Saint Columba loved his Irish homeland. Having organized monastic communities in Derry and Durrow, he was an influential leader in Irish Celtic Christendom. But the story goes that Columba offended one of the kings of Ireland who then exiled him to Scotland in 563 C.E. So for the sake of peace, he left home, sailing north. The ship landed on the small island of Hy, known today as Iona. Storytellers say that when Columba came ashore on Hy, he looked back and could no longer see Ireland. Homesick and grieving, Columba cried, his large tears turning the rocks green, a remembrance of the Emerald Isle he had left behind. To this day, one can find green rocks at Curragh Bay, the place where Columba was said to have landed.1
Fourteen centuries later I found myself on these same rocky shores, turned green by Columba's tears. While Columba arrived as an exile, I came as a pilgrim. Columba and his monks established a way of life on the island that lay the foundation for a deep spirituality that continues to this day. Iona was once the hub from which monks traveled to share life with the Pict tribes on the Scottish mainland. Now the island serves as a spiritual crossroads, a place of pilgrimage for thousands of Christians every year. On the cold July day that I landed, I was weary and wounded, and like Columba, I could have cried large emerald tears if those tears had not already run dry. I had not been exiled from my homeland, but I was running away. After two exhausting years working with urban youth in Hollywood, CA, I was looking for a change, for a renewal of my spirit. Iona offered a different way of living, one rooted in the ancient Celtic traditions of leaders like Columba and Patrick.
It was the present day expression of these ancient Christian traditions that drew me to the island. The vision and mission of the contemporary Iona Community also attracted me, so I came to do six weeks of volunteer labor. George Macleod, a Presbyterian pastor, founded the Iona Community in 1938 to find new and relevant ways of living out the gospel in everyday life.2 His vision was to rebuild the thirteenth century Benedictine abbey that rested on the foundations of Columba's sixth century monastic community. Fueled by his passion for social justice as an expression of his Christian faith, Macleod brought together fellow pastors and prison inmates, who worked side by side rebuilding the cloisters and monastic buildings. While members of the Iona Community live all over the United Kingdom, they gather yearly on Iona. They also welcome to the island visitors from around the world to share in their worship and work. Staff members and volunteers serve as maintenance crew, housekeepers, cooks, shop keepers, and program staff for the Community's two retreat centers. I came ready to work in the kitchen and in housekeeping.Rachel Grassley (2001 Krista Colleague) served for two years with the Presbyterian Church USA Young Adult Volunteer Program in Hollywood's Urban Project. She recently finished her Masters of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary and is on track to be ordained as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament which is a fancy title for "Pastor." She enjoys living in a Fuller Intentional Community where they share meals, bi-monthly meetings, parties, and quarterly retreats in sunny Pasadena, California.