Susan Salot Gaumer

© Copyright 2022 by Susan Salot Gaumer

Photo of Columba's bay courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo of Columba's bay courtesy of Pixabay.

In 1984 my husband and I spent time in Scotland where he presented a scientific paper at a meeting in Glasgow. Expecting a tired industrial city, by surprise we discovered Glasgow to be lively and delightful. The Lord Mayor, hoping to attract more such events, hosted a grand dinner for the gathered scientists in their splendid art gallery. While Dick was in meetings I explored lovely gardens, Whistler’s childhood home, and meandered into several churches. Long interested in Celtic spirituality and the life of St. Columba, I had been hoping we could visit the island of Iona, accessible from Glasgow via a train ride to Oban, a bus ride across to Mull and then a ferry to the island, but it was not to be. Plans had already been made to connect with people in York, England, and then to head back home.

Yorkminster, the ancient, grand, gothic cathedral, suffered a devastating fire just weeks before we got there. Full of soot, the church smelled awful and there were pieces of architecture strewn around the floor, marked with the locations from which they had fallen. It was a terrible sight to take in as I remembered how overwhelmingly beautiful that cathedral had been the first time I visited. Restoration efforts had already begun, but a daunting amount of cleaning and rebuilding lay ahead. Where Glasgow had proved to be a delightful surprise, visiting York was heartbreaking. As we headed to the train station to begin the journey home, I reflected on how easily expectations can be thrown to the winds by surprises—some pleasing, some very disappointing.

While waiting for the train in York, Dick went back into the station to buy a newspaper. I was waiting on the platform with our bags when an older woman suddenly came up to me and said “I see you are wearing a cross so you must be a Christian. Have you ever been to Iona?” I told her I was a follower of Jesus, but that I had never been to the island. She then told me this story: “My husband’s death a few weeks ago has completely undone me. Last Saturday my sister, worried about me, wanted me to go with her and her husband to Iona for a day. I’ve never been a believer and didn’t want to leave home, but she insisted, so I gave in. It took a long time to get there and it rained most of the way. Finally on the island, we took a narrow path up a long hill where we planned to picnic. They went on ahead while I paused to look at the sea. Suddenly I was overcome by a feeling of peace like nothing I’ve ever experienced before and I knew in some mysterious way that my husband was all right. I guess it was God letting me know.” As the train approached, smiling, I turned to the woman and said simply, “Yes, I’ve been to Iona.”

Thin places” in the Celtic tradition are locations where the distance between heaven and earth is felt to be diminished, the presence of God is experienced as very near. Iona has long been described as such a “thin place” where life-giving spiritual encounters are known to have happened. Many people make pilgrimages to Iona seeking spiritual refreshment and closer encounters with holiness. The woman from York had had no such spiritual expectations; that God touched her there was surely God’s doing, not hers. I understood and identified deeply with her experience of the holy on that island, although my actual visit to Iona wouldn’t happen for more than twenty years.

Expectations were high as my husband and I flew to Scotland as part of my sabbatical pilgrimage in 2007. We were to join the Iona Community for a weeklong ecumenical experience, something we had looked forward to for years. Upon our arrival in Edinburgh we learned that our luggage had gone to Amsterdam and could not be delivered out to Iona. Joining the pilgrimage two days late wasn’t easy because a community of the faithful had already largely formed, but we made our way in slowly as delayed pilgrims. Worship in the ancient abbey was meaningful; kitchen duties assigned to our group helped us get to know a few folks. A few days later we elected to take the “long hike” that would cover much of the island. It was a beautiful day, but hard going up steep inclines; skirting swampy bogs proved to be challenging in the low areas. Needing to jump over a boggy place, hands reached out to help me as I slipped, but not quite in time. I ended up knee-deep in mud, feeling very foolish. Was this turning out to be a spiritual experience in a holy place? Not really!
But then, at the top of a hill, we looked out over the water toward Ireland. Our guide told us that this was the place where Columba probably landed with twelve of his companions. I recalled that Columba, a learned Christian monk, had gotten into a dispute about a translation of the psalms that became a political nightmare for him and then got him banished from his Irish monastic community. Did they really make him and his companions set out by sea in wicker and animal skin boats, currachs, with only an oar to steer, utterly dependent on the wind and tides to deposit them on land somewhere or be driven out into the ocean to perish? Surely falling into a bog was not as bad as all that! As I sat there in the sunshine the trials and tribulations of the past few days slipped away. I relaxed, feeling a deep kinship with Columba, whose own pilgrimage to Iona had been far from easy. Credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland, Columba encountered hardships I could not even imagine, yet here I was in that same place, inspired by his sense of Godly purpose, surrounded by the fruits of his holy intent. God was with Columba, a true pilgrim, and he surely knew it. In that place I, too, sensed the near presence of Christ. There on that beach I could say again with a smile, “yes, I’ve been to Iona,” knowing the place for what it is—a “thin place” where God’s surprising nearness brings hope that exceeds expectations and turns dreams into reality.

Susan is an Episcopal priest (retired) who divides her time between New Orleans and Whidbey Island in Washington State.  She lives and travels with a golden doodle named Penny.

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