Voices of Iona

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.


Owning Knowledge

As I marvel at our technological development, I realize how exceptional a thing it is to be alive today. At the click of a button, we can access any language, find nearly any written document, pull up famous artwork that would have been restricted to museums even a generation ago. The life improvement experts at Amazon are even able to resurrect the dead voices of our loved ones and have them speak to us on the Echo—reading us stories, ticking off sports statistics, and announcing the weather. If we add fiber pills to the groceries list, Great Grandma Gertrude will ask us how we are feeling, and offer to add some prunes and suppositories to the list as well. All data points that work together to build our consumer, health, and political avatar.

I marvel even more, however, at Shakespeare who had virtually no reference materials. Without dictionary or library, if he wanted a story like Piramus and Thisbe on which to model his Romeo and Juliet, he had to remember it from grade school or hunt down a rare volume of Ovid. If he lacked a word, he had to overhear it from conversation, read it from a modern history book, or just make it up–and he did. Words like lackluster, grovel, and puking have entered our lexicon because of the creativity of the Bard. Knowledge and creativity we take for granted in the modern age.

If I want to know anything, and as I am not smart enough just to make it up, I can go to the library, find a book, listen to something on Audible. We are privileged to know anything, to quite literally acquire and possess knowledge—nearly all of which is available on the Google. The 1922 World Series. Einstein’s stomach ailments. How many of our ancestors died in the Civil War. It’s a magic for which in earlier times we might have been burned at the stake.

Yet the problem of instantaneous knowledge is that we do not have to work very hard for it. Like the friend in high school whose parents bought him a Mitsubishi 3000 GT vr4. And when after six months he had totaled it, they bought him a new one. When we think knowledge free, we do not take responsibility for it. Neither do we respect it.

What compounds this problem is that, knowing anything, we assume we know everything. Was the recent election stolen by Joe Biden? Or is Donald Trump a liar? (The jester may remind us these claims are not mutually exclusive.) No American lacks an opinion on this point, and almost no American is timid of sharing that opinion. In the sharing of that opinion often carries with it a scathing denunciation of those who hold an opposing opinion. Words like ignorant, threat, power-hungry, and cultists are frequently invoked. Though none of us counted the ballots to support our claims, each of us believes we stand firm on the side of logic while the other side just follows their hearts.

St. Augustine of Hippo said that when it comes to truth, we are not actually governed by emotion or logic. Rather, we are slaves to our Will, that oft-obeyed but rarely heard force inside us that insists on getting its own way. Thus, if we want to believe in a higher power, and that Mohammed is his prophet, or that Jesus is Lord, we will examine the evidence in such a way as to arrive at that conclusion. And if we do not wish to believe in God, we follow the same path. We grasp for truth with hands already clutching at its derivatives. We should, therefore, not fool ourselves into believing that we are just so rational that we can simply follow the truth. The Will–how humble we are, how disposed we are toward truth–will determine if we actually find it. St. Augustine would say—and he is a wise man who should be consulted more often on a variety of subjects—that we do not have a knowledge deficit. We have a pride problem. And we do not know what we think we know.

More knowledge has not solved human ills. Technology has, ironically, not made us smarter—certainly not wiser. Perhaps it has merely created more avenues to sin with impunity. Until I recognize that I am the problem—not other people—then my hands will do nothing to cultivate the land in front of me.

None of these recognitions negate the truth that it is a great time in history to be alive. But they do remind us of the burden that comes with knowledge. May our virtue prove fit shoulders to bear it with grace.