One of the immediate collisions my students suffer when encountering Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for the first time is the inevitable why. Why risk life and fortune just to see a shrine? Many understand the desire to see Europe or to visit Washington or to take the family to Disney World. But few grasp what would compel people to a holy place when God is everywhere, as close as a conversation, as easy as turning on the television, as individual as listening to a podcast or playlist. They perceive input and feasting as the best avenues to spirituality, not knowing the blessings that come with quiet and fasting.
Pilgrimage is an experience far removed from the Modernist understanding. Many Christians and pagans alike find it a curious archaism at best, a fundamentalist madness at worst. The iconoclast, as cynical as he is unimaginative, casts it as a glorified vacation, while the symbolist, untethered in his philosophy, sees it strictly a metaphor. And, surely, there is a practiced homelessness in pilgrimage that appears to the outsider as a kind of madness. When we skeptically raise our eyebrows at the one who does not live in the world, does not strive after success or riches, we must recall that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. The teachings of Jesus, however paradoxical, are too little practiced today in their literal form. Yet for the Christians of the Middle Ages, who sometimes sacrificed the figurative understanding for the literal obscurity, walking in the footsteps of the Christ or of the saints was a meaningful and life-changing journey. Indeed, it is in the sacramental character of pilgrimage that metaphor and reality meet.
In Britannia, off the west coast of what was then called Dál Riata, on the edge of the former empire, still rests a lonely isle. In the crosswaters of Scotland, Ireland, and England, it is central enough to be reached by merchants and raiders but far enough away from the concerns of the mainland—from a world just as busy, just as harried, just as confused and uncertain of its future as our own. Iona was founded as a monastery by St. Columba over a hundred years after Augustine’s picture of the everyman’s journey toward the City of God, and it became a sacred locus for pilgrims to find themselves and to commune with the Spirit. The modern traveler can see that it is an unideal location to start a church, but it is a perfect place to raise a shrine. Pilgrimage should bring about reflection, meditation, contemplation, illumination; Iona would offer all this and more—a place, as Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale reminds us, for transformation. A great cloud of witnesses, all those who came before, from St. Columba to George Macleod, would gather here to spur the pilgrim on to charity and to good works. Heaven and earth would meet on this humble island, and the invisible Kingdom perhaps never felt more tangible than in Iona’s magnificent rocks, its beige sands, and its paradisal, clear blue waters that stretch into an azure horizon.
In this collection of poems, I take as my central theme the experience of pilgrimage, realized in the island of Iona, the British Isles, and beyond. All of literature can be distilled to two stories: either a stranger comes to town, or a hero goes on a journey. Or so my English teacher once told me. If true, then all stories are about the transformation that occurs in the liminal spaces of the pilgrimage. With that in mind, I have tried to craft each experience as something unique to each pilgrim: some of them real and some mystical (though perhaps not less real); some are true and some fictional (though, too, perhaps not less true); and all of them are shared by someone who passed that way before. If the saying is accurate that we take something of a place with us when we leave, and we also leave part of ourselves behind in that place, then historical memory must be a fathomless well indeed.
I hope you will join me on pilgrimage.