Good company and respite at a place where heaven and earth come close together

George Hepburn makes an Easter journey from the North East to the Iona Community off the coast of Scotland

Iona, off the coast of Scotland
Iona, off the coast of Scotland

It has been a week full of unlikely stories. As I sat on the stony beach at the south tip of the island of Iona, I could not believe that St Columba really landed his fragile leather covered boat on such a rocky promontory in AD 563. Surely, I asked my fellow pilgrims, he would have sailed round to the sheltered east coast where there are sandy beaches.

The story goes that Columba got into trouble for copying the psalms, which led to a battle in which 3,000 were killed. Columba lost the battle, was exiled from Ireland and set sail for Scotland.

Modern scholarship suggests that he first made a number of landings on the mainland, setting up a monastery in each place, but I prefer the traditional story and duly cast a stone in the sea to leave my troubles behind and picked up another fine pink speckled specimen as a memento of a wonderful week staying with the Iona Community.

Columba did indeed found a monastery on Iona, and from there brought Christianity to Scotland. The monastery flourished and Columba became both king maker and diplomat as well as hermit and evangelist.

Stories of Columba’s exploits, as recorded by his fellow monk Adomnan, abound. He stood all night in the sea reciting those psalms. He expelled devils from milk churns and blessed wells. He wrestled with the Loch Ness monster. Miracles were expected in those days.

The most unlikely story of Columba’s time concerns St Oran who volunteered to be buried alive as the means of sanctifying the island burial ground. Columba was so upset that three days later he opened up the grave to see his friend for one last time.

To his surprise, Oran was still alive and couldn’t wait to tell everyone that they had got it all wrong about heaven and hell. Columba immediately ordered the grave to be filled in again to hush him up.

On Christmas Day AD 986, a group of 15 monks were slaughtered on the beach at what is now known as Martyrs Bay as they, perhaps misguidedly, came to the waters edge to greet a boatload of Vikings.

In 2003, seven members of the Melanesian Brotherhood, an order of Christian brothers living a simple and prayerful life in the Solomon Islands were martyred by rebel forces with whom they were, perhaps naively, trying to broker a peace settlement. Persecution for living the Christian faith continues to this day as we have seen tragically in Kenya this weekend.

48 Scottish kings and many more clan chiefs are buried on Iona – down to the Labour clan leader, John Smith – and the island has become a well trod path of pilgrimage. The abbey fell into ruin after the dissolution of the monasteries until it was restored by the Duke of Argyll, at the behest of his wife, in the late 19th century.

Then in the 1930s an indefatigable Church of Scotland priest called George MacLeod took it upon himself to rebuild the abbey’s cloister and buildings. He hit upon the idea of taking trainee priests and unemployed craftsman from Govan to work each summer on Iona and live together in community.

Apocryphal stories about George’s escapades rival those of Columba. They both arrived on Iona aged 42 and their careers are sometimes compared. Macleod was also scarred by war and became a ardent pacifist.

On one occasion, the restoration work was held up for lack of a stone mason. A passing holiday maker turned out to be a master stone mason and volunteered to help.

When the refectory needed a roof, a consignment of timber washed up on the beach. It had been jettisoned by a cargo ship in trouble. Rumour has it that the timber was already cut to the exact length required in the refectory.

George Macleod had set his heart on purchasing a fine silver resurrection cross that he saw in an exhibition but was told firmly that it was not for sale. The owner explained that it was her late husband’s finest work and that he had always intended it to be installed in Iona Abbey which is, of course, where it is today.

George MacLeod founded the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian movement, best known these days for its innovatory style of liturgy and hymnology, which have been widely influential in churches all over the world.

McLeod imbued the Community with a strong commitment to work for peace and justice. Members dispersed around the country are active, amongst other work, in opposing nuclear arms, providing ecumenical observers in Palestine, supporting asylum seekers and working with disadvantaged young people.

“Why do you keep coming back here?” a young volunteer from San Diego asked me over breakfast in the self same refectory. Lost for words, I admitted that I just love the place.

No doubt it helps that the three mile long island is as idyllic as a small windswept Hebridean island can be. Macleod called it “a thin place” where heaven and earth come close together.

But more important to me is the witness of the staff and volunteers living out a gospel of healing and political action of which Columba would have been proud. They gather in the abbey at the beginning and end of the working day to worship and provide good company and respite to whoever pitches up to stay with them.

Of course, the most famous unlikely story of the week is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the course of a single week, Jesus threw out the bankers, was let down by the establishment, betrayed and denied by his followers and completely lost his ratings in the polls before dying a terrible death. Darkness covered the land; the temple curtain was rent in two and the tombstone was rolled away.

It is a story that has inspired Columba, MacLeod, the Melanesians martyrs and the masses of people who filled Iona Abbey to overflowing yesterday to celebrate Easter Day.

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