God Promises to Walk with Us
For centuries, the Isle of Iona has drawn travelers to its stone structures, green meadows, and rocky hills in search of the sacred. In the year 563, Saint Columba and twelve monks left Ireland and arrived on Iona’s stony beach after one hundred days at sea. On the island, they founded a monastery, and because of their faithful evangelism throughout the British Isles, Iona is considered the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland.
The Isle of Iona stretches only three miles long and one and a half miles wide. While staying on the small island, visitors and islanders quickly become dear friends.
One morning, I met a woman from Roanoke, Virginia. We exchanged greetings and shared our common desire to visit Iona. During our conversation, she spoke about her trip preparations, which included meeting with her pastor for prayer and guidance.
During the meeting, the pastor asked, “Do you know the difference between taking a trip as a tourist and going on a pilgrimage as a pilgrim?”
She responded, “I believe so, but tell me more.”
The pastor replied, “When you go on a trip as a tourist, you ask questions of the place; however, when you go on a pilgrimage, the place asks questions of you.”
Pondering her pastor’s wisdom, I wondered if this sacred island might transform my steps from walking as a tourist to walking as a pilgrim.
In Leviticus 26, God said, “And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people.” (Leviticus 26:12, New Revised Standard Version)
God has promised to walk among us and be our God. Spiritual practices like a pilgrimage offer the gift of simplicity and help us let go of hurry. Also, a pilgrimage trains our minds, bodies, and
souls to walk in the company of God and become his people.
While walking with God on the Isle of Iona, I began to believe that tourists become pilgrims on-the-way with God.
Years before a pilgrimage, pilgrims may begin their journey on-the-way as they hear of a sacred place, and the Holy Spirit plants a seed of hopeful travels deep within them. Sometimes a pilgrimage begins on-the-way to a pastor’s office as a pilgrim discerns a future trip. Other times, a pilgrimage begins on-the-way whenever pilgrims hear God’s voice along the footpaths in Scotland or the trails in Virginia. When pilgrims return home, the pilgrimage continues in daily prayerful reflection because whenever a person connects with God on-the-way, it reshapes all their ways.
During my summer sabbatical, my husband, Reed, and I spent nine days on the Isle of Iona. We walked, hiked, and worshipped. We ate, rested, and talked with visitors and islanders. Around day four, we stopped keeping a schedule and stepped into a daily rhythm. Our days began and ended with worship at the Iona Abbey. Between services, we hiked over rocky hills and explored stony beaches. Since we spent many hours together and shared many of the same experiences, we often focused more on our surroundings than our conversations.
In those moments of silence, as we walked without talking, I moved from being a tourist to being a pilgrim. As the rain fell and the winds blew, I wrestled with questions and discovered past burdens that weighed me down. With each step, my questions transformed into prayers, and my burdens were left behind in the meadows among the bleating sheep and grazing cattle.
Frequently, Christians are known as “the pilgrim people of God.” They view life as one long spiritual journey with more places to explore, questions to ask, and challenges to overcome. Daily, Christ invites them to walk with him, experience his redeeming love, and rest in the unhurried, sacred spaces of God.
Many pilgrims embark on a journey miles away from their homes, while other pilgrims experience a journey closer to home by hiking the Appalachian Trail or driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Regardless of location, the essential component for a pilgrimage is to spend extended time with God.
On the morning of our departure from Iona, we waited for the ferry beside our island hosts. As we said our goodbyes, they reminded us of the saying, “When you visit Iona, you visit three times.”
Perhaps one day we will return to Iona; but for now, we will walk with God in our island memories and in the beautiful mountains of the Shenandoah Valley.