In the summer of 2019, I had a three-month sabbatical from my ministry as incumbent at St Aidan, Toronto, and my husband David Howells, also an Anglican priest, was between ministries as an interim priest in the diocese. I knew that I wanted to spend the first month walking, so that the all-consuming thoughts about work would have a good chance to roll off my shoulders and be left behind for a while. The question was, where to walk?
I considered walking part of the Camino de Santiago, as several friends have done, but it didn’t feel quite right; it didn’t feel like my land. Instead, what began to coalesce was the thought of finding a path that would take me through my own home country of Scotland, where I was born and spent my early childhood. 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.
St. Aidan, patron of my parish, was a monk on Iona in the seventh century. Iona was the cradle of Celtic Christianity, and when the King of Northumbria in 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.
These two holy islands associated with Aidan, Lindisfarne and Iona, are some 550 kilometres apart on foot, linked by no single pilgrims’ way but by a series of ancient footpaths and old roads, some well signposted and 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, we set out on May 5 from Lindisfarne with June 1 as our planned arrival date on Iona.
David and I were also celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary that year. I pictured the pilgrimage as a special experience that we would share together, as we walked in prayerful contemplation from Lindisfarne, where we had spent retreats as young clergy newly ordained in England, over the hills of the border country, past the great ruined abbeys of Jedburgh and Melrose, along the shores of Loch Lomond, up the West Highland Way, and finally to the islands of Mull and Iona. It would be a pilgrimage of the heart and soul, in the footsteps of the great St. Aidan, after whom one of our sons is named. What could be more romantic?
The reality was far more challenging, physically painful, emotionally tough and spiritually rewarding than anything I could have imagined, and our experiences were so markedly different that we each tell the story now from our own perspective.
Caught up in wonder
I am married to a planner, and our support team was her UK sister and partner. Perhaps unwisely, I chose to let them do the planning – unwise, not because they needed supervision, but because I did not get engaged in owning this early part of the walk. As we walked, I was frequently irritated by what seemed like bad planning or odd choices. But actually, the choices they made in careful planning were always correct. Next time I will take ownership in all the stages. Planning and route-finding for an un-commercialized pilgrimage are vital. Hindsight cost me a lot of grumpiness and frustration. Perhaps this, for me, was a necessary transition out of busy parish life and into the silent walking of pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage is not conversational. Paths tend to be single file, so chatting is hard and distracts you from finding your footing on irregular surfaces, and the wind tends to whip your words away over the hill before they have a chance of being heard. Even being together, much of the walking was silent. That too requires some adjustment. We would walk through the morning and stop for a path-side lunch. These lunches were the springs of life! First the feet were set free, then the bodies reclined, and then conversation over a sandwich.
The third challenge was footwear and rain-proofing. I can only suggest that buying where you are walking is better than buying from MEC, which is Canada-centric. I replaced everything enroute.
By now, reading this, I ask, “Why go?” Well, it took me about half the pilgrimage to discover this. “Dis-cover” sounds to me like taking the covering off something. It began for me with clouds as we crossed Glen Coe. We paused for a break as we entered this huge valley, made by a collapsed volcano and then chiselled out by glaciers ages ago. As we descended into the glen, we stopped for a rest after the long morning walk. Lying back on the heather and looking up, there were clouds – white against a cobalt blue sky. Clouds of such magnificence and wonder, mesmerizing in their shape and sheer volume. I was caught up in wonder. I could have spent all day looking at them. What was actually happening was the Spirit finally finding a way to open my eyes and my heart and turn down the noise of my mind and my beloved “critical thinking” mode. Pilgrimage is not a problem to be solved, a project to complete or an item on a bucket list; it is removing yourself from a place where you know, where you are in control, where you are able to carry on as normal. Pilgrimage, for me, was the dismantling, the stripping away of my interface with daily life and leaving me emotionally and spiritually undefended and open.
I never quite recovered from the clouds: even when they were emptying sheets of rain on us, I continued, to Lucy’s slight bemusement, to look up and say, “See how magnificent the rain looks as it sweeps over the cliff above us!” In fact, I was astonished by waves in the sea, by grasses blown by the wind, by the gulls that could hang in the air then tumble, screaming down only to sweep up for sheer joy, by the stonework of a wall made by hands long dead and farms long abandoned by the Clearances. Darkly I found an inner fury at the English wealthy for the callous disregard they had had of “inconvenient peasants” farming where they wanted to shoot pheasants for fun. Pilgrimage opened a way of perceiving. The simplicity of mist spoke of holiness in creation. A beautiful old country estate house spoke of arrogance and greed.
Each day ended in a pub. We called up our support team (whose support, I slowly realized, more and more came from their grace-filled openness of heart) and had a welcomed drink. It was not the distance walked that finally mattered to me; it was the breaking open of my narrowed, outcome-oriented vision, my defences of logic and practicality. It was the awakening of my soul to the unnoticed beauty of dew on the moss in a stone wall, the majesty of a lake, the surge of the sea against rocks, crashing as if for the sheer joy of it all, and God’s invitation to me to dance in this, to delight in it, and continue to notice it. For that too is where God is!
Pilgrimage is about letting go
I knew we were approaching the pilgrimage with different agendas when David baulked at the idea of walking barefoot across the sands that separate Lindisfarne from the mainland. Pilgrims to Holy Island, as it is called locally, have been crossing barefoot for many centuries, following tall wooden staves that mark a safe passage at low tide. “It’s a pilgrimage tradition!” I urged him. “It’ll be cold and uncomfortable,” he objected. David is a rationalist to my idealism, and he was rightly worrying about keeping our feet dry and unscathed. He is also doggedly loyal and supportive, so took his shoes and socks off as I did, and plodded dubiously across the cold, wet sands on that first hour of our long walk.
I began to question the wisdom of my dream when David strained a knee on Day 4. It grew increasingly painful daily, and he was fearful of a permanent injury. Then we both developed blisters – the walkers’ curse. Small but fiercely painful, they made every step a mental challenge. And we still had hundreds of miles ahead of us, with some challenging terrain. We took a rest day then carried on, David gritting his teeth while I took on the role of encourager and official optimist, while silently wondering if we should give it up.
The turning point came when we faced a two-day hike along the West Highland Way, out of reach of roads and phone range, and so without the safety net of our support duo picking us up, bringing us to our tent and feeding us. We would be carrying extra gear and staying in a hostel between two days of gruelling, rugged walking. It was decision time: press on and take the risk of not being able to make it or wave a white flag now and simply drive the rest of the way to Iona. We decided to press on.
Miraculously, a new pair of walking boots, a knee brace, plus some encouraging words from a German physician staying in the hostel, gave David renewed confidence and the comfort in walking that he’d been desperate for. The mood between us shifted and the land offered up breathtaking beauty with vast banks of bluebells, the long loch and then the highlands opening up before us. The day we emerged successfully from the challenge of that stage is the one day we asked another walker to take a picture of us both, and I still see the quiet, weary joy in that image.
Pilgrimage is about letting go, it seems to me. I had to let go of my preconceived ideas of how it would be, and of how we would experience it together. I had to let David’s experience be his, and mine be mine. We continued to walk together, but we were on different pilgrimages internally, spiritually. I let go of the romantic image I’d had of the two of us chanting psalms and singing hymns as we walked, and instead found simple Celtic prayers like mantras to recite silently. And the more I was able to let go of, like a ship shedding excess cargo, the more I was able to receive.
The day we walked onto the tiny ferry that would take us the last mile to Iona, I felt not euphoria or victory but a quiet, deep sense of peace and gratitude. We spent three days there, joining in the nourishing worship of the Iona Community in the abbey, and letting the gifts of the pilgrimage soak in. It felt like coming home: home to our final destination, but also home to my Scottish roots and home to a Celtic expression of Christianity that is profoundly life-affirming and creation-centred. The pilgrimage was over, and a prayer from the Iona abbey welcome service gave words to what was in my heart:
You, God, have brought us to this thin place
where earth and heaven embrace,
the past interweaves with the future,
and what we want is replaced by what we need.
…. God, you are good to us. Amen.