“Oh, we'll take the high road, and they’ll take the low road, and we’ll get to Scotland aforrrre… our luggage!”
My best friend, Rande, was losing it. We were standing on the ragged hem of western Scotland, having traveled 5,300 miles from the Pacific Northwest to London to Glasgow to the Isle of Mull to the Isle of Iona, arriving with the clothes on our backs. Due to a system breakdown at Heathrow Airport, our bags were very lost.
“They’ll never find us!” she wailed. “We don’t even know where we are!”
Iona is one of the Scottish Inner Hebrides, and its 3.5 square miles of rock and heather are the home of early Celtic Christianity. Celtic scholar J. Philip Newell holds annual weeklong retreats here to present this nature- loving religion in its original setting, which is why we’ve made the nearly 20-hour trip. I’d met the gentle Canadian-born author, poet, and Church of Scotland minister two years earlier, while visiting family in Minneapolis, where Philip was leading a workshop. He graciously agreed to a meeting, and for one spellbinding hour he shared his knowledge of the early Celts and how they had swept across central Europe to the British Isles around 400 B.C.E. The Celts were widely admired for the complex, knotted patterns of their metal jewelry, but it’s their spiritual philosophy that so intrigues Philip. They believed in the holiness of all Creation, as he called the known universe. From exploding stars to our very selves, Creation is, he told me, “not made out of nothing by a distant Creator, as so many churches would have us believe, but a living energy born of the womb of God. We are not born in sin,” he said; “we are deeply and essentially good.” And the knot at the center of all Celtic art? “That represents the joyful holiness woven into the heart of all of Creation.”
Philip had just recited my most closely held beliefs, and Rande’s as well. We longed for a spiritual model that celebrated the joy of the sacred, the euphoria we found in morning meditations or the quietude of nature. Could this longing be based in our Celtic bloodlines? “The early Celts were nothing if not joyful,” said Philip. “I think you might feel at home with them.” I quickly signed us up for his next Iona workshop—though our lack of luggage was now darkening Rande’s mood.
“It’s a spiritual retreat,” I reminded her. “We don’t need material things.”
At our welcome dinner, Philip sat at a table in the St. Columba Hotel dining room, surrounded by his ad hoc parishioners, who were as nourished by his good cheer as by the excellent dishes.
“What is this?” Rande asked our young redheaded server.
“Tat’s the haggis, ’tis.”
“We make it fresh. ’Tis bettah.”
It was delicious. As were the free-range venison, the bright vegetables from the hotel’s organic gardens, and the local single malt that made us Lucy-and-Ethel loopy.
“You can take yoor whisky into yoor meetin’. God won’t mind.”
At our after-dinner orientation, Philip’s purposeful voice brought our lively group to order—and Rande and me back to sobriety. We would meet in the hotel’s sitting room for morning and evening sessions led by Philip and Ali, his wife, as we explored Celtic spiritual tradition via lectures, chants, songs, dances, silent reflection, and prayer. The week’s finale would be a pilgrimage to St. Columba’s Bay, and then, provided our luggage (and hiking boots) arrived, to Iona’s hilltops. Philip traces his own Celtic journey to his work as warden for Iona Abbey from 1988 to 1992. Thus these annual retreats are a return to the island he considers “an extraordinary window into the soul of Creation.”
That first night, Rande and I couldn’t sleep. Both of us are, shall we say, sensitive. Soul sisters since we met after college, we share a suite of unusual traits that includes seeing ghosts.
“Many sensitives can’t sleep on Iona at first,” Philip said as we walked to Iona Abbey the next morning. “The energy of Creation here is intense.”
Iona’s reputation as “the Holy Isle” started in 563 C.E., when an Irish monk named Colum Cille—later “St. Columba”—landed in a rowboat with fellow friars on a half-moon beach now called St. Columba Bay. The good monk founded a monastery, and his legacy was secured a century later when Iona’s ninth abbot published Life of Columba,a volume filled with stories of the saint’s prophecies and miracles (one monk witnessed Columba surrounded by adoring angels).
During the week, virtually everyone in our group called the island magical. There was, indeed, a luminescence to the island’s muscular landscape, a certain delicious dash to the mineralized sea air, a comfort in the dark cologne of ancient rock and loam. Even the water around Iona was a tropical blue, like the turquoise of the Caribbean or Hawaii. On the short stroll from the hotel to the abbey, where we worshiped in the morning and at night, the Celtic winds seemed to imbue our energies with fresh charge. That is what sets Iona apart from other pretty British places, and its special electricity was amplified by green fields filled with white lambs, the sweep of farmhouses, even in the sweetness of the abbey’s services, so inclusive and free of dogma, a perfect embodiment of Philip’s message.
“You are above me O God, you are beneath, you are in air, you are in earth, you are beside me, you are within,” he said one morning reading an old Celtic prayer. “Kindle within me a love for you in all things.”
“Yes, yes,” murmured a silver-haired man from Texas sitting beside us. “That is what I want to feel. Yes.”
This reverence for the earth was most apparent on our pilgrimage to St. Columba Bay. The day carried a sweet North Atlantic chill. After a long hike, we emerged on the beach, where Philip had us choose two stones: one represented something we wanted to purge from our psyches—we were to throw this into the sea. The other we would take home to remind us of a change we wanted to keep. At the water’s edge, a member of our group, a 62-year-old woman from California, was sobbing.
“I threw away the shame I’ve carried my whole life for feeling God in nature,” she told us, saying the church of her youth considered the idea a sin. “And this,” she said, holding a smooth circle of Iona’s green marble in her palm, “represents my transformation.”
After we returned home, Rande had a dream. In it she was told we both must “drink a vial of sacred liquid to protect our inner selves.” I e-mailed Philip to see what he thought.
“If you’d been able to take the second half of the Pilgrimage,” he wrote, “you would have come to a sacred spring whose waters are associated with many healings. I never leave Iona without drinking from it.”
“So,” Rande hissed when I called her. “If our luggage had shown up we would have had our boots and done the whole pilgrimage and made it to the tallest hill and drunk the sacred water.”
“No, no,” I told her. “Don’t you see? We lost our baggage. We’re not weighed down with old ideas anymore, and we’re not spiritual orphans. We’re joyful Celts! Your dream was the creative power of Iona calling us home.”
Jessica Maxwell’s spiritual adventure Roll Around Heaven will be published by Beyond Words in the fall of 2009.