There’s a small 1.5 x 3.5 mile island off the western coast of Scotland called Iona. After the fall of the Roman Empire, during which Scots were Christians, the country reverted to paganism. In 587 an Irish priest named Columba landed on Iona with the mission of spreading the gospel and re-energizing the Christian faith of the Scottish people. He found on Iona a special place, filled with God’s presence. The Celtic heritage of the place – focused on the wonder of God’s creation, the presence of God in everything, and the joy of people living in community – provided a great backdrop for Columba’s ministry.
Last month I had the opportunity to travel – as a pilgrim – to the Isle of Iona. Pilgrimage is not a common devotional practice for Christians. We hear more about Jews having a life goal of celebrating Passover in Jerusalem, or Muslims’ desire to go to Mecca for the annual pilgrimage, known as Hajj. Often Christians have “The Holy Land (Israel)” on their “bucket list,” but when we go, it’s often as tourists.
Through my Iona experience I learned that pilgrimage is different than tourism. Traveling as a pilgrim involves intentional spiritual practice – prayer before, during, and after. Pilgrimage is rooted in a desire to experience God more powerfully and to spend time in His presence. Pilgrimage is less about the destination – there is nothing magical about Iona – and more about the process. By stepping out of your comfort zone, traveling to a part of the world with which you are not familiar, and trusting that God will provide, all contributes to the experience.
I’ve traveled a lot over the years – for work and pleasure. This was the first time I was a pilgrim. I went on this adventure with a group, but much of the time I was by myself. I started praying and journaling back in January. My days on Iona were spent walking through pastures where sheep and cows grazed, praying in front of stone crosses where faithful Christians have stood for centuries, watching the fog blow in over the island and then dissipate in an instant, and sitting on the beach as the glorious sun set over the horizon. Pilgrimage is about taking the time to notice God in action every minute of every day.
Pilgrimage is the gift that continues to give. Since returning, people have asked me what I got from going to Iona. I don’t have an answer for that question except to say that I know I am different than before I left. I’m not sure I will ever be able to point to a specific decision I made, messages I heard from God, or changes in my perspective. But, I know that I am different because I had this experience.
We don’t have to travel to Scotland or any other place considered “spiritual” (many Christians are going to the Camino de Santiago, Ephesus, Assisi, Jerusalem, mission trips…. ) to be on pilgrimage. Anytime we leave the comfort of our homes, God has an opportunity to move in our hearts in a special way if we approach the journey with the right mindset. I’m looking forward to viewing more of my business and leisure trips as opportunities for pilgrimage.
Where are you traveling next and what might God have for you in the journey? Think about what you might do to prepare yourself, how you might spend the time so that you are open to God’s presence, and how you might return home in a way that makes room for God to continue speaking into your experience.
If you’re interested in finding out more about pilgrimage as a spiritual practice, I would recommend “The Art of Pilgrimage” by Phil Cousineau. You can check out images from the Isle of Iona at http://welcometoiona.com.