The Statesman (Calcutta)
2 November 2011 (Perspective)
A magical visit
What is “magical”? Obviously, I do not speak here of black magic, that is sorcery, nor of white magic of the kind PC Sorcar produces. Rather, I speak of the enigmatic attraction which certain spaces and moments of time have for us personally and may not exist for others. Certain key events become magical ~ our marriage, or the birth of a child, a ritual or ceremony of special significance. In our memory many events, even though ordinary when we live through them, obtain a magical glow. Or a trip which perhaps began as something commonplace and suddenly evolved into an enchanting and captivating experience. One such trip was my recent visit to the Scottish isle of Iona. A friend and I travelled from Edinburgh by train up to Oban, crossed over to the Isle of Mull by a car-ferry, continued to Fionnphort by bus and then crossed the Sound of Iona on board a much smaller car-ferry to the island of Iona. It measures just three miles in length and one mile across.
Some say that such magic emanates from history, from peoples who once lived at a place, from kings and their vassals, from the rituals they once performed… This may be so. Undisputable however is that age helps to create the atmosphere which a place radiates. History tells us that the first peoples to move into Scotland were the Celts. It is safe to say that they inhabited Iona by the year 3000 B.C. First they were nomads, later they settled to engage in agriculture. Today, little is left to give witness to those times ~ some stones overgrown by grass. In our modern era, a Christian missionary, Columba, voyaged from near-by Ireland to Iona and settled there. He died in 563 after spending 34 years on the isle where he built up a vigorous monastic centre. He seems to have been one of those energetic and charismatic figures who put their stamp on an entire age with their zeal to mould the religious, social and cultural life of the people around them.
Later, an abbey was built by Benedictine monks and monastic life continued until the Reformation. After that the Abbey Church and its adjacent buildings as well as a nunnery gradually slid towards decrepitude. About a 100 years ago, however, the Abbey Church began to be rebuilt by a trust and given to all Christian dominations for worship. Care was taken that the Church was being restored largely as it stood in the Middle Ages while it was part of a Benedictine monastery.
The Abbey Church is today the focus of Iona’s social life. A community has been gathered around it whose members and guests visit the island regularly for spiritual retreats. Dozens of these pilgrims can find shelter in a few guest houses.
When we visited the isle in October, the summer season had come to an end. We saw not more than two dozen pilgrims. The benign weather had made room for an unpredictable stormy climate with intermittent rain lashing the landscape. In such conditions, the small ferry can no longer control the high waves and manage the landing at the ghats. It has to remain tied down in a bay near Fionnphort. Then Iona is cut off. When we arrived, the ferry had not operated the previous day and the weather forecast for the next few days was not promising. Yet, we availed of the last crossing of the day while the waves were relatively smooth.
The island, covered by vigorously green grass and various rock formations, is crowned by a hillock, the Dun I. There are just a few trees around the village, called Baile Mor. It consists of a few houses along two roads. Only the cars of its 120 inhabitants are allowed on the island. So there is no traffic to speak of. Iona does have electricity and sufficient potable water, both supplied from across the Sound.
The stark bareness of the island captivated me as soon as we landed. People who love Iona, had told me of its “beauty”. But what is “beautiful” about an island so barren, so lonely, so much victim of the elements? During the two days we stayed on Iona I discovered a new meaning of beauty. The utter simplicity of the island ~ its size, its uniform landscape, its emptiness: few people, few animals, few houses, little of all things ~ made it easy to existentially inhabit the island. By “inhabit” I here mean that I spread my feelings and thoughts and my entire being across the island and “live it”. These are upanishadic reflections which appeared spontaneously in Iona.
When I described the isle as being a “victim of the elements”, I viewed the situation in negative terms. But staying on I realised that it need not be a negative situation at all to live among the elements, fierce though they might be. On that day, strong winds which almost swept us off our feet reigned over the isle. Its bareness was an open invitation to the winds to roam freely. Every now and then, they suddenly brought along icy rain which attacked us sideways and hit our face like pin pricks. My friend and I were on our way to the northern tip, beyond the narrow metal road, beyond a modest youth hostel tucked behind a hill. But we had to give up and return to the Argyll Hotel for fear of getting all drenched. We were not robust enough for the fury of the elements.
Due to its simplicity, everything I did on Iona, congealed in my imagination into a symbol. The walk to the north took on the contours of life’s journey with its rapidly changing “weather” ~ its successes and failures. And this is where I see the beauty of Iona. It contains within its narrow confines the possibility to experience much that is essential in our life by transcending the mere materiality of the isle and understanding it as a symbol. This process came natural and made the visit to Iona precious.
The Abbey Church is part of this elementary feeling. Although erected so recently, it is assembled of ancient stones from the area, possibly many even taken from the ruins of the medieval structure. Its form is modest, but powerful, it renounces all ornamental trappings, all superfluous elegance. It is straight and solid like a rock rising from the ground. The raw and rough texture of the stones stacked in layer upon layer merge beautifully with the surrounding landscape. I was not astonished to hear that the dead from Mull and other places were transferred to Iona to be buried next to the Abbey Church. In this ancient ground, they found their adequate resting-place.
What is “magical”? It is when the inner being sees itself all of a sudden mirrored and surprisingly expressed in the outside world. The German word Seelenlandschaft is appropriate here: the “landscape of the soul”. You go somewhere, experience a landscape or make the acquaintance of a person, and what do you discover? Yourself; your Self. That is magical.
The author is based in Santiniketan and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org