Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A day in Iona...*

  



The ferry at Fionnphort
 
Water laps against the black metal hold of the smallest Caledonian MacBrayne ferry I have ever seen. A sign informs me that there is space for only eight cars and seventy-seven passengers, but on this cramped deck, even these numbers seem improbable.


We are soon skimming the sound between Mull and the tiny island, with the effortlessness of a smooth, flat pebble, bounding in slow motion away from the small pier at Fionnphort. Almost instantly, the island comes into focus. The landscape speaks of a lost era: small cottages and crofts, no visible vehicles and the Abbey to the right, set back from the shoreline. Its spire is imprisoned in scaffolding and brings a stark reminder of the need for change, even here. In no time, we breach the final few yards of swelling tide, and reach the small, angular, concrete jetty that is waiting for us.

Arriving in Iona is like letting go of your parent’s hand at a silent adventure playground for the soul; we alight the ferry and swarm wordlessly in various directions. A tall white-whiskered gentleman stands, as if sentry to the first house we pass. Sucking on his pipe, he reads each visiting face, surveying our intent.
Despite the numbers who have held the island to ransom for the day, there remains a tangible air of calm. The sea breeze hits my face with the same refreshing effect of an early morning shower. Senses are awakened and I feel a surge of anticipation, as the history of this tiny island speaks into my present. To meander slowly is a rare luxury. We pass Celtic crosses on the road and I have time to consider another road leading to a cross.

As we saunter on, the Abbey comes into view again. I am soon searching in the grounds for the weather-beaten headstone at the grave of John Smith, the Labour leader, whose untimely death shocked me in 1994. I am struck by the fact that this occurred in the last century; that the years that have passed have been light years of political, world and technological change.


Inside the Abbey we read requests for prayer and feel like children once again. This time, we are overhearing a forbidden, adult conversation, as various requests for healing  litter a wooden cross with colourful post-it notes. In the grounds outside, a ball zips back and forth across the grass. Several teenage boys, oblivious to the hallowed turf beneath their feet, are simply enjoying the game, and the day.


Along the single track road, past the golf course, we reach "Camas Cuil an t-Saimh" or "the Bay at the Back of the Ocean," whose name conjures up unspoilt, idyllic allure. Here, waves sweep to shore in swirling blues, greens and whites and splash gently around my bare feet as the world and I become one in worship. Perfect stones glisten like polished diamonds on the light brown sand, and to both east and west, the incline of the hills sweep away into the green headlands. Travelling west from here, the next stop is North America, but I have no desire to leave this beach.
 
Painting by Elise Ferguson.
Wandering slowly from this sacred place, we discover that the camera’s manual winding mechanism has become infiltrated by specks of sand from the beach. I begin to worry that the whole spool will be spoilt, erasing the record of the moment just passed, but the whisper of God instantly reminds me that the Divine Presence cannot be caught on film.


We are soon scuttling back across the water in our tiny ferry. The island may not miss us, but, in the years to come, we will regularly recall our trip, and determine to return again one day. Back home, we paint Celtic crosses on two pristine stones picked carefully from "the Bay at the Back of the Ocean" and place them in our back garden to enshrine in our memories the day we spent on Iona.



*It was Wednesday 7th August 2002 when my wife Jillian and I visited the island. 

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Golden Walls, Fading Fields (part one): Benjamin

Joanna stumbled suddenly and unexpectedly upon the field.  And instantly her beating heart became still. The silence scared her. Glancing down, she saw that her angular body was shimmering and, simultaneously, she acknowledged that it belonged to her and that she did not recognise it at all. It seemed to glide and hover in sync with her instincts. With a simple suggestion of her thoughts, she would tilt and rear forward and the swiftness and complete integration of mind, spirit and whatever this thing that seemed to be her body was, scared her even more.

As far as she could see to the east, west, north and south, Joanna could make out four gigantic walls. Gold coloured, they rose at 90 degree angles from the yellow brown edges of the colossal field. Instantly, in collusion with the thought that crossed her mind, she reached the south facing wall and began to examine it with her probing, automatic hands. It seemed impenetrable and as quickly as the thought reached her mind, Joanna had circumnavigated its entire distance, checking for a gap or opening of any other kind. Even as she rose slightly from the surface of the ground to examine the towering walls, a bead of sweat, the first reminder of her former humanity, dripped from her temple as she realised that the field was imprisoning her.

A slight breath of wind whispered through the field. The ankle length grass was tinged with a dusty hue as if it had clearly been starved of rain for a long time. Joanna's mind was racing and her body jerked helplessly in obedience at every hopeless memory of her previous existence. She pictured her final moments, alone in her house in one of the finest hamlets of Capernaum. She had watched as the household servant had positioned her vast collection of goblets next to the fruit bowl and the water pot. It had been the elderly hand's final task for the night, before leaving to go to her sleeping quarters. Joanna had nodded to her as she left, but had not seen fit to utter a goodbye. Her final act had been to fall asleep by the open fire where the servant had found her cold, lifeless body in the chair the next morning.

The memory suddenly sparked hope in Joanna as she recognised that she was, even now, still alive. Her recollections of life were intact and she had not been obliterated in the way that she been brought up to believe she would. From the youngest age possible, after every synagogue trip, her Sadducee father would force her to recite verses contained in the tefillin he wore around his head. The law of Moses clearly stated that there was no afterlife and Joanna had viewed this as a basic tenet of what she believed...

Now a shiver jolted through her graceful body, as a figure suddenly appeared from the wall. As if it had simply muscled its way through it. And in mimicry of Joanna's previous swift movements across the field, the figure darted forward and instantaneously reached her. Face to face, the recognition was obvious and, overwhelmed, Joanna began to weep. Within a second, her arms had entwined the man. He remained silent but his arms guardingly became conjoined to her, giving in to the caresses that Joanna now lavished upon him. And as she began to speak, he glanced around and touched her lips with his bronzed hand as if in warning.  Flowing from his touch came spirit residue which sparked Joanna's mind with a series of memories that flickered before her eyes... 

Her seventeenth birthday and her parents leading the boy he used to be, and his father, through their old oak door... The fathers sharing wine in a corner and talking in hushed, business-like tones... Joanna's mother leaving for the kitchen...leaving them alone to find the first fruits of their love...their stilted conversation...My name is Benjamin....I am Joanna...a family meal together...the excited tones of her mother after the visit...a real gentleman, she had said...one week later another visit, with the bride price and offer of marriage...her father's acceptance and the flowing of more wine in celebration of the day to come...and one year later, the wedding ceremony...his widening smile as he peeled back her veil to reveal her perfect olive skin and black hair held tightly in a tiara of violet mandragora... the rabbi's cheerful blessing...the joy of dancing.... and a modest home furnished by Benjamin for her...their seven years there together, alone, but for the final days...the happiest seven years of her life...

Slipping from her grasp, Benjamin suddenly flashed to the edge of the north wall and motioned with his arm for Joanna to follow. All the time his pointing finger hovered near his mouth. Straight away, she was on the move, but, she stopped herself a short distance away from him. As she waited, frozen to the spot, she concentrated on controlling her mind. Any slip and her body could move involuntarily. Her breathing seemed non-existent. As she focused on this, she began to recognise a completely different rhythm to what she had previously known as her heartbeat. It pulsed in waves which could crash inside her or tumble through her body in a way that made her want to run.

Then Benjamin exhaled abruptly. "We're going through."

He grasped her arms and pulled. The sudden motion left Joanna feeling woozy. She was transferring her weight onto both feet at once and the wall seemed to melt into her as she moved. Benjamin's warm arms were feeling for her and grasping around her slender waist and as he was doing so, spirit residue was kicking in again...

...she was with him near the shores of Galilee as a breeze blew across from Decapolis...they were dallying and he was stopping her and holding her in his arms...two lovers at pains to walk at ease...

Benjamin grasped again and they were falling, stumbling and pulling themselves onto their feet again. Sensing that memories were transmitting from his body, he broke himself free from Joanna as soon as they were standing upright.

She looked all around her. It was uncannily similar to the place they had come from. A second field. A second set of giant walls. Yet it was not the same. Joanna twitched, as if to advance and inspect the tall, golden structures as she had done in the first field, but Benjamin stopped her with a motion of his hand as a look of alarm swept his ageless, tanned face. The breeze, which had been so slender and welcoming was now catching her by the throat and an angry, grey sky was frowning down on them. And as he touched her fingers again, he transferred the memory of his passing...

...he, lying across their bed...she, by the bedside,  holding his hand as the fever swept the life from him...he, smiling with his very last...she, trying to hold herself together...and knowing she was losing him ...and their knowledge that his brother was standing in the next room...

Benjamin's grasp slipped from her fingers once more as Joanna looked up to see a figure rearing in from the north-east corner of the field. Literally closing in on her at the speed of light...