Postcard from Iona: “Out off the west of the world”

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And God said: Let there be a place made of stone

out off the west of the world,

roughed nine months by gale

rattled in Atlantic swell.

A place that rouses each Easter

with soft blessings of flowers

and shocks of white shell sand;

a place found only sometimes

by those who have lost their way

Ken Steven wrote the poem, a friend of the Rev. Joyce Watson’s, with whom I’m staying on the island. They are partners in producing cards, with his words and her photos. Here is my lovely host outside BEANNACHD, which means “Blessing”.

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Joyce tells me that people sometimes pronounce it Be Knackered, which would be about right at this stage in my journey, especially after the West Highland Way and Ben Nevis!

Yes, my body is stiff and tired, and of course I have all kinds of emotions now this epic journey is coming to an end. There is so much to process and reflect on, but I just don’t have the capacity today. There is a very real sense of being right at the edge of the world here.

I have really enjoyed being with the Iona Community for worship in the Abbey. Sharon, their Warden, made me very welcome and invited me, and Joyce, to share the evening meal at the Macleod Centre.  Here we are after the communion service yesterday evening.

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I also had the great pleasure to meet Jeremy, of the Levellers. We got into conversation on the ferry and I discovered that he comes here every year for a time of quiet and reflection.  We chatted about the state of things, housing and homelessness, community, the travelling life, and all sorts of other stuff. We also share an appreciation of the single malt whiskeys, especially the smokey, peaty ones!

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I am missing Francoise and the younger Murrays, and look forward to being home. But the view from Joyce’s window is pretty good..

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..as was the Abbey and St Martin’s Cross with the moon rising, the night before last. Slightly blurred.. mysterious and atmospheric though..

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I’ve got to start preparing for the journey back to London today: the ferry from Iona, the bus across Mull, then the ferry from Mull to Oban.  Some call that a pilgrimage in itself.. Then the train from Oban to Glasgow and a bunk on the Caledonian sleeper train, getting into Euston about 6.30am.

It will be strange to be back in London after 2 months away, but I’m glad to have a good week left of my sabbatical to write some more, get re-connected with Francoise and the family, and friends in London.

Notes from Holy Island

I’ve been on Holy Island since Tuesday. Walking St. Cuthbert’s Way was such a tough challenge, it has been wonderful to have a proper rest, especially in such a blessed place. See photos here

Up until Friday I was with a small group on retreat in Cambridge House, part of Marygate House. Even though we had never met before and were only together for a few days it became a real community – supportive, sharing and open hearted. Each of us felt this, and agreed that it was in part thanks to the “something special” on Holy Island. The atmosphere, history, the fact that it has been a place of prayer and pilgrimage for so many centuries. Even the fact that the island is cut off twice each day from the mainland by the tide seems to give life here it’s own peculiar and unique rhythm.

Here we are, the “Cambridge House 7”.

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L to R: me, Catherine, Ted, Maureen, Stavrini, Betty and Lea

Since Friday I’ve been crashing with my friends Jo and Hayley, who are themselves in the process of getting ready to move house. Jo has been warden of Marygate but is on his way to a new job on another island, the Isle of Wight. I’ve been really grateful to them both for the chance to stay a few more days.

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Reading back through this blog there is an enormous amount of detail I have had to leave out. I’ve  kept some written notes too, and hope to write more of a reflective journal of this time away at some point. The practical tasks of survival homeless away from home; the people I’ve met along the way, especially hitch hiking, as well as the solitude on some days; God’s provision and protection at each step of the way. Its a multi layered journey for sure, and I won’t return to London the same person who set out back at the beginning of July.

Attempting to describe what I’m actually doing is evolving too. The word pilgrimage still fits, of course, but another equally good description of this project would be a “prayer walk” around the country.  Walking and praying for each place I visit, the people I meet, everyone back home. Or even a “walking retreat” Walking, praying, hitch hiking, roughing it, and reflecting on 20 odd years in the field of homelessness. I’m certainly thanking God – and Housing Justice of course – each day for this wonderful opportunity.

Tomorrow I set out hitch hiking for Glasgow, where my plan is to spend some time amongst those who are homeless in the city. I’m not going to claim that I’m homeless myself, or invent a back story, but simply take a few days in a low key sort of way to observe life on the streets, and manage without accommodation.

And the final leg of the journey – walking to Iona – will follow straight after that. I have an offer of hospitality with Joyce, a friend of a friend who lives on the island, on the 21st and 22nd August. And my sleeper train back to London is booked for the 23rd August, arriving back into Euston early on the 24th. Not sure that I’m looking forward to that except that it is the same day that my wife Françoise and youngest son Theo arrive back in London from Brittany, following a visit to Françoise’s family there.

Hopefully there will be opportunity to write a couple more blog entries before arriving back in London.

Preparedness

Less than a week to go now and I am feeling some trepidation. To leave behind my wife, home and friends, work routines and support systems for 2 months is fairly radical. Of course I knew this all along but as the start date of 1st July approaches I find myself feeling quite unprepared. A bit daunted too, in truth. But even if I did somehow have the illusion of feeling prepared, it is still a big enterprise.

Other than a couple of items I have most of the kit I need for the journey. Some good boots and a waterproof jacket, an excellent backpack and sleeping bag kindly loaned by Brother Vaughan. And thanks to my friend from Phoenix Housing  Penny Quinton I have a wonderful Hennessy Hammock to sleep in.

Something about the idea of going with just the clothes I am wearing appeals. Didn’t Jesus send the disciples out telling them to take only the absolute minimum and to trust God for the rest? And when the early Celtic monks and saints set out on their voyages they considered their lives as offerings, giving up all their rights and self sufficiency and praying that the Lord would guide them where He wanted them to go. And I also consciously making the decision to give up my (illusory) self sufficiency on this pilgrimage.

But I am going to need a phone and maps and other essential paraphernalia. I’m not exactly Bear Grylls after all.. And I do have a not-very-cunning plan on the route, you might be pleased to hear. At least I know the starting point – my front door – and end point – Iona – and a few of the places in between!

On Monday, ready or not, rain or shine, I will set off walking along the Thames Path to Oxford.

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Hopefully by the end of the first day I’ll have reached The Community of the Sisters of the Church at Ham Common where hospitality is offered. Amongst those who live in the community are some who are in Home Office limbo, without recourse to state support or public funds. Housing Justice is involved in developing better accommodation and support for people facing this difficult situation, especially through London Hosting, with colleagues from Praxis, Spare Room, the Catholic Worker and others.

Much of my 9 weeks on the road and on the street is lightly sketched, for the reasons already outlined. But among the places I hope to visit, if the winds are fair, are Hillfields, St David’s, Whitby and Holy Island. Hitch hiking is maybe the modern equivalent of setting out in a little leather coracle – my way of trusting the Lord to lead me where he wants me to be. If it doesn’t go well, of course, I could end up stuck at a Service Station in deepest Wiltshire.

Join me in the adventure by checking back with this blog now and again. And if you are a believer don’t forget to pray for me! Especially that I don’t get stuck at the service station. Thank you