A time to give birth and a time to die… —Ecclesiastes
My mother lived almost 98 years; she was just two months shy of that milestone when she died. And I was two minutes away from her in the end.
I was walking down a long hallway that morning towards her room in the residence where she lived in Seattle. She’d been in hospice care for a week and we knew it was just a matter of time. My cell phone rang and I answered; it was my wife Mary Ann. “I think Mere’s gone,” she said, “She just stopped breathing.”
Through the final decade of my mother’s life I’d played various scenarios over in my mind as to how the end might come—a stroke or pneumonia seemed most likely. Living at a distance from her during this time, Mary Ann and I fretted about whether we would be able to adequately respond when the time came. It turned out to be a stroke—and we were 2500 miles away. We rushed to be with her in Seattle as soon as we could get there. We had a week with her before she died.
After receiving Mary Ann’s call, I walked quickly down the hall and rushed into my mother’s room. She was lying in bed in the same position as when I left her the previous evening. Mary Ann was at her right side and a hospice worker was to her left. I moved past the worker and went up to my mother; her eyes were closed. I bent over and kissed her; she still felt warm. I touched her forehead and made the shape of a small cross. I whispered a simple prayer—then I cried.
Later that day our daughters, Mary Ann and I decided to hold our family memorial that evening. We agreed that it should be on the shore of Puget Sound where my mother had often gone with us during the year she lived in Seattle. We planned a meal of fried chicken, potato salad and other picnic foods—my mother’s favorites. Daughter Lara picked up some yellow roses to grace the table; they were my mother’s most-favored flower.
After supper we each found a place to sit on the drift logs situated along the water’s edge. Sunset was approaching and the Vashon Island ferry, my mother’s self-declared “cruise ship,” was making its way back and forth across the Sound in front of us.
Grandson Sam led off our time of remembrance by performing some magic tricks that he’d just learned from his Uncle Kirk. My mother would have been charmed by those. Then daughter Lara read Oliver Wendell Holmes’ The Chambered Nautilus, which was a poem my mother liked. Finally each of us took turns recalling how she had been a significant person in our lives. I told how she had stood by me at age nine when I wanted a Mohawk haircut in order to identify with the American Indians. My father wasn’t amused by this, yet my mother deflected his displeasure and took me to a barber shop to get the haircut. It was symbolic of many other instances where her unconditional love came through. This quality was her greatest gift to me.
After our time of sharing each of us, including the children, took yellow rose blossoms from the vase that had been on the picnic table and carried them down to the water’s edge. As the sun dropped behind the distant Olympic Mountain range we pulled off the petals and tossed them into the Sound. They drifted out into the deep just as the Vashon Island ferry departed its dock.
This one dropped me to my knees,
I should have seen it coming,
But it still surprised me…
—Carrie Newcomer from “Sanctuary”
A few weeks passed after our family memorial for my mother on the shore of Puget Sound. As I reflected more about the meaning of her death, I discovered that I wasn’t prepared—and especially for its finality. I came to realize that she was the only person who could connect what happened for me yesterday with the day I was born in 1946. No one else on earth could still do that—and now that link was gone.
My mother’s passing came as the latest in a series of deep sadnesses for me over the previous three years. It started when one of my dearest friends from my university time succumbed to cancer at the age of 67. Mary Ann and I were with Kathleen when she died, and my grieving still continues. Then my brother Phil died, also from cancer; he was only 63 years old. His dog Pouncer came to live with us and I became very attached to her—partly because she was a final link to him. She had to be euthanized a year and a half later because of a heart condition. And now my mother had died.
I’d been dropped to my knees; I needed sanctuary.
Will you be my refuge,
My haven in the storm…
Be my sanctuary
Til I can carry on…
—Carrie Newcomer from “Sanctuary”
The concept of sanctuary is familiar to me. Over the past fifty years, I’ve done any number of retreats and pilgrimages to places that have sanctuary-like properties. Most recently, I’d traveled to Scotland alone in the fall of 2015. I spent most of my time then in Fife where I focused on playing golf with hickory-shafted golf clubs on historic links-style courses along the sea. I also sought out various sacred and historic sites. This journey was transformative, and I’ve described it more fully in an essay titled A Sacred Journey.
As Mary Ann and I considered where we might go for sanctuary in the aftermath of the losses and sorrows of the previous three years, I immediately thought of returning to Scotland. It seemed to have just the right combination of beauty, antiquity, recreation (golfing and hiking) and sacredness. So we began preparing to make a three-week “Sanctuary Sojourn” to Scotland.
The initial week of our time would center on the same area of Fife where I’d been in 2015. Over the intervening year I’d formed a very special friendship with Scottish golfer Elis Reekie, whom I’d met during my previous trip. Mary Ann and I intended to spend a few days with Elis during which time she and I could play several rounds of golf in the homeland of the game. A more detailed account of these experiences is given in the essay titled A Sacred Journey (Epilogue).
After we departed Fife, Mary Ann and I intended to follow a route along the east coast of Scotland to just north of Aberdeen. Then we would turn inland and cross over to Loch Ness at which point we’d head south into the Highlands. Our itinerary for this part of the journey was deliberately left open in order to offer opportunities for us to be, as C. S. Lewis termed it, surprised by joy. Finally we would conclude our Sanctuary Sojourn with a four-day pilgrimage to the sacred Isle of Iona in the Inner Hebrides.
What follows are a few stories illustrating remarkable times we experienced during our Sojourn. They aren’t all of them, or perhaps even the most meaningful in the long term. Yet they are ones that have stayed close to my heart since we returned. I trust they will be meaningful to you too, dear reader, as you seek to know providence and peace in your life. For sooner or later we all need sanctuary.
For beauty, there’s Largo Law (in Scotland a “law” is a rounded hill) rising to an elevation of almost 1000 feet above the surrounding landscape. For antiquity, there are three large monumental stones located in one of the fairways at the golf club. They are all that remains of an important prehistoric ceremonial center. And for recreation there’s the 1910 James Braid-designed nine-hole golf course itself.
The Lundin Ladies Links golf course was one of the places I visited during my solo journey to Scotland in 2015. I was interested then in knowing more about the unique monument stones on the course, as well as the origin of this ladies golf club. I made prior arrangements for my visit so when I arrived I was met by Helen Melville, a former Captain. She invited me inside the clubhouse and we spent almost two hours together as she described the Club’s history and gave me a tour. We walked together out to see the prehistoric stones in the 2nd fairway, and after Helen left I played a couple of holes. Yet as I departed the course that day I felt like I still had unfinished business to attend to—and I did.
As I considered where Elis and I might play golf together during Mary Ann’s and my time in Fife, I thought of the Lundin Ladies course as a suitable venue. Its peaceful surroundings and not-too-difficult design would be a good place for us to get acquainted with our respective golf games (we had not yet played golf together). And it also offered me one more thing—the opportunity to become famous.
“You may be the ONLY man to have used the ‘ladies’ room’ in the Lundin Ladies’ Clubhouse, Steve. Now that’s a claim to fame!” —Elis Reekie
After Elis and I finished our round of golf, Mary Ann and I decided to make use of the clubhouse restroom before leaving. With no one around to ask for guidance, we assumed it was suitable for us to use the one we’d seen earlier inside the clubhouse. Mary Ann went first and then I followed. As I was leaving the restroom, one of the club members arrived. She looked surprised to see me there and exclaimed, “What are you doing here?” As I sought words to explain she continued, “This is the ladies’ room; gentlemen are to use the facility at the back of the clubhouse!” I begged her pardon and made a hasty exit. My legacy at the Lundin Ladies Golf Club had been assured.
After our golf outing at Lundin, Mary Ann and I went with Elis to her home for dinner. We had a delightful time and shared our lives in ways that had not been possible before from a distance. On a window sill near our table, Elis had placed a vase of bright yellow roses for the occasion. This evening with our thoughtful friend was as sacred as any I’ve ever known.
During the times that my mother took road trips with Mary Ann and me in her later years, she had a particular place in the back seat of our car where she liked to sit. She called it her “cat-bird seat.” As we’d travel down the road I would sometimes look back at her in the rear-view mirror and ask, “How’s it going, Mother?” Her response was almost always the same: “Everything’s fine, Steve—just fine.”
As we departed Elis’ home that evening—and despite my earlier gaffe at the Lundin Ladies clubhouse—I sensed that our Sacred Sojourn was going to be fine—just fine.
…You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. —T. S. Eliot
It was our final morning in Fife—and the beginning of our second week in Scotland. As Mary Ann and I left our bed and breakfast where we’d been staying and prepared to set our faces to the north, I felt a mix of pensiveness and anticipation. I sensed a need for one more sacred touch, and the one place I knew to go for that was to the Skeith Stone. I’d visited this 7th century Celtic monument several times during my solo journey in 2015; in fact I’d gone there more than to any other place. Mary Ann and I had also already been to the Skeith Stone twice before during this time in Fife together.
We knew, of course, that we would see more physically impressive sacred sites as we continued our journey over the subsequent two weeks. After all, we were planning to conclude our time at the most popular and famous site of all, the Isle of Iona. Yet I had a hunch that, for me, none of these places would surpass this diminutive stone in Fife near the tiny village of Kilrenny. It was the first Celtic stone I’d ever seen that was still in its original location. I knew that experience could never be duplicated.
As I walked down the small farm lane leading to Skeith Stone, I thought of those who had preceded me to this place. As I arrived at the stone, I knelt beside it just as others before me—and I imagined. Tradition links the unique “marigold cross” carved on the stone to a medieval monastery that was once on the Isle of May about six miles away in the Firth of Forth. It’s thought that the monks from this abbey often crossed to the mainland and walked up the hill to this stone to pray. These early Celtic Christians believed that places such as Skeith Stone were “thin” meaning that the distance between this world and the next was closer there. They were spaces where prayer was valid. And the sense of transcendence I felt as I knelt there was enough for me to believe.
Located within a mature larch wood on Forestry Commission land known as Garrol Wood, southeast of Banchory, the Nine Stanes of Mulloch Wood has an atmosphere of mystery and beauty, the trees interwoven within the mighty clumps of aged stone to lend a dappled light… —Marianna Lines from Sacred Scotland
There are hundreds of sites described in Marianna Lines’ guidebook on the sacred places of Scotland. She contends that there may be nowhere else on earth that can match this nation’s expansive and diverse wealth of ancient places covering 6000 years of human history. In Aberdeenshire alone she lists twenty-one sites, eleven of which are stone circles. And those are just the tip of the iceberg! There are an estimated 30,000 sites of archaeological importance in Scotland of which at least one-hundred are stone circles.
So just why did the “Nine Stanes of Mulloch Wood” circle call to me? I’m not sure I can answer that even yet, although I’m sure that Lines’ description of it in her book had something to do with it. I’ve always had a fondness for larch trees and when she noted that the Nine Stanes circle was in a “mature larch wood” my curiosity was piqued. I also think her use of the words “mystery and beauty” to describe the place contributed to it. But then the challenge came; how do we find these Nine Stanes of Mulloch Wood?
The only directions given were that the site was on Forest Commission land southeast of Banchory. That wasn’t much to go on, and yet we set off. We stopped at a Scottish Historic Trust site near Banchory thinking that the folks there would surely have more specific directions for us. Nope—they hadn’t even heard of the Nine Stanes of Mulloch Wood! So Mary Ann and I chose to just trust our instincts and follow the one road leading southeast from Banchory. It was overcast and beginning to rain lightly. It was also late afternoon and darkness would be upon us within an hour.
We were becoming discouraged when we passed three men working on a large farm machine by the side of the road. I pulled over and went to talk with them to see if they might be able to give me directions; this would be my last-ditch effort. One of the men came up to me as I approached. He wore a stocking cap and his clothes were tattered; he had several teeth missing. He smiled though as I asked him if he knew of the “Nine Stanes” stone circle. He spoke in a thick Scottish brogue, but I understood the gist of what he said. He DID know about the site and he gave me directions, although it sounded as if the route to the circle followed a long unpaved farm lane that would be impassable for us on this day. So I thanked him, returned to my car and informed Mary Ann that we were setting our GPS to take us directly back to our bed and breakfast on the coast. “We don’t have any business trying to find this site today, Mary Ann,” I said. “There will be others at another time.” Then I drove our car back onto the road and began following directions of our car’s GPS system for returning to the B&B.
We’d gone about a mile when I realized that our route was taking us along the same road the man had said I should follow to get to Nine Stanes circle. “Wouldn’t it be something if this GPS leads us to the site after all?” I asked Mary Ann with a tinge of hope in my voice. She smiled broadly.
The road was narrow and winding, but it was paved and it followed the crest of a ridge where one might expect a stone circle to be located. Yet there were no road signs, and it was getting darker; the rain continued. Mary Ann suddenly remarked: “Look, Steve, we’re into larch trees—the first we’ve seen.” We both then became vigilant and watched closely for a small lane and gate leading to the left off the road. The man at the machine had said that would identify the location of Mulloch Wood. Another mile passed and there was the lane and gate. I pulled off, we got out of our car and walked back into the larch forest. That’s where we got our first glimpse of the “Nine Stanes” circle.
Mary Ann and I saw several more stone circles during our travels in Scotland. Some were large and impressive, yet none matched the “mystery and beauty” of Nine Stanes. It seemed as if we were the first to ever be in this place since it had ceased to be used as a stellar observatory and burial site 3500 years ago. To archaeologists the site is considered to be “degraded”—i.e. it’s missing some of its original elements. And it probably wasn’t originally situated in a larch wood either. Yet for two “pilgrims” seeking sanctuary far from the here and now, it was fine—just fine.
Carry nothing but what you must.
Let it go, shake off the dust.
Today is now, tomorrow beckons.
Keep practicing resurrection.
—Carrie Newcomer from “Lean in Toward the Light”
Most visitors to Scotland are eventually drawn to the Highlands. We were. After skirting the east coast to north of Aberdeen, we crossed west and then south into the area around Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain. If Highlands means “high land” then this must be the place, we reasoned.
By this point in our journey it had become our custom to follow our whims and fancies without adhering to a strict itinerary. Each day we’d chart our course and figure out the details as we went along. We were rewarded with stunning vistas, amazing clouds, waterfalls and ethereal light effects. At this time of year, the moors in the Highlands had a rich hue that defied description; the word “tawny” was our best effort.
Although we didn’t follow a strict itinerary each day, we did have “aspirations.” And one of mine in the Highlands was to hike in the moors. We entered the national park lands around Glen Coe and the weather became heavily overcast and rainy. As we drove the main road through this area we passed a sign identifying the “Trail to Glen Etive by the Lairig Gartain.” I knew I had found my walking place.
As Mary Ann and I began to hike, the trail became rocky and very wet. She chose not to proceed farther, but I went ahead alone with the intention of going just far enough from the road to experience a truer sense of this magnificent moorland. I didn’t expect to also “lean in toward the light.”
In February 1692, following the Jacobite uprising, a massacre took place in Glen Coe in the Highlands of Scotland. It was perpetrated by a regiment of soldiers under the command of Captain Robert Campbell against the MacDonald clan. The MacDonalds had previously hosted the soldiers as their guests. In all, thirty-eight MacDonald men from Glen Coe were killed under the pretense that they’d been slow to swear allegiance to the crown. Another forty women and children died of exposure after their homes were burned and they were left to fend for themselves in the winter weather. —adapted from an account of the Glen Coe massacre
I’ve experienced it before. In the United States there are any number of beautiful places where terrible things have occurred in the past. The ones that are hardest for me to comprehend are where humans have caused harm and anguish to other humans. Glen Coe is such a place. In Scottish tradition it’s among the saddest of sites because of the atrocities that were committed, as well as the context of betrayal of the good will offered by the MacDonalds towards the soldiers who murdered them.
The shadows of this world will say
There’s no hope—why try anyway?
Yet every kindness large or slight,
Shifts the balance towards the light.
—Carrie Newcomer from “Lean in Toward the Light”
As I hiked the trail through Glen Coe that day, I was mindful of its sorrowful history. I felt sadness, just as I do at such places in the U.S. Yet as I continued I became aware of the amazing light effect that was breaking through ahead of me in the direction of my trail. My spirits lifted and I recalled words from Carrie Newcomer’s song “Lean in Toward the Light” that I’d first heard just before leaving for Scotland. They fit this place and time perfectly.
I walked on for a few more minutes until I had reached a place where it was only the moorland, the amazing light and me. I climbed onto a higher point of land and assumed the ancient Celtic prayer posture known as Orans. I prayed for healing in this glen. I prayed for healing in my family—and in me. And I thanked God for every kindness large or slight that shifts the balance towards the light.
I like that Iona, the holy island, has a golf course. Most of the year it is a sheep pasture called the machair, a former beach that rose up thousands of years ago when the weight of the last ice age melted away. The monks raised barley there and now it is a common pasture by the Bay at the Back of the Ocean. You don’t notice the golf holes, there being no distinction between fairway and green, unless you happen by one of them and spot the metal pin leaning precariously out. —Daniel Taylor from In Search of Sacred Places
I’ve had very few “inspired” rounds of golf—but there have been some. My last competitive match with my high school team was one. I shot a score of 74 (4 over par) for 18 holes. It was the lowest 18-hole golf score I’ve ever had. And then there was a time more recently when I shot one-over-par for 9 holes using my antique hickory golf clubs. And then there was Iona.
Most pilgrims who come to Iona don’t bring golf clubs. In fact, some might consider golf to be a distraction and too secular to be included in such a sacred enterprise as a pilgrimage. I beg to differ. Golf is one of my longest-standing physical activities. As a boy I learned to walk, run, and ride a bicycle in that order. And then, at age twelve, I learned to swing a golf club. It’s part of my core. So bringing golf clubs to Iona was a sacred decision for me. And the fact that my clubs are traditional hickory-shafted ones made it even more right for me. However, other than knowing that an 18-hole course existed on the island I had no idea what to expect.
As Mary Ann and I checked into our bed and breakfast, I asked the proprietor Lindsay about the course. I’d already noted that the first tee was located nearby.
“How much do I pay for the greens’ fee—and to whom?” I asked.
“Well that depends on whether you need a map,” Lindsay replied with a smile.
“I’ve never played the course before so I suppose I should have a map,” I said.
“Then that will be two pounds per round,” Lindsay responded. “You can pay me.”
“Two pounds! I’ve paid more than that for an espresso drink!” I said.
Lindsay gave me a knowing glance.
I paid Lindsay six pounds to cover three days of golf during my stay. He handed me a small scorecard, about the size of a credit card, on which was printed a simple map of the course. I was ready to begin.
I played just four holes that first day and five holes the second day. The course was unlike any other I’d ever played in almost sixty years with the game. It’s “groomed” entirely by grazing sheep and cattle. There are no greens or fairways and all of the grass is at “grazing” length. There’s been no attempt to level the terrain and any undulations of the original dunes and the centuries of use of the land as a communal pasture are still there. There are also piles of sheep and cattle manure scattered about the course, although local rules permit a golfer to lift one’s ball from such “hazards” without penalty.
The map on my scorecard turned out to be essential. I was the only golfer on the course and I would not have found my way through the round without it.
Yet even with the map, I was often flying by the seat of my pants. I’d stand on a tee looking at the map and try to figure out where to hit my ball. Sometimes I’d see a flagstick protruding from the ground in the distance at about the place where the map indicated a hole should be. But just as often the course designer placed the hole behind a mound or a rock outcrop and it wasn’t visible from the tee. It was on such holes I learned that playing golf at Iona is also a matter of trust—a lot like the rest of the place. I’d hit my ball from the tee in the direction that seemed best, then go and find it, and figure out where to go from there. It was one step at a time.
On my third day of golf, I returned to the course for a final time with an intention to finish the final nine holes. My score of 50 for the first nine holes was respectable I suppose (considering the primitive course conditions), but I didn’t consider it to be special. The tenth, eleventh and twelfth holes were more of the same. Two of those were also blind (i.e. no flagstick was visible from the tee) so I continued to struggle.
As I came to the tee for hole #13, I was discouraged. I even thought of terminating my round then and going back to rejoin Mary Ann earlier than expected. But the 13th was a par 3—a shorter hole—and I figured it would surely be easier. Yet when I looked from the tee in the direction of the hole as indicated on the map there was no flagstick in sight—only grasses, dunes and rocks. Once again the flag appeared to be hidden.
According to the scorecard, the tee shot was supposed to be about 160 yards so I decided to use my wooden cleek club; I’d been stroking it fairly well that day. I hit a fine shot in the direction where I assumed the flag might be located. The ball flew over the outcrop and disappeared. As I walked towards where I expected the hole might be, I trusted that my ball could be found.
I rounded the rock outcrop, but no ball was visible—only high dune grass. “If my ball’s in that stuff, I’ll never find it,” I thought to myself. Yet something nudged me to keep going. So I walked on past the last dune and there was the flagstick—and my ball about thirty feet away from it. I stroked a nice chip shot with my jigger club to within two feet of the hole and made the putt for a par 3. I was elated.
The next hole (#14) was also a par 3, but in this case I could see the flag from the tee. Again I hit a fine wooden cleek to within thirty feet of the hole. I made another good chip shot with the jigger to within 12-feet of the hole. I made that putt too for another par! I was beginning to suspect that something special might be happening to me.
Hole #15 was a par 4. I hit a respectable drive and then two fairway shots to again be within 30 feet of the hole. I figured that a bogey 5 was within reach and that felt pretty good. There were no manure piles between my ball and the hole so for my next shot I chose to use my putter. The terrain was fairly level, although there was no need to “read” the green—because there was no green. Prior experiences with putting on the Iona course had shown me that my ball was going to hop along it’s intended path anyway, not roll. So I stroked my putt in the direction of the flagstick and watched my ball hop closer and closer and closer—and then fall into the hole! I had just made one of the longest putts of my entire season on a sheep-groomed green! And it was my third straight par; I was beyond elation.
Iona, like the Skeith Stone, is known as a “thin” place where the transcendent and miraculous sometimes happen. After my golf on holes #13 through #15—and my three amazing pars in a row—it was enough for me to believe.
I concluded my final nine holes at Iona with an exceptional score (for me) of 40. When I later told the bed and breakfast proprietor about my round he responded, “You should come back next August and compete in the Iona Open; you might win it with that score.”
It was the wildest round of golf I’ve ever played—and I loved it.
The sacred does not insist on its sacredness. It is there to be experienced—or not. It is patient, not demanding. We can seek it out, reverence it, turn our lives toward it, or we can walk right past… —Daniel Taylor from In Search of Sacred Places
Part of the special quality of Iona is its ordinariness. It’s a pleasant place to be sure, but its scenery isn’t spectacular in the ways of the Alps or the Rockies or even the east coast of Scotland. Yet Iona comes to one like few other places do. Maybe it’s because one learns to be more attentive at Iona—more expectant. Thousands of pilgrims come there each year; many claim to have been transformed by the experience. I was.
One of the most inspiring ordinary moments for me was my encounter with a man on a narrow lane that crosses the golf course and leads to the beach by “The Bay at the Back of the Ocean.” I was returning after my second day of golf. I approached the man from behind, and noticed that he was elderly and walked with a limp. He had an old dog awaiting him farther up the lane by a gate. He carried a black pail, and when I glanced inside I saw that the bottom was covered by a thin layer of round, smooth, white beach stones. I considered asking him about the stones and what he intended to do with them, but I refrained. When we reached the gate and joined his dog, I bid him farewell and went back to my residence nearby.
When I returned to the bed and breakfast, I asked the proprietor about the man. She said: “His name is Douglas. Each day he and his old dog go down to the beach to pick up stones and carry them back to his house. He’s using them to cover a lane leading from the road back to his house to help keep the mud at bay. He’s covered about half the lane now.”
The next day, as Mary Ann and I walked the road towards the village, we again met Douglas and his dog. He was carrying his bucket again, although it was empty this time since he was heading to the beach. Knowing what I did about Douglas, I engaged him in a brief conversation. I asked him about his beach pebble project. Here’s what I learned: He’s been carrying his bucket of stones—day after day—for a number of years; he figures he has several more years to go. Each day after he returns from his beach foray, he empties his collected stones out of that bucket at the point where he had left off the previous day.
It’s a slow, unspectacular process—yet I think it’s symbolic of a lot of life on Iona. Not much out of the ordinary happens there—people go about their daily tasks, animals graze, some folks pray. And through these honest and faithful (in the truest sense of the word) endeavors, over time, spectacular things happen—like the creation of a path paved with Ionan marble.
I am in the small chapel dedicated to St. Columba at Iona Abbey. It’s purported to also be his burial place. During Medieval times this was one of the most sacred places in all of Scotland. Today I’m the only one here. There’s a splash of sunlight on a chair across from me that comes from the small window to my back. It’s symbolic for me of the presence of Christ; yes, this is a very thin place.—from journal entry on Iona
Mary Ann and I were into our second full day on the island before we finally made our way to Iona Abbey. The site of the Abbey was originally settled by St. Columba in 563 AD. He and his followers built a monastery church that became the destination for many Medieval pilgrims. That original monastery was destroyed by Vikings during the 8th and 9th centuries, but more recently the Abbey has been rebuilt and today it welcomes thousands each year who come seeking something they need to find. For me, that something was sanctuary.
Mary Ann and I went to see the Abbey in the afternoon. It is a sacred place, although it’s hard to describe why. I’ve seen more magnificent churches and abbeys in Europe, but I haven’t encountered many that have the same sense of Presence as the one on Iona. I spent time in a small chapel that is purportedly the burial site of St. Columba. It probably isn’t, but that doesn’t seem to matter to most of us. I lit a candle in the chapel as a tribute to my mother and others who have gone on before me. Then I sat alone in silence—and thought—and wrote—and prayed. This too was healing time.
Gathered ones, we are assembled here as friends, visitors and family. We will travel together as pilgrims through this Abbey to give thanks for those who have come before us. We will travel to our new house of prayer for the coming months of winter in Michael Chapel. Along the way we will pause in different places in the Abbey to reflect and give thanks. —from the liturgy of the final fall service in the Iona Abbey church
We ate dinner that evening at the only hotel on the island that remained open. Iona scales back greatly during the winter months and many businesses close until spring. As we left the hotel after our meal, I noticed a posting on a bulletin board that said there was to be an Eventide service that night at a nearby guest house. Mary Ann and I decided to attend. At the conclusion of the Eventide service, we were invited to accompany others on to participate in a worship service at the Abbey Church itself. We gratefully accepted.
The service was well-suited to us as pilgrims since it involved moving from place to place within the church. The final movement was from the church itself into a nearby chapel; it was accompanied by a solo bagpiper. It was sublime.
Two shorten the road. —A Celtic saying
It was 10:00 PM when Mary Ann and I departed the Abbey that night. We had about a mile and a half to walk to our bed and breakfast on the other side of the island. We’d been over the road before in daylight, but this night was very dark and there was no moon. We didn’t have a flashlight with us, although we figured we might be able to use the small light of Mary Ann’s cell phone to guide our way. Then she informed me that her battery was nearly depleted. I gave some thought to contacting the bed and breakfast proprietor and asking him if he could come retrieve us in his car, but then two strangers emerged from a side street carrying a flashlight. They walked on ahead of us down the same lane leading towards our bed and breakfast. “This might be our Providential way home,” I said to Mary Ann. She nodded and put the phone back into her pocket. We set out to follow the two strangers.
We kept about twenty-five yards behind them, but their flashlight guided us perfectly for almost a half mile. Then they turned into a house—and we were on our own. Mary Ann pulled out her cell phone—it was in the red zone with only 13 percent battery left. We weren’t sure if that was enough to last the 20 minutes it would take for us to cover the final mile of our journey. If it stopped working before we reached our destination how would we make it the rest of the way? We would be at the far side of the island by then where few people live. There would not likely be anyone there to help us find our way.
Yes, the road is dark and the ground is rough
Most of the time a flashlight has to be enough.
We move forward one step at a time…
—Carrie Newcomer from A Small Flashlight
As the words of Carrie Newcomer’s song affirm, the approach for traversing dark and rocky terrain with only a small flashlight is to keep moving forward one step at a time. We did so, and our destination got closer and closer. Finally, we saw the lights of our bed and breakfast in the distance; we were home. After we arrived, Mary Ann’s phone battery showed less than 5 percent of its power remaining. But as the old saying goes: “Close only counts in horseshoes.”
And suddenly the sun broke through the sky…
How did I once believe
that there were riches more than this simplicity?
Or that any other tide could heal
these wounds that were deeper than pain.
Here I stood by heaven
and listened to the voice of God.
—adapted from a verse by Kenneth C. Steven
It’s customary for pilgrims on Iona to build and leave behind a small stone cairn at one of the island’s beaches. Mary Ann and I chose to build our cairn on the beach nearest the ‘sheep course’ where I’d experienced my inspired round of golf. We actually built two cairns on different days. The first was swept away by the tide, so we rebuilt it later. We don’t know the fate of our second cairn, although our bed and breakfast proprietor said she’d keep an eye on it for us.
I expect Mary Ann had her own motivations for building a cairn; I’ll only speak for myself. The cairn was, for me, a symbol—a memorial, if you will. It again recalled those in my life who had gone on before me during the previous three years. But the cairn also commemorated for me the kindnesses and care we’d experienced during our three weeks of Sanctuary Sojourn in Scotland—at the hands of friends, strangers, Providence and abundant beauty. After we rebuilt our cairn I offered a simple prayer of thanksgiving; it was enough for me.
Mary Ann and I then climbed the bluff behind the beach and began our final walk across the golf course back towards our bed and breakfast. We would be leaving Iona the following morning. As if on cue, the skies and ocean to our backs erupted into a blaze of orange, yellow and red.
And everything was fine—just fine.
It is afterward that everything is best understood. —a Celtic saying
This personal essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2016. All rights reserved.
I wish to acknowledge Helen Melville, the golfer whom I met while visiting the Lundin Ladies Golf Club during my journey to Fife in 2015. While writing this essay, I received from Helen a book that gives an account of her life and her immediate family’s history. Over time I’ve developed a special affinity for the picture that graces the cover of Helen’s book. I’ve learned that it’s a portrait of her at age 15; it was painted by an artist friend of her father’s.
The picture has come to me in two ways. I, of course, see Helen as a girl yearning to know a world beyond her adolescence. But I also see another 15 year-old girl in the year 1933 in Rockford, Indiana, in the United States. She’s peering from a window in her home and also seeking to understand what lies ahead. I kept this picture near me as inspiration while writing this essay; it’s been a wonderful companion. Thank you for this gift, Helen.