The Stones Will Cry Out – Reflecting on My Pilgrimage to Iona

The Stones Will Cry Out

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him,
“Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He said in reply,
“I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!”
(Lk 19:39-40)

A pilgrimage can effect a change of heart: though an outward journey, it can become an inner journey that brings about what the gospel writers and St. Paul called metanoia, leading to repentance and conversion. So it was with much hope and expectation that I made my recent pilgrimage to Iona. Praise and thanks be to God, I was not disappointed!

Twenty-one of us, under the leadership of the Rev. Carole Crumley, assembled in Glasgow to begin our pilgrimage to Iona. The theme was Praying Peace, Living Peace—an objective both timely and hopeful.

We spent the first day with John Philip Newell, a gifted teacher and author who was co- warden of the Iona Community for several years. He shared with us not only the history and spirituality of that sacred island and its connection with Celtic Christianity but also his thoughts and concerns about the state of Christianity overall. The latter was a sobering analysis of a church in crisis and a challenge to every “household of faith” to return to the gospel message.

As I looked at our group, I realized how many such households were represented on this pilgrimage. Among our leaders and pilgrims were many and varied denominations and faith traditions, including Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Baptist, the UCC and other reformed churches.

I then thought of Luke’s description of the Spirit’s coming on Pentecost in Acts 2:5-11; how devout Jews “from every nation under heaven” came to Jerusalem and were “astounded, and in amazement” as they listened to the apostles addressing the group in each one’s own language. Is it possible, I wondered, that God might be working in the same way now in and among the various households of our Christian faith, enlightening and enabling us to recognize our common origin and realize that there is so much more upon which we agree than on which we disagree?

I was traveling with my wife and two long-time friends, but my own small faith community quickly expanded in the embrace of the larger pilgrim community as we entered separate sharing circles and discovered new vistas of faith, gaining new insights and stretching to a deeper awareness of ourselves and of each other.

It is this awareness of each other that is so characteristically Celtic. As Newell beautifully says, “Being present to the heart of the other, looking with love to the essence of the other—this is what releases the truest depths in one another” (Christ of the Celts) or as Julian of Norwich proclaimed, “We are all one” (Revelation of Divine Love).

I believe we are also from and of God, intertwined with God and each other; in relationship, one with the other in endless weave, like a knot. Celtic art is also captivated by this intricate form, and Celtic Christians see it as a symbol for eternity, having no visible beginning or end. In fact, Celtic spirituality employs many symbols: its unique cross with the superimposed circle; its striking patterns in a myriad of geometric designs; its use of stones and statues and stained glass, as well as creatures from nature like the wild goose that represents the Holy Spirit.

Iona contains many of these symbols, of course, and I felt inspired, uplifted and gradually at peace as I encountered and embraced them. I stood before the high crosses of St. Martin and St. John and pondered the great mystery of our Christian faith: the paradox of the Cross—at once a symbol of human hatred and rejection overcome by divine love and forgiveness.

From its beginning, the Iona Community has sought “new ways to touch the hearts of all” as it communicates and lives the gospel in today’s world. It began and continues in a spirit of inclusiveness. But the Community does not set out to change anyone into a “religious” person; rather its goal is to make one more fully human. To that end, the Community draws on its rich Celtic heritage where God is an integral part of nature and all of creation reflects God’s immanence as well as transcendence.

When I landed on Iona’s shore and began my pilgrimage to pray peace and live peace, Newell’s assessment of things made me very uneasy and far from peaceful—in prayer or life. Soon, however, the island began its work of transformation, as it has done for so many over the centuries.

Places where God seems to be present in a strong or mysterious way are called “thin places.” It is there that the seen and unseen become connected; where the thin veil that separates this world from the other can part, often for just an instant, and allow the two dimensions to touch each other; where one can touch and be touched by God. The island of Iona is a thin place.

When my wife and friends and I walked through pastures of grazing sheep to the island’s rocky north shore, the Iona Sound glimmered to the east, and we gazed in awe as the sea rolled back and forth among the ancient stone formations, drenching patches of moss and assorted crustaceans that had accumulated there. We had no doubt that God was present that morning, even as God was present eons ago when the first rocks began to form and the first waves began to roll among them.

In the thin place of Iona, God’s creation proclaims the glory of God and the interconnectedness of us all. It is where the very stones themselves shout out the Good News!

Throughout my pilgrimage and since my return home, my prayers have centered on the future of Christ’s church, in general, and on how I might respond to Carole’s evocative challenge, What is mine to do? As I await God’s reply, I look back at the Iona Community, at the strong ecumenical spirit that guides it, and recognize the same spirit within our pilgrim community. From our many faith traditions, we formed a single, solid community of worshipers who came to realize that the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding is the peace of sharing, of community, of relationship.

January 01, 2009 by John Madden
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