I’ve just returned from four weeks travelling around the United Kingdom. The first 11 of those days were in Iona – a tiny isle off the coast of Western Scotland, where I was helping facilitate a group of travelers for an SDI Journey – one of many spiritual travel experiences that we offer for people who want more than the typical tourist trip.

Iona is a special place. In 563, St. Columba arrived from Ireland to establish a monastery. From here, a form of Celtic Christianity rooted in love of the natural world blossomed and flourished and is still practiced to this day by many. The Book of Kells was begun and worked on here, before moving to Ireland when Viking raids became too much to tolerate.

It is a fairly remote place. I flew into Glasgow, took a three hour train to Oban, spent the night, took a ferry the next morning to the Isle of Mull, caught a bus to the other side of Mull, and from there another short ferry to Iona. There is a tiny village, and cars are not allowed except by special permit.

View of the Iona village from the ferry.

Iona feels on the edge of the world. Jagged boulders pounded by crushing waves. Walking to the north side of the island is a sight. In the distance on one side – a desolate shoreline of searing cliffs, hundreds of feet high – as if an entire shoreline were simply sheared off with a giant knife through a massive geologic event. To the other side – the Atlantic Ocean for thousands of miles.

Looking north from Iona. Dutchman’s Cap is seen in the distance. To the left is ocean forever.

Why do people come here? What is pilgrimage, anyway? In preparation for this trip I read a book called The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau (which I highly recommend to anyone who likes to travel). He writes:

“Pilgrimage is the art of reimagining how we walk, talk, listen, see, hear, write, and draw as we ready for the journey of our soul’s deep desire.” 

Why would we want to re-imagine ourselves? Well, because we are creative beings, and re-imagining makes life interesting. We create meaning. Cousineau goes on to write:

“Do you trust in fate? Are you tantalized by the dream that somewhere, the true life is being led, that there are venerable things to learn down the road? When you commit to that dream, invisible hands will appear to guide you.”

You don’t have to go far to travel – it can be as simple as going out the door of your home. But to re-imagine, to be creative, you have to do something different. Take a different route. Shake the routine. Get out of your rut. Present to yourself a set of life circumstances that are different from what you are used to. Be willing to be uncomfortable. You don’t have to travel far to experience any of this, but there’s something about long-distant, faraway lands that compels the soul. There is adventure in it.

Cousineau has what he calls “Five Excellent Practices of Pilgrimage”, which are:

  • Practice the arts of attention and listening.
  • Practice renewing yourself every day.
  • Practice meandering toward the center of every place.
  • Practice the ritual of reading sacred texts.
  • Practice gratitude and praise-singing.

Excellent rules to live by, really! If one does these five things daily in any form, then you can safely say you are engaged in spiritual life. But they are especially helpful when on the road. They kept me grounded, even when adrift in unfamiliar places.

St Oran’s Chapel (over 900 years old) and an ancient graveyard where kings are buried (including Macbeth).

A few days in during my sojourn, I engaged in a short writing activity, describing an abandoned, smelly seashell I found lying on the beach. A kind of poem, I guess, which became a waypoint for my own pilgrimage journey:

“What was once home

is now vacant.

I’ve spiraled outward,

leaving this shelter behind.

What is behind has decayed

and what is before me is emerging.”

Being on the road gives the opportunity to take stock, to account for one’s life, to see oneself on the path – where one has come from, and where one might be going. This is the basic concept of pilgrimage.

“The transformation I yearn for is incomplete. I do not know whether I am any closer to enlightenment – I do not really expect to achieve it – but I know the attempt is worth the effort.” – Oliver Statler