Yesterday I was trying to gather a few thoughts for the feast of Saint Columba, and it took my thoughts back to my one and only visit to the Island of Iona, which was probably well over twenty years ago. Back at that time, when I would have three weeks holidays in the summer to take, I would usually take two of those weeks at home with the family, and then spend the third week going somewhere to self-cater and do some hill walking, nothing too strenuous. In that particular year I was staying on the shores of Loch Linnhe, north of Oban, and south of Fort Willam. The walking was beautiful, within striking distance of Glencoe; Glen Nevis and the Caledonian Canal banks. and, believe it or not, the weather was beautiful.
Without wishing to be irreverent, it was also near Castle Stalker, where the final scene in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail was shot, referred to as Castle Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh!
One day I decided to head for Iona, taking the ferry from Oban to Mull; the bus to the Mull Ferry Terminal at Fionnphort, then the short Ferry hop from Fionnphort over to Iona; a bit of a trek, it must be said, but well worth it. If you’ve never been, Iona is a place where, as soon as you step off the ferry, you have a sense of the sacred, and of the abiding presence of God. I thought of Columba making his tour of the island on the day of his death, and blessing every nook and cranny, before being helped to raise a final hand in blessing on the island that same night, after he collapsed on his way to pray the midnight office. Certainly, that final day of blessings has left a lasting impression that even the Vikings couldn’t eradicate. I had always intended to go back to Iona and a couple of years ago I tried to book my retreat on the island, but, for a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out. Someday I will go back and spend real time.
I’ve paid more visits to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. Lindisfarne was founded from Iona by Saint Aidan, almost 40 years after Columba’s death. Minsteracres, the Passionist Retreat Centre where I lived and worked as Novice Master for a few years back in the 1990’s, is in Northumberland, so Holy Island was only a short drive away. Also, it was very accessible via a causeway, so long as the tides were in your favour; with no need to be waiting on ferries to get there and back. Trumping Castle Stalker and Monty Python, quite near to Lindisfarne, and also in Northumberland, is Alnwick Castle, which starred as the magical Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry during the 2001 Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and the 2002 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets films. By then, however, I had left Minsteracres and Northumberland, to take up my role as rector and parish priest at Mount Argus in Dublin, the mother house for the Passionists in Scotland and Ireland.
Of course, Mount Argus itself was used in the TV series, The Ambassador, back in the late 1990’s, with Pauline Collins starring as the British Ambassador to Ireland; and again, in the film, The Professor and the Madman, starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn. That was filmed quite a few years back but only came out in 2019 because of legal wrangles. Both of these very fine productions used the old monastery at Mount Argus, but even the new monastery was used as the rural undertakers in a fairly recent Irish drama called Red Rock. We live in times where the sacred and the profane are always rubbing shoulders but, in times to come, and well after Monty Python, and even Harry Potter, have been long forgotten, we will still be visiting Iona and remembering Columba, and visiting the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and remembering Aidan. The sacred has always outlived the profane, and always will. No doubt, too, people will still be visiting Dublin and remembering Saint Charles of Mount Argus, the Passionist saint noted for his ministry of healing, hope and reconciliation, in the late 1800’s.
Back home in Bishopbriggs, all is well. Father Gareth had a great time with his mum in Wales and, thankfully, she is keeping well. He returned with the usual red suitcase full of chocolate. Father Antony will have a well-deserved period away with his family next week. Father Justinian is being collected regularly to share a meal with family now it’s allowed.
So, as ever, protect yourselves, your loved ones and others, and protect Christ in your lives.