It was such a lovely day. We were not supposed to get to Staffa that afternoon – we only go to the Treshnish Isles during the first pilgrimage in July, or if the weather is too bad for us to get to St Brendan’s Isle. That particular day was our pilgrimage day to InchKenneth, but Mark offered us an extended trip back via Staffa. Everything went beautifully from early morning. We all woke up on time, we managed to avoid traffic hour (the sheep and Highland cows that still don’t realise grass does not grow on the one-lane roads of Mull) and we started our sailing from Fionnphort with great weather and the right winds.
After all these years, I am still amazed at how beautiful and peaceful the Isles can be. As we slowly sail towards InchKenneth, once the sails are up and the wind takes over, all you hear are the waves and the birds. In may ways, sailing itself is an important part of our pilgrimage, because this is how the Saints travelled from one isle to the another. This is the silence they heard, and the stillness they felt. This rhythm of the ocean, the feeling that you depend its moods, that you are somehow related to its waters, to its winds – there is something profoundly spiritual about all of this. You end up praying for the ocean as for a brother; you end up blessing its waters and its winds for the love you feel for the God Who made them all.
I remember the first time I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land – the thing that left the strongest impression on me was the desert itself. When I went to the Holy Mountain the first few times, I was in awe at the mountain itself – those narrow paths through the bushes, the abandoned hermit caves I stumbled across, the wild flowers, the boiling hot air of the Greek summer, the complete lack of movement – all of that brought me closer to the Saints than anything else.
It is such a blessing to visit the ruins of ancient Celtic monasteries, sketes, hermit caves, monastic bee-hives etc – it is such a blessing to stand where the Saints stood, and to pray where they prayed more than a millennium ago. But all of that would not be complete without the experience of the nature that surrounded them, the nature that shaped their prayer and their spiritual life. Many years ago, when I returned from Athos after my first visit, I confessed to my spiritual father that I felt guilty that I spent most of my time in the forests of the mountain instead of the monasteries, to which he replied ‘remember that it was the mountain that shaped the Saints who built the monasteries, not the other way around’.
It is so tempting to jump steps in our spiritual life. In theory, we want to trust God entirely, but we do not want to put ourselves in the context that would teach us how to do that. In theory, we want to be humble, but we do not want to expose ourselves to the context that would teach us humility. All our pilgrims come to the Isles because we love the Celtic Saints and we want to learn from them, we want to meet them in a more personal, direct way by praying with them, in the lands where God blessed them. An essential part of that personal meeting is to experience the context that shaped them – the ocean, the winds, the isles themselves – and to allow them to grow roots in our hearts. This is all I pray for. This is all we can hope for.