When we started, the weather wasn’t all that bad. The day before it had been low 70’s and sunny, far better than what you’d expect in Scotland, even in the summertime. In many ways, the whole trip had been leading up to this – flying overnight from Raleigh to Philadelphia to Glasgow, tromping with our bags through the city to our hostels, a beautiful art museum near Glasgow University, lawn bowling on some fields prepared for the Commonwealth Games, slated to start in a month. A few of us fell asleep at lunch; a few at dinner.
Saturday we marveled at Glasgow Cathedral and the massive Necropolis behind, stunning views of the city. Then to Edinburgh, worshipping in St Giles Cathedral, the castle, the home of reformer John Knox. Then a long train ride to Oban, a ferry, a bus, another ferry, and we stepped onto the isle of Iona, destination for pilgrims since St Columba first landed on the southern shore in the year 563. After settling in and our first evening worship service in the Abbey, we rose for our first full day. Worship began with that magnificent hymn, Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty, to drum and violin, sound bouncing off stone walls. Our plan for most of the day was a pilgrimage walk, something often run by the members of the Iona Community, a walking worship service of sorts to holy sites throughout the island. We began at the foot of St Martin’s Cross, a massive stone Celtic Cross, about 12 feet high, that has been standing just outside the abbey for 1000 years. We read from the Bible at each site, then had a question to discuss with a partner for the journey to the next station. From St Martin’s cross we walked up a small hill to a place they think was the site of St Columba’s cell, where he studied and wrote and prayed. We looked down, imagining the small community that developed, monks in little thatched huts, of the small church they first built. We walked along the cobblestones of the medieval ‘street of the dead,’ where the community brought bodies of loved ones, as they journeyed with them to the cemetery, home of many early Scottish kings. We talked about the people who have gone before, who have shaped the life of faith for us.
Then it began to rain. We hung in there fairly well in the ruins of the 13th century Augustinian nunnery, then walked into the middle of town. We decided that our packed lunches would best be consumed inside, since the hotel was nearby, anyway. For a moment I got a couple of looks that I interpreted to mean, "We’re just going to stop now, right?" No chance. Because, as we were learning, a pilgrimage wasn’t just about one walk, it was about life. It was about the intersection of the story of one holy island, the biblical story, and the story of God in our lives. To the credit of many of these youth, the grumbling was minimal – or the grumbling I heard was minimal. Folks had a chance to grab an extra layer of clothing, and we set out.
As we walked back through town the rain picked up. And the wind. Just to the south was Martyrs Bay, the site where a Norse invaders massacred 68 monks in the year 806, in the midst of a century or so of Viking raids on the island. We continued south, as the rain and wind picked up, continuing the conversation from before about our models of faith, also talking about our hopes for this trip. The rain was in our faces now, so we put our heads down, or even turned backwards for a bit, as we walked the road out of town.
We had a break as we walked up the rise, as the cement turned to gravel, a one-lane road in between fields, dotted with a few homes. We stopped by another small hill where angels reported spent time with St Columba shortly after his arrival. We talked about the supernatural, about times when we thought we have truly felt God’s presence, about how the church is often too eager to explain things like that away. Then through a gate, and the gravel gave way to a path in what amounted to a sheep field. We walked through the sheep – the cows stayed in the distance, onto the beach on the west coast of the island, back up into the grass in what, in some seasons, also doubles as a small nine-hole golf course. I wonder if any of you golfers have ever had to dodge a sheep as you approached the green? The weather had given us a short break, but it was still windy and cool and, it was at this point where a couple of folks in our group were ready to turn back. Pilgrimage is never always smooth sailing. But after a rest they chose to continue, a decision I think they are proud of. But the road got more difficult. For the final half an hour or so – which, I must admit, was a bit longer that I thought it was going to be (I only didn’t really know where we were for a very short time) – we did silent meditation as we approached our final destination. Up the rocky hillside, onto an old stone path, sometimes flat, sometimes up and down a little, the rain picking up again. By an old reservoir, through the rugged ridge, as the wind whipped around us.
By the time we began the descent to Columba’s bay, we could barely see it, through a field of ferns, dodging more sheep, down to a magnificent bay opening wide to the cold north Atlantic, waves crashing on the high rocks around us. I steered the group into a crevasse in a large rock to shield us from the sideways rain and near 40 mile per-hour winds. It wasn’t hard to imagine the difficult journey of St Columba, leaving Ireland and arriving with 12 men on this same shore on the day of Pentecost 563. It wasn’t hard to imagine the courage the journey required, the trust in their God to sustain them. Then, in the rain, we performed a ritual pilgrims have done for many years on that spot. It is kind of an odd beach, composed entirely of colorful smooth stones. For years pilgrims have been picking up one rock to symbolize something in their life they want to leave behind, then throwing it into the ocean. We then picked up a second, of something we want to claim, something we want to start anew. That rock goes in our pocket for the journey home.
We trudged back, ending the almost 9 mile walk soaked to the bone, clothes and bags much heavier than they had come. While there is a lot to mine about this amazing trip with some special youth and adults, I think it is this pilgrimage that I will think about the most. Experiences like this ending up being, in microcosm, a whole lot like life. This one, with the weather as rough as it was, was, I think, a lot more like life that a walk in the sunshine would have been. Sure, there are seasons when things go well, when the children are happy and your job is okay and life is proceeding smoothly enough. Those seasons do happen. But, and maybe it’s just me but I suspect it’s not; more often it feels like you are in the heart of the storm. When the pressures mount, the forces of work and school and family and friends, all of the commitments you have made tug at you. Sometimes they pull pretty hard. There are other times when you are standing in the midst of the storm, when it is pouring and you are tired and cold and soaked and not entirely sure what you are doing and wondering why you came on this trip in the first place and does your pastor who is walking up front have any idea where he is going? The winds roar as a tragic diagnosis comes, the company gets sold. The threads that secure the bonds of marriage wear thin. When we fear life will crush us.
And that’s when we must remember the question at the heart of this parable – how do you SEE fertile ground, and how does God create a home in you to BE fertile ground yourself, a place where God can take root? This is the first parable Jesus tells, a style new to his listeners, using story and creation to invite them into thinking about the kingdom of God. For the crowds gathered on the shoreline, then later for the disciples alone, Jesus asks them who they will be. It is too easy – in fact, I think the world expects us to be a dry path, rocky soil, scorched and burned. Jesus says it to the disciples – when trouble or persecution arises, when the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. We succumb to the pressures of ambition and temptation, whether those pressures are real or we just think they are, and we quit trying.
But, Jesus says, there is another way. It was a way I think we glimpsed on this journey together, one I hope you keep asking me about and the other adults and youth who went. It was a glimpse of the holy in a magnificently beautiful place, of morning and evening worship in the abbey, a place of silence, away from technology and the intensity of it all, to be together. For God to shape us. To form us into a special community. To give us a glimpse of who we could be – as individual disciples, and as a group. Together. It is a practice we must cling to, fiercely, back here. Because if we can make good space, if we allow God to fertilize us, to water us, to teach us to grow, then imagine what we could do! Not just those of us who went on this one trip, but all of us. All of you. How might God nourish you, how might we be a part of the way God nourishes us together, sustaining practices, listening in silence? Maybe that can be a project for you, in the busyness of the summer, for all who hear the word and understand it, Jesus says, who seek to genuinely live in His way of mercy and compassion, of justice and understanding. And the field bears fruit, and yields, thirty, sixty, in one case a hundred fold.
All praise be to this One, Jesus the Christ, who claims us in baptism, and who walks with us, as pilgrims, no matter what may come. Amen.