The City, the Desert and the Sea: A report on the 2002 pilgrimage to Scotland of the Friends of Orthodoxy on Iona,August 7-15 2002
by Bruce Clark, FOI secretary.
The two great feasts of August have something important in common: both celebrate the potential glory of the human person in communion with God. When we contemplate the Transfiguration of our Lord, we are not only experiencing a revelation of God, we are also seeing our true selves, as we are called to be. Christ on Mount Tabor is not half man and half God, but entirely God and entirely Man. Nine days later, when we commemorate the Dormition of the Mother of God, we remember the Church'steaching that Mary, alone among human beings, has passed beyond death and judgement; her body and soul have been assumed into glory, and she dwells totally in eternal life. What has already happened to her may - if we are found worthy - happen also to other human beings at the Last Day; she shows us the divine glory which we are invited to share.
With those inspiring thoughts - leavened with some witty, but far from frivolous references to Alice Through the Looking Glass - Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia,the FOI chairman and leader of this year's pilgrimage, guided us through the final hours of our expedition to Scotland. His final homily was delivered after a magnificent liturgy in which we celebrated the (new-calendar) Feast of the Dormition, and gave thanks for an unprecedented event in FOI's six-year history.
The 2002 pilgrimage broke new ground in several important respects. As a change, we decided not to visit Iona itself - we will return there, God willing, in 2003 - but to organise a series of excursions to other holy places in Scotland which are associated with Saint Columba and his tradition. We based ourselves at Craig Lodge, a retreat house near Dalmally on Loch Awe whose owners, Calum and Marianne McFarlane-Barrow, hosted us with immense warmth, kindness and forbearance. We were a larger than usual group; in all, 40 people took part in some or all of the pilgrimage. They included Jim and Nancy Forest, Americans who run the widely-respected Orthodox Peace Fellowship from their home in the Netherlands; and Natalya Kulkova, a lecturer in ancient Greek at Saint Tikhon's theologicalinstitute and a vice-president of Syndesmos, the Orthodox Youth Federation. Also represented were Orthodox communities from all over the British Isles (from at least four jurisdictions, the Patriarchates of Antioch, Constantinople, Moscow and Romania!) and Christians from other traditions who share our interest in the early history of the Celtic Church.
Our pilgrimage included four major excursions. The first was to Dunadd, an intensely numinous hill-fort which towers over the coastal plain of Argyll; this was the capital of the kingdom of Dal Riata, which Saint Columba served as spiritual adviser and king-maker. Then on Sunday, August 11th, there was a happy milestone in the modern history of Orthodoxy in these islands: an unforgettable Divine Liturgy in Kilmory Chapel, a 1000-year-old, roof-less (but otherwise well-preserved) place of worship on the Atlantic coast, within sight of an inlet where Irish monks might easily have landed. (Seeking permission to use this chapel from its owners, Historic Scotland, was one of the myriad tasks shouldered by Ruth Nares, who devoted much of the previous year to preparing and organising the pilgrimage.) After Kilmory there was a bracing, five-mile walk over a rough mountain road to Columba's Cave, where a rudimentary altar and incised Chi-Ro cross lend weight to the tradition that the seafaring saint stopped and prayed there on arrival from Ireland. And finally, there was a magnificent fire-side tea, provided to over 30 people by Caroline Kinneill, a parishioner of the Russian cathedral in London, at Ardpatrick, a seaside country house whose name gives a hint of the other Irish saint associated with this part of Scotland. On Monday on Tuesday, in three separate parties, we traveled in smallish boats to Eileach-an-Naomh (pronounced, roughly, EEleha-Neeve, and meaning rocky place of the saints), an islet whose extensive monastic remains and stark beauty would stir the stoniest of hearts. Some scholars believe this tinypatch of verdant, south-facing land was Hinba, the mysterious location where Saint Columba had many of his most powerful encounters with God; and where he celebrated the Eucharist with three other saints, with a bright light visible above his head. Hinba or not, the island has a clear association with Saint Brendan, another great navigator for Christ. For many pilgrims, the most moving location was a hillock south of the monastic enclosure, crowned by a small upright slate slab; this is traditionally believed to the tombstone of Columba's mother Eithne.
One pilgrim, Michael Norman Hill, was unable to make the boat journey to Eileach-an-Naomh, but instead spent a memorable afternoon on the quay-side, regaling the FOI secretary with recitations from WB Yeats and the Old Slavonic liturgy. These moments were remembered fondly, three month later, at the funeral service for Michael, a devoted Russophile who had been a gifted Anglican priest before becoming, with his wife Veronica, one of the pillars of Orthodoxy in England's north-west.)
FOI's final excursion took us, by regular ferry, to Islay where we visited two sites of huge historical and spiritual importance. One was the lake island of Finlaggan, which was in medieval times was capital of the Lord of the Isles' kingdom - and several centuries earlier, a retreat for a local saint of the Columban tradition. Then we saw what many regard as the greatest surviving monument of Celtic Christianity: the Kildalton Cross, erected on Islay's southern tip, just a stone's throw from Ireland, in about 800 AD. Its blue stone carvings depict not only Christ and His Mother, but figures from the Old Testament, such as Cain and Abel, which in different ways speak of the interplay between life and death. Under a glowering sky, the Cross "held us as candle flame holds moths," as Nancy Forest recalled afterwards.
Kildalton High Cross
Because our group represented such a broad mixture of "cradle" Orthodox and converts, there was an intriguing range of reactions to Scotland's holy places. Nancy Forest put it this way: "As a Western Orthodox Christian, I often feel a real longing for a Christianity I can relate to as part of my cultural heritage; I will never be a Russian or Greek. It is rare to be able to pray at a cross or grave which pre-dates the east-west division of the Christian world...we were all deeply moved and strengthened by this pilgrimage."
For Muscovite Natalya Kulkova, coming from one of Orthodoxy's heart-lands, "the pilgrimage opened up the densely-populated world of Celtic saints, and evoked feelings of love, curiosity and eagerness to know more about the tradition of sanctity in the British Isles..." Interspersed with our excursions was a series of talks which threw light,from different angles, on the main theme of the pilgrimage: the desert and the city - in other words, the relationship between the monastic calling and life in the world, whether in ancient times or modern, the Christian East or the West.
Bishop Kallistos recalled that in the late Roman period, the desert was a place of physical and spiritual dangers, of carnivores and demons, in contrast with the relative order of the city. In the modern West, by comparison, the countryside has been tamed and in places reduced to a manicured park, while many urban places are associated with dark and incalculable perils, from mugging to terrorism. Today, he implied, the "deserts" which call out most urgently for redemption and spiritual warfare are drug-ridden tenements or unlit street where muggers prowl.
Father Alexander Williams complemented our study of the seafaring saints (who plied a fickle but well-known maritime highway between Ireland and Scotland) by reminding us of the other Scottish saints who moved inland - and may well have faced even greater physical hazards. Prominent among them was Saint Blane, who gave his name to Father Alexander's home town, and home parish, of Dunblane north of Glasgow.
On a still more personal note, Jim Forest spoke to us of the Beatitudes, as an invaluable guide-book or navigational aid for pilgrims and travellers in any age, whether their journey was by sea, land, air or simply in the spirit. This was a deeply moving talk, coming straight from the heart.
Then there was a rich feast for the intellect. Dr Jonathan Wooding, from the University of Wales in Lampeter - which is a powerhouse of Celtic Christian studies - drew on a wonderful variety of sources to highlight the theme of "Deserts in the Ocean" in Irish Christian literature.
Under his guidance, we looked at passages in Adomnan's Life of Columba which show how remote island retreats were seen as places of intense spiritual battle, not to be undertaken without the explicit blessing of an abbot or spiritual guide - just as the deserts of Egypt were viewed by the Christian East. We noted the deep feeling for imagery and sub-text in Irish commentaries on the Gospel stories, such as Christ's calming of the storm. We wrestled with intriguing references to giant sheep and sea-cats in the life of Saint Brendan. And we considered both the literal meaning, and the deeper resonances, of early Irish accounts of summer voyages to Iceland, with its never-ending sun. But as Jonathan himself remarked, no amount of book-learning can be a substitute for the experience of visiting a place like Eileach-an-Naomh in a small boat; such an excursion brings home in a very physical way the courage, faith and intuitive sense of synergy with God that marked out the Celtic saints. The seafaring saints must surely have known in their bones what Saint John Cassian - the great teacher of eastern monasticism in the West - wrote in books: that man can and must struggle for his own salvation, but he never ceases to be at the mercy of God.
If the 2002 pilgrims took away one great blessing from their journey to Scotland, it may perhaps be this: a glimpse, at least, into the feelings of Saint Columba and his followers as they chanted the timeless sailors' hymn, Psalm 107.
"Those who go down to the sea in ships, who do business in great waters; They see the works of the Lord, and great wonders in the deep. For He commands and raises the stormy wind, Which lifts up the waves of the sea. They mount up to the heavens, They go down again to the depths; Their soul melts because of the trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, And are at their wits' end. Then they cry out to the Lord in their trouble, And he brings them out of their distresses. He calms the storm, so that its waves are still. Then they are glad because they are quiet; So he guides them to their desired haven."
Oh that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness And for his wonderful works to the children of men."