Fiona MacLeod’s essay “Iona” is about an island the author lived on for a time in his youth, the lore of it he learned and the way it grew in his heart as he championed the Celtic Renaissance.
The introduction to that work provides the springboard I’m looking for this week’s challenge.
A few places in the world are to be held holy, because of the love which consecrates them and the faith which enshrines them. Their names are themselves talismans of spiritual beauty. Of these is Iona.
The Arabs speak of Mecca as a holy place before the time of the prophet, saying that Adam himself lies buried here: and, before Adam, that the Sons of Allah, who are called Angels, worshipped; and that when Allah Himself stood upon perfected Earth it was on this spot. And here, they add, when there is no man left upon earth, an angel shall gather up the dust of this world, and say to Allah, “There is nothing left of the whole earth but Mecca: and now Mecca is but the few grains of sand that I hold in the hollow of my palm, O Allah.”
In spiritual geography Iona is the Mecca of the Gael.
It is but a small isle, fashioned of a little sand, a few grasses salt with the spray of an ever-restless wave, a few rocks that wade in heather and upon whose brows the sea-wind weaves the yellow lichen. But since the remotest days sacrosanct men have bowed herein worship. In this little island a lamp was lit whose flame lighted pagan Europe, from the Saxon in his fens to the swarthy folk who came by Greek waters to trade the Orient.
Here Learning and Faith had their tranquil home, when the shadow of the sword lay upon all lands, from Syracuse by the Tyrrhene Sea to the rainy isles of Orcc. From age to age, lowly hearts have never ceased to bring their burthen here. Iona herself has given us for remembrance a fount of youth more wonderful than that which lies under her own boulders of Dûn-I. And here Hope waits.
To tell the story of Iona is to go back to God, and to end in God.
(Iona” first appeared in The Fortnightly Review in March and April 1900, was put into book form in the same name in 1905 and in 1911 was anthologized in volume 4 of MacLeod’s collected works.)
A simple, almost nondescript island in the Hebrides (there are more than 40 in all, most uninhabited), Iona also has been a magnet for spiritual expression for millennia. Iona was a druidic island before the arrival of St. Columba in 563 AD, and before that it was sacred to the moon-goddess Ioua. Once there were 360 standing stones around the island’s margin; an Iron Age fort once stood on Dun-I; a Christian monastery flourished for centuries, was destroyed several times by Vikings, sat fallow for centuries and then was rebuilt. Irish Catholics include it in their sacred pilgrimages along with St. Patrick’s Purgatory and Station Island. Tourists come from around the world to revel in its sacred landscape. My father visited there several times over his life, had a seminal encounter with something there in 1977 and used that to cultivate his own sacred landscape in Eastern Pennsylvania. Some of his ashes rest near Dun I.
I never visited the island, but it has been a permanent fixture in my spiritual geography for the past 40 years. (The name of my blog Oran’s Well derives from such a spring called Tobar Odhrain near Dun I, also called The Fountain of Youth, now lost; other similarly-named wells are found on nearby islands like Colonsay and back in Ireland.) Iona is a place where the veil is thin. It is located far away yet deep in me, of a past which is somehow wound in my fate; the work of resident energies became my father’s which are also mine as well as any who treasure and further thin places and resonant energies.
What makes a landscape sacred? From what do wells and mountains and rivers and islands inherit their power? Long habitation and use? Leys and magical rooks? Unconscious cultural material which has followed us for hundreds of thousands of years? Innate animal affinities which provide us with our native compass and speak our origin myths?
I’m leaving that up to you to answer. For this week’s challenge, imagine a place that is important to you, perhaps magical or spiritual. What makes it so for you, and how have you kept a relation with that place over the years? Is it a real place or an imaginary one? Have you lived there or only dreamt of visiting it? How has it affected your poetry? And how might it be affected by climate change and a fast-evolving humanity? (Iona was stripped of much of its cultural magic when the Gaelic language was lost to modernity—some would argue that its Christian foundations have slipped away, too–sadly for many, it is empty buildings and eternal wind.)
Think of: vistas like the Grand Canyon; depths suggested by the keel of a boat far at sea; the vastness of stars above and beyond; old-growth forest canopies waterfalls and sweeping fields; Edens and primaveras; gods and goddesses of place; the language of a culture wound into particulars of place-names; the wonder-worlds of childhood and fable and storybooks; the heart which is intimate with such places and calls them home.
Is there a sacred landscape in this world for you? Gather round and help us weave those shrines into a sacred Earth!