Iona: A Touchstone to a Longer Horizon

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh loved to tell a parable about a man and his horse. The horse is galloping quickly and everyone who sees the man fly by assumes that he is on a mission, going somewhere important. At some point a man standing along the road shouts at him, “Where are you going?” and as he flies by the man replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!”

This is a time of year when life can feel like that. These days our family’s calendar looks something like a modern art project—each day scribbled full of overlapping, color coded events: soccer practice for our son, cheerleading for the girls, musical rehearsals, church meetings, and birthday parties, not to mention finding time to get everyone their flu shots. Good luck sneaking in a trip to see the Taylor Swift movie! Like that man on the horse, we’re just along for the ride…I call it “hang on and pray mode.”

It can feel impossible to do it at times, but setting aside time when you’re in “galloping horse” mode to pause and get some perspective can do a world of good. It can help us take stock of where we are and where we want to be.

For me, time spent on Iona has provided time and space to do exactly this. I continue to draw on the memory of days spent there while stumbling through these Autumn days at home in New Jersey. 

For centuries the Isle of Iona has drawn spiritual seekers to its shores. Its landscape of prehistoric rocky outcrops and a rolling machair that does double duty as both a golf course and cattle pasture, invokes a timeline much longer than we usually consider. It puts into perspective what can feel like overwhelming problems or stressors.

Saint Columba landed on Iona in 563 and founded a thriving monastic community there. Under his leadership Iona would become a powerhouse of missionary activity, sending monks across Scotland and even to the north of England where they built up thriving faith communities that had a significant and enduring impact on the country.

Even in the midst of this growth and ostensible success, Columba wrote these famous words:

Iona of my heart, Iona of my love,
Instead of monk’s voice shall be lowing of cows:
But ere the world shall come to an end,
Iona shall be as it was.

With these words, Columba extended the horizons of his community’s vision well beyond their own lifetime. Amid the many changes and challenges they were living through, he encouraged them to reflect on what is truly enduring, holding in perspective what any one of them was, or was not, accomplishing.

The stones carved out along the shores of Iona were there billions of years before Columba ever set foot on the island. And as he wrote, they endured through the centuries following his death. They saw Viking invasions, the Protestant Reformation, and subsequent ruin of the abbey and nunnery. They also saw two world wars and the birth of a new faith community on the Island in war’s aftermath. 

Inviting his monks to consider this deeper timeline, Columba was encouraging his monks to recalibrate their expectations. By letting go of the drive to build a structure or institution that would last as long as the stones, the monks could find freedom to be fully present to the challenges of today, and what living faithfully looked like in that moment.

That was surely not an easy thing to do, especially when everything was going so well! But letting go may have been precisely the grounding they needed to create a community whose impact would continue to ripple forward in time long after it ceased to exist.

This is what my pilgrimage to Iona has been for me. The anchoring experience of time spent there, reflecting on life and faith with a gathered community, continues to ripple forward in my day-to-day experience—even twelve years after my first trip to the island.

Today our world is seeing an increasingly disturbing amount of division, conflict and loss. These experiences—both individually and collectively—have created wounds that we carry with us and that impact our ability to fully live.

As we seek a way forward, the example of those saints who have gone before us can serve as an inspiration. Pilgrimage can provide us with time and space that have been set aside, allowing us to experience a different way of being in the world. The community, the prayers, and the insight discerned on pilgrimage can become a blessing that we carry home. Ultimately, it can enable us to live through the challenges and changes we encounter with a changed perspective and renewed openness.

In my office, I keep a pebble from the shores of Iona. It’s a piece of banded gneiss—one of the oldest rocks in the world. For me, it’s a literal touchstone, reminding me that while some days may feel endless and my to do list may not be getting any shorter, a much longer horizon is out there. And that an entire community of pilgrims (on both sides of eternity) is praying and working to embody a different way of living in the world—a way that begins to heal the deep wounds we carry.

October 10, 2023 by Bill Stone 2 Comments
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Nancy Kuhn
Nancy Kuhn
7 months ago

Amen.

Beth Knepp
Beth Knepp
7 months ago

Lovely thoughts! Thank you for taking the time to share them. Blessings to you.

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