By REV. LUCY REID
This summer I had the luxury of a sabbatical: three months of paid leave for rest and refreshment, travel and study. In planning it a year ahead, I knew I wanted to spend the first month walking, so that the all-consuming thoughts about work would have good chance to roll off my shoulders and be left behind for a while. But where would I go?
Initially I thought of walking part of the Camino de Santiago – the long pilgrims’ way through France and Spain to the cathedral of St James in Santiago de Compostela. Some of my friends have walked that pilgrimage, but it didn’t feel quite right. My instinct was to find a path that would take me through my own home country of Scotland. And then I hit upon the idea of walking to the island of Iona, one of the Inner Hebrides off the West coast of Scotland.
I serve as a priest in the church of St Aidan in the Beach, and Aidan was a monk on Iona in the seventh century. Iona was the cradle of Celtic Christianity, and when the King of Northumbria in Northeast England wanted to restore Christianity to his realm, he asked for one of the monks from Iona to come. Ultimately it was Aidan who established a monastery there, on the island of Lindisfarne, and Celtic Christianity took root and flourished.
Those two holy islands associated with Aidan, Iona and Lindisfarne, are about 550 kilometres apart on foot, linked by no single pilgrims’ way but by a series of ancient footpaths and old roads, some well signposted, others not so much.
With my sister and her partner as our accompanying support team with their caravan and a tent, and with a thick sheaf of detailed maps, my husband David and I set out from Lindisfarne on May 5 with June 1 as our planned arrival date on Iona.
I pictured peaceful days of walking in prayerful contemplation, surrounded by rugged beauty as we crossed the hills of the border country between England and Scotland, visited some of the great ruined abbeys there, and made our way through the West Highlands to the coast, and then over to Iona. It was also the year of our ruby wedding anniversary, so I particularly looked forward to sharing this unique journey with my husband.
The reality was far more challenging, physically painful, emotionally tough, and spiritually rewarding than anything I’d pictured.
Heavy rain soaked through our expensive “waterproof” clothing. (We had to buy dry clothes from a charity shop in a tiny village one day.) Blisters and aching knees made some days excruciating. (David ended up walking downhill backwards to spare his knees.) Our conversation was mundane at best, irritable and gloomy at worst. (And we had several arguments about which way to go when we lost the path.) There came a point where we weren’t sure we could go on.
But we did go on, encouraged by our support duo and by friends cheering us on via Facebook. And our arrival at Iona felt not so much like a victory won as a deeply satisfying accomplishment. We hadn’t beaten an enemy, we had simply pushed on and pushed through.
Our three-night stay on that holy, peaceful island to which pilgrims have been coming for centuries (mainly by sea, it must be said!) was balm to body and soul. We were able to review our journey and see its beauty and gifts, hidden at the time but revealed in retrospect.
Isn’t so much of life like that? We have certain expectations, hopes, dreams, and then we’re disappointed or hurt when they turn out differently. Life soaks us, pains us, loses us, lets us down. But the journey goes on and has gifts and teachings for us if we can notice and receive them. And that takes time, reflection and support from others.
We say a prayer almost every Sunday at St Aidan’s, which starts, “Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…” At the start of my sabbatical I had asked for something and imagined it, and then received tougher, deeper gifts: blisters not bliss; dismay not delight; challenge not comfort. But the gifts were real, and infinitely more than I asked or imagined.
David and I will be showing slides and speaking about our pilgrimage and Celtic Christianity on three Thursday evenings at St Aidan’s, on Oct. 3, 10 and 17 at 7:30 pm. All are welcome.
The Rev. Lucy Reid is Incumbent priest, Church of St Aidan in the Beach