor-boat his bespectacled face would—as Geraldine Fagan recalls—beam with happiness, well-protected from the winds by a bobbled, black woolly hat.
Generally, the bishop’s patience with the rigours and practical challenges of pilgrimage life was impressive, although not infinite. Travelling across Mull with Richard Cobbold, a friend of fifty years’ standing, he noticed a signboard for a famous fish restaurant, and sighed: ‘Oh, Richard, I fear all we can look forward to this evening is a marmite sandwich.’ But even pilgrimage fare, it seems, had its compensations. Breakfasting one morning at the retreat centre in Dalmally, he startled some pilgrims with a loud cry of delight on seeing that his favourite preserve was available on the next table, and its occupants seemed willing to share some of the treat: ‘Ooooh, marmalade!’
The life of Friends of Orthodoxy on Iona, which was never more than an informal mailing list, comes to a natural end with the passing of its chairman, and the promising signs that its original purpose will soon be fulfilled. In accordance with the bishop’s wishes, the modest remaining funds in the FOI account were turned over to the Reverend David Blackledge as seed money for his activities. These include a pilgrimage of Anglicans and Orthodox that is scheduled for July 2023, with speakers including Bishop Rowan Williams, Father John Behr and Father Andrew Louth. But thanks to FOI, and its beloved chairman, there are dozens of people, all over the world, who will always be friends of Iona, friends of Orthodoxy and friends of one another.
(The Pilgrimage referred to in the last paragraph will take place on Iona, 24 June–1 July 2023. It is nearly fully booked, but anyone seeking to bag one of the few remaining places is advised to get in touch with Keren Payne: keren.payne AT outlook.com).