The last few days on Iona have blessed us with vivid blue skies hosting a rare winter sun that reflects off opalescent seas. I can’t seem to pin down the correct paint colors to use because the shade of the water changes every time I look up to draw.
I arrived at the end of last week after spending two days hiking among the Glencoe mountains about halfway between Skye and Iona. I took three buses and two ferries to get to the island and stepped off the last boat of the day as the dark pressed around me. As I walked off the ferry onto the dock laden with my backpack and shopping bags of food, I was warmly greeted by John, the owner of the Iona Hostel. The hostel is at the north end of the island about three kilometres from the ferry, so I was very grateful for a ride. Only a few people on the island are allowed cars and lucky for me, John is one. I had heard many wonderful things about John before I arrived from folks on Skye, and he quickly made me feel at home as we chatted in the car on the short ride down the road.
The island is very small and one can walk around the circumference in a day but I can’t seem to make any progress farther than the wee ‘town’ that sits by the ferry pier. Every time I plan to head to the south end of Iona, I get distracted by the myriad of interesting things to draw along the road. There are two stores that are open this time of year- the tiny Sparr grocery store and the Iona Craft Shop that carries handmade gifts and brightly coloured skeins of yarn. It also sells delicious strong coffee with a side of friendly conversation. The two larger hotels and other shops and Heritage Center are closed for the winter season but there are sill a handful of tourists that ride the ferry from the Isle of Mull to visit the famed Iona Abbey for the day.
I have now been here four days and it already feels like four weeks will not be enough time. I know this sounds a bit strange considering the size of the island, but there is a feeling here that’s hard to name. The peace of the island starts to seep into your skin as you walk the white sand beaches and gaze out over the rocky coastline. It washes over you as the quiet takes hold and you find you can actually rest. Not just stop, but truly rest. On Iona the earth and air and water all conspire to help you slow down and sit still for a spell. People are drawn here because of the rich history of the Abbey but quickly realise that the land itself is also sacred.
Life in the hostel is simple. There is a common room where computers and phones are highly discouraged and I actually haven’t pulled out my computer for more than a few minutes a day since I arrived. Luke and Emily and Jo work in the hostel and are constantly cooking delicious meals and fresh bread that we share around a well worn wood table. Their generosity and kindness create a cozy space that feels like a family. The community that John fosters here is part of the reason people return again and again. Scott, a wonderful photographer, was the prior artist in residence, and when he returns home this week I will move from one of the bunks into the bothy. As I am now the current artist in residence and am not working at the hostel, I am free to spend my day just as I please. I have been creating two to three drawings a day and am excited to be attempting some larger drawings on a 12 x 16″ pad of thick watercolour paper I ordered from Amazon. At first it felt intimidating to have so much space, but now I look forward to using it. It is much thicker paper than my journal, so it can receive a lot more water when I do my paint washes. The sky and the sea are so vast here that I am thankful to have it.
I did my first drawing on this new larger paper at the front entrance to the Iona Abbey. It is a modest stone building surrounded by Celtic stone crosses and gentle grass hills. The coastline of Mull is set behind it, with a deep ribbon of turquoise and cobalt water separating the two islands. The spaces here invite reflection, prayer and stillness. The centuries of history lived out in these walls give the Abbey a profound presence, but it is still approachable and welcoming. In other famous churches one is dwarfed by lofty ceilings, sweeping arches and a magnificence that overwhelms the senses. These churches were designed to make one feel small in the midst of God’s grandeur.
I believe that God is always near and is waiting for us to see Him. I believe that this is true all of the time, but on Iona it seems to feel a bit more tangible. More palpable. Perhaps more human. I see Him everywhere; in the marks on the stones, the wool of the sheep and the patterns the waves leave in the sand. On Iona God may meet you in front of the Abbey altar, but then He walks with you out into the blustery February afternoon to peer into the tidal pools and watch the birds dance in the wind.
On the day I drew the entrance, I saw the Abbey’s daily verse listed in a book in a small corner of the church. Psalm 46:10 was typed out and placed in a protective plastic sheet for visitors.
Be still and know that I am God.
I think this will be my verse for the time I am on Iona. My mediation. I want to rest in this verse. I want it to quiet my fears and fill up my heart.
Be still and know that I am God.
Be still. I will start with that.