It’s been three years since I was preparing for my first solo journey abroad– my trip to Iona, Scotland. I wondered then how my week-long retreat at The Abbey, an ancient pilgrimage site, would impact me later. Our theme for the week, “The Pilgrimage of Life” had been part of what drew me.
Throughout those seven days at the end of September with forty others from around the world, we lived in a tight community, sharing dormitory rooms and eating family style at all the meals. I learned that sometimes it’s hard for me to be in a group because I’m so used to striking out on my own. But I also found that making the commitment to be a community of seekers, all supporting each other’s quest, brought many deep conversations and closeness– even in a short time.
One day we took a walk across the island following in the path of the monks who originally brought Christianity to that part of the Inner Hebrides, the barrier islands off the west coast of Scotland. During our walk across the island our retreat leader, Alistair McIntosh from Glasgow, narrated the walk in his Scottish brogue. We stopped to eat our packed lunch by the bay.
What I remember is the wind was always blowing on Iona, in varying degrees, and that day some of us sought shelter in the cleft beneath a rock. I sat near a woman named Beverly from Canada. We’d talked briefly before, and soon we got into a discussion about the benefits of solo travel. She told me about her painful divorce and how hard it had been as a single mother to her son. We both worked in healthcare and I found it easy to talk with her.
Another participant I got to know was Aldo from Holland. He was also easy to talk with, even though at times I had difficulty understanding his English. He had difficulty understanding my English, too, at first referring to my voice as weird. I told him it was my Southern accent and later he tried to cover his tracks by saying he liked to hear me talk! We ended up laughing about my facial reaction when he first called me weird– or at least the way I spoke was weird. (see post Southern Drawl)
Aldo and I were on the same morning chore team so sometimes we talked while cleaning out bathrooms. I found myself drawn to his questioning and willingness to be vulnerable that week. He was a man who’d experienced a harsh faith doled out by his father. He had problems with seeing God as a loving father given his life with his earthly dad. There was no pretense about Aldo, and that’s why he was so easy to be around.
Another person who made an impact on me was Iain. He was from New Zealand and had gone to college in the States. I had short conversations with Iain during our group and free time discussions. The deepest conversation was at the end of our retreat, when Iain and his wife, Linda took the same ferry to Oban. During that ride, sitting in the restaurant eating breakfast, we had a nice conversation and I felt a true connection with them both. By the time we arrived at the dock, they’d invited me to come to New Zealand and stay at the retreat center where Iain was the director.
Last week I received an email from Iain. He apologized that it had been almost a year since he’d last corresponded. He said he’d had some struggles that made it hard to write. I let him know that I understood, and shared with him and Linda the struggles I’d had during the same time. His response the next day was empathetic, and felt very supportive. Even over all the miles between here and New Zealand, I felt the warmth of his words.
I’ve been friends with Aldo on Facebook and have also had email correspondence. He’s fifteen years my junior and shared that he was encouraged that he and his wife were doing better, while he was sorry to hear about my marriage. Last week, we talked on Facebook and again, I was encouraged by my Iona friend.
Today, I was thinking of Beverly and discovered I’d overlooked an email from her in March. It was at the time when we’d just gone into lockdown. I was so preoccupied then by the pandemic and working through the divorce, that I had missed her email. I wrote her back, and connected with her in Canada. In going through the grief of divorce, I’ve been reminded of our conversation beneath the rock, how candid she was about that time in her life.
On our last day at Iona, I walked on the north beach for the first time and took pictures of the stunning beauty, a study in blues. I didn’t know that the person in this picture was Beverly, nor did I know that the next day we would leave at dark in that first group to go to the ferry and then spend part of the morning exploring Oban.
On Sunday at Iona, I was a little late getting to the worship service. I was probably detained by a morning walk by the sound, watching the sheep grazing beside the water, or perhaps I was late because I’d had a long conversation with a new friend. When I entered the stone sanctuary, the piano played a familiar hymn and I heard the voices of the congregation, “Then sings my soul, my Savior God to The,” I was startled, hearing that beloved hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” on foreign soil. I felt the buoyancy of my soul at that moment, surrounded by international pilgrims, seekers together. It was as if I heard the words for the first time “then sings my soul” and thought of the deep meaning of those words.
Last May, after Mama’s death, my son, Ross produced a poster with those words to be given as gifts to the residents of her nursing home. He’s been designing custom tee shirts of musicians for years. Ross told me he chose that song because it reminded him of his PaPa and he thought most residents would recognize and enjoy it.
For those nursing home residents, who’d been isolated in their rooms like Mama since the beginning of the pandemic, I think the colorful poster would bring cheer.
Now, those words remind me of the soulful connections that I made in Iona. Over all the miles and the years, we continue to sing as we make our way along the “Pilgrimage of life.”
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