In August 2015 my wife, Jeanne, and I participated in a pilgrimage through the Celtic holy sites of Scotland and East Anglia led by Rev. Russ Parker, a well-known retreat leader and author who is no stranger to the Charleston area. His co-leader was the Rev. Michael Mitthon, a gifted pastor whose charisms include prayer, spiritual direction, writing and poetry. Both pastors were studied historians and raconteurs, adding depth and richness to the places we would visit.
Although not initially entirely enthusiastic about the venture, I was open to what God and others might show me during this special time. To my pleasant surprise I found the handiwork of the Creator everywhere and was captivated by the holy sights, sounds and experiences that were present in the various locales that we visited.
Our pilgrimage began in Glasgow, a city not well known for its historic or religious significance, but a central location that allowed the 12 pilgrims from various cities, countries and backgrounds to meet and rest before the beginning the arduous but rewarding journey.
After a night of rest and restoration we set off through the hilly lowlands of Scotland to Whithorn where we viewed relics of several standing crosses and remnants of the medieval church and monastery.
Then we traveled to the rugged west coast along the Irish Sea and hiked the rock-strewn beach to Ninian’s Cave. Legend has it that Ninian was sent from Ireland to these shores to bring the Christian message to the local tribes. So sure were Ninian and his crew of their destination that they sailed without a rudder.
Standing at the cave mouth, the pilgrims could get a sense that these early evangelists were skilled survivalists and were sustained by the Grace of God. As we prayed in the cave and were baptized in water from the sea, we had an incredible sense of God’s power and presence both in the harsh natural surroundings and in the sky providing a stunning canopy over this incredible place.
Over the next two days we traveled to the island of Iona, stopping at various Celtic holy sites and viewing remains of ancient churches and stone crosses along the way. During this trek we had a sense of the struggles that the early church fathers had in spreading the faith to a hostile local populace complicated by numerous foreign conquerors who contended for the land and people.
Traversing the foggy and treacherous channel, we arrived on Iona
by ferry and were again struck by the rugged geography and harsh conditions the early evangelists had to endure.
We stayed two days on the island and were able to join with Iona Community in their ministry of justice, peace and reconciliation and participate in their daily rounds of prayer in reconstructed abbey of St. Columba.
Leaving Iona by ferry, we traveled east along the midlands along St. Fillan’s trail. Fillan was a noted early Christian healer to whom many miraculous healings have been attributed and a pool, healing stones and cave still bear his name. Again, the power and presence of God was palpable as we celebrated communion and prayed for healing holding the legendary stones that he made so famous.
Next, we moved to the East Anglian coast along the North Sea following the footsteps of St. Cuthbert who carried the Christian message through this area in the seventh century, stopping at old Melrose Abbey to view the relics of Cuthbert’s ministry.
From there we traveled to the holy island of Lindesfarne where many of our group chose to walk barefoot across the tidalway separating the mainland from the island as thousands of pilgrims have done over the centuries.
Lindesfarne was the home of St. Aidan, another medieval church leader who made his home on the island; throughout the centuries a large priory and vibrant Christian community existed on the island. We spent the next two days touring the old priory, other religious sites and the castle, which is still standing.
We joined the community of Aiden and Hilda in their daily rounds of worship and prayer both at St. Mary’s Church and in their community house. It was during these holy times that God again broke through to me in the fellowship of believers and the in the history, landscapes and seascapes of this magnificent, holy island.
We traveled back to the mainland where our pilgrimage ended fittingly at St. Abb’s Head on a high bluff overlooking the North Sea in prayer and praise to our Creator God and His Son in the power of His Holy Spirit.
For me, the pilgrimage was an opportunity to travel through a far off part of the world where God has been speaking to His people in powerful and unique ways through the centuries. The question He raised to me during this special time is how my own journey with Him, both past and present, has and will impact people in my world for His Glory and for His purpose.
Mike Sabback, M.D., is a retired general surgeon and longtime member of the Order of St. Luke; he is the convener of the Charleston, S.C. citywide chapter of OSL.