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A Search for (Spiritual) Health
Susan Wichterman

"What's for ye, won't go by ye." A wee Celtic phrase I heard over and over again these past two weeks. The words echoed in my mind as I gazed over the crystal waters and said farewell to sweet Iona, on my way to Fionnphort and then Craignure on the island of Mull, and then to another ferry bound for Oban, a small coastal village on the western shores of Scotland. And then, of course, to home.

It is said that Iona invites you; that it is where your heart opens and you touch your deepest needs; and for centuries has been thought of as a sacred isle.

I was not aware of any of this when I was invited to attend an Iona Women's Gathering two months ago, to take place in early May of this year. Up until this point, my acquaintance with Scotland had been scanty, even though in recent months, I had become enamored of Celtic music (through Lord of the Dance, Enya, and Riverdance) and a wee embarrassed to confess, enamored also of romance and adventure of the Scottish Highlands, thanks to historical novels such as "The Outlander" by Diana Gabaldon.

Although we were to learn of the history, wildlife, and geology of the island, each person was encouraged to think about what she most wanted and needed from this special time. It would be a time of reflection that would be woven together with journaling, poetry, and meditation, as we were to examine what our own spiritual practice was or might be. We would look at the unique and powerful traditions of Celtic spirituality, which honored nature, the woman as leader and collaborator with her male counterpart, the appreciation of beauty, the importance of Eros, as well as a guilt free approach to Christianity.

The first people to move into Scotland were the Celts. These pioneers followed a Hunter-gatherer, nomadic way of life. From 4,500 BC they began occupying mainland Scotland, starting to colonize the Hebrides later, around 3,800 BC. It is likely there were some inhabitants on Iona by 3,000 BC, and about 2,500 BC an agricultural way of life prevailed. Today, the majority of the 92 inhabitants are crofters who own farms mainly for the grazing of sheep.

Iona, this tiny piece of rock nestled in the Hebrides, is but 3.4 miles long and 1.6 miles wide. The geology of Iona is truly fascinating, as it contains some of the oldest rocks on the planet. On the west coast of the island, the rock formations are 2.8 billion years old. We ladies took frequent hikes along the coast and on the moors, and always returned with a handful of the ancient stones, nicknamed "Mermaid's Tears" or serpentine stones. They are nearly opaque with streaks of lime green running through them.

Above all, Iona is known as a place where "the veil is thin." Historians and archeologists believe it had been a religious Mecca, steeped in spirituality and mysticism, initially by the Druids or other pagan sects, and later when the first Christians arrived in the form of St. Columba in 563 AD.

St. Columba and his 12 followers arrived on the shores of Iona from Ireland and founded a monastery that became the heart of the Scottish church, and a world-renowned center of spiritual and cultural inspiration. Despite waves of Viking raiders and Norse settlers, St. Columba's monastery survived and became known as the "University of the North" for Christian studies. The fame of St. Columba attracted pilgrims to Iona from the 7th century and continues today. The island also served as a burial ground for 46 kings of Ireland and Scotland, including Duncan and Macbeth. The center of worship today, as in the past, is the Abbey, a reconstruction of the ancient building that housed the Benedictine order of monks.

For many, Iona is the jewel of the Hebrides, a sacred place to touch the heart. It touched mine. I am awakening.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill.
Where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.

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