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View of Iona from Mull

St Columba called Iona, "Iona of my heart, Iona of my love...".

I think I now know a little of what he meant - Iona gets under your skin and sticks to your heart. I recently spent a week on Iona and there's no denying it; Iona really gets to to you.

The words I quoted above come from St Columba's oft quoted prophesy about the isle:

Iona of my heart, Iona of my love,
Instead of monks voices shall be the lowing of cattle;
But ere the world shall come to an end,
Iona shall be as it was.

Ignatios and JoannaMy stay on Iona, from September 25th to October 2nd 2010, was part of an organised retreat led by Reader Ingatios Bacon, most ably assisted, I might say, by his lovely wife Joanna.

Ignatios was fond of quoting the aforesaid prophesy and suggesting that it may be coming true with the return to the isle of an Orthodox Community, albeit for the time being a temporary one. I'm not so sure though that that's what the blessed Saint had meant when he spoke it; though it is a comforting thought none the less.

Iona, together until fairly recently with much of Great Britain, has been bereft of any real Orthodox presence more or less since the Norman Conquest of 1066. Few people may be aware that Christianity in this country was very much Orthodox until it was stamped out by the Papist backed Normans as they imposed their authority and their 'Westernised' brand of Christianity on an all too reluctant population. But, enough of the history lesson, not to mention the politics.

The aim of The Iona Orthodox Centre, under the patronage of His Eminence Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira and the Chairmanship of  His Excellency Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, is to establish once more on the sacred Isle of Iona a permanent Orthodox Community. For more information on this please click on IONA ORTHODOX RETREATS or the picture at the head of this article.

A Journey Planned and Executed

My own soujourn to Iona began somewhat tentatively back in about April of this year when I saw an advert for the coming retreat, planned for September. However, I didn't then give it much thought as, being as I was out of work, I decided it would be beyond my means.

My interest in it was revived though in early August when the event was once again brought to my attention. I decided to email the host, Ignatios, primarily to get details for future retreats thinking that this year's event would by now already be over subscribed. My ploy came unstuck though when Ignatios replied to say they would love for me to join them this September. Oh dear, I thought, now what do I do.

I did what I ought to have been doing all along and started praying about it. It's funny how things seem to work out when you give them to God in trust; most folk would insist it was just pure coincidence but I saw the hand of God in it.

Because it came about that I received an unexpected lump sum when my civil service pension started at the end of August, thus enabling me to afford to make the trip after all. Coincidence it may have been: but as is often quoted, 'when you stop believing, the coincidences stop happening'.

And then came all the decisions I had to make! Should I drive up? It's a very long way and I would probably have to split the journey, staying overnight somewhere. There was also the problem of what to do with the car; although I could take it over to Mull I would then have to leave it at Fionnphort (pronounced Finnafort - weird I know; but it's Gallic), the ferry port at the far side of Mull to go over to iona. Only resident's vehicles and certain others with strictly defined needs are allowed on to the island. Then there was consideration needed of the costs involved: taking the car over to Mull would have cost around £60 or more and that was on top of the costs of actually getting to Oban although I could park it free for the week once at Fionnphort. I made some enquiries and discovered that it was actually cheaper to pay for parking in Oban for the week - only £40. Even so, when combined with the cost of getting myself up to Oban it was going to be at least as much if not more than a return rail ticket and so this is what I plumped for.

End of problem? No, not really, because I then discovered there were works scheduled on the line for the very day I was due to travel and my connections (I had to change at least twice between Doncaster and Oban) were very critical plus I only had a maximum leeway of 33 minutes to catch the ferry once I arrived at Oban if I were to then catch the bus from one end of Mull to the other to be in time for the last ferry over to Iona that day.

Back to searching train times. I found an alternative route that avoided the works but involved a slightly earlier start and three changes: Manchester; Haymarket (outskirts of Edinburgh) and then Glasgow. To my horror, when I got on to the second train at Manchester to take me to Haymarket every one of the seats without exception were reserved and I ended up having to stand all the way. Never mind though, I comforted myself; it was all going to be worth it.

Once I had made the final change bound for Oban and was clear of Glasgow the scenery very quickly became stunning: romantic soaring peaks and deep black lochs; and (literally) billions of trees - I've never seen so many. mostly coniferous. I would have loved to have taken photos but the views were only fleeting, glimpsed through breaks in all the trees standing guard along the side of the line.

All my connections so far had been on time. Now I just needed to arrive in Oban on time in order to make it on to the ferry. I was still a little concerned over how long it would take me to get from the rail station into the ferry terminal and buy my ticket as I had to be on the ferry at least ten minutes before it was due to sail. I needn't have worried. I was sat in the terminal a good ten minutes before the ferry even arrived in port and we were allowed on board.

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The Crossing From Oban to Mull

The Isle of Mull ferry runs daily between the Port of Oban on the Scottish mainland and the village of Craignure on Mull on the far eastern side of the island at the southern end of the Sound of Mull. After this I had to make an hours journey by coach to Fionnphort at the western end of the island, on the Sound of Iona opposite the Blessed Isle itself.

After a forty five minute crossing, with the sea as smooth as you'd like, it was time for the penultimate leg of my epic journey: the bus ride from Craignure around the length of Mull to Fionnphort and, hopefully arriving in time for the last ferry of the day over to Iona. I wasn't too concerned this time, though, as I knew they didn't allow the ferry to sail until the bus had arrived. As it turned out, we arrived in plenty of time to watch the ferry make the short 10 minute journey across the sound from Iona. The weather had behaved itself remarkably well; glorious sunshine almost the whole way there just clouding over as we approached Fionnphort on the coach.

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The Iona Ferry

The Iona ferry runs daily between Fionnphort on Mull and the jetty at St Ronan's bay on Iona.

Once on Iona I then had to find the house where we were staying: Clachanach - pronounced Clack-a-knack or so Ignatios informed me. He'd given me directions over the phone a few days earlier but I suddenly found my memory of the details rather hazy. I got my mobile phone out to give him a call only to discover, as I had suspected would be the case, that I had no signal. Nothing for it then but to set off in faith. It never ceases to amaze me how, when I put my trust in God, He never fails me. Thank you, Lord.

And so I set off looking out for any landmark he'd mentioned that may jog my memory. As I drew near to the old Nunnery, just above the village, I remembered he'd suggested I take the short cut through the Nunnery grounds; not that it turned out to be much shorter than following the road, which swung around the back of the ruins, would have ben. Sadly, for me, it was anything but easy as the wheels of my rather large and heavy suitcase dug into the soft gravel of the path and left two rather nasty looking grooves in my wake. I was pleased to see next day that the grooves had gone.

On I trudged, past St Oran's Chapel (not that I noticed it at the time, preoccupied as I was with looking out for the house) quickly followed by the Abbey, then up the hill and on past the Iona Community's Welcome Centre and Gift Shop.

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Clachanach

Clachanach is privately owned by an Iona family and is rented by Ignatios for several weeks each year to accomodate the temporary Orthodox Community. Ignatios hopes to procure a permanent home for the community if enough funds can be raised - I know that any donation towards this end, however small, would be greatly appreciated.

The next house I came to seemd a little bit familiar from the pictures of Clachanach I'd seen on the website and, drawing level with the front of the house, there was the sign - Clachanach. I'd arrived. It was by then a little after 6.30pm and I'd been travelling for over 13 hours. Dusk was also beginning to set in so my trudge up from the harbour hadn't revealed to me much of Iona's beauty. It kept that in store for the morrow.

Good Morning, Iona

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Iona Abbey & Grounds

The present Abbey was founded in the 1930's by the Scottish Episcopal Church on the remains of the medieval Benedictine Monastery. The Abbey community is now very much Ecumenical in its makeup and can appear very liberal and theologically weak to Orthodox Christians. They are, though, very welcoming to the fledgling Orthodox community and are actively praying for and encouraging the efforts of Ignatios who in turn is keen to support them together with the other denominational groups on the island.

For several weeks I had been keeping a weather eye out, as they say, for what the weather was doing in the Hebrides and it hadn't been encouraging: cold and cloudy with heavy rain and blustery winds for days on end. I needn't have worried though (I keep saying that, don't I!). Sunday dawned with yet another beatifully clear sky and all the promise of another lovely day.

As there was no (Orthodox) priest on the island we couldn't celebrate Divine Liturgy so we started the day with Matins in St Oran's Chapel. This plus the 6th hour celebrated at 12 noon in the house, where we had set up the dining room as a prayer room, and then Vespers (back in St Oran's Chapel) in the evening became our routine for the next week.

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St Oran's Chapel

Built in the 12th Century, St Oran's Chapel is the oldest surviving building on Iona though too late to be contemporary with St Oran. It is maintained by the Iona Community and available for use for private prayer and devotion day and night.

Then we had breakfast back at the house with our group: Reader Ignatios and his wife, Joanna, whose home is in Fort Augusta near Inverness; Natalia, a pretty young Russian lass (actually Kirgistani) currently studying at Herriot Watt University in Edinburgh; Briony, from Linlithgow; and myself. I was the only member of our group to have travelled to Iona from outside of Scotland.

After breakfast Ignatios, Natalia and myself decided to make the trek down to St Columba's Bay at the very south of the island - a fair old distance; Joanna agreed to come with us just as far as The Bay at the Back of the Ocean (what a lovely name that is!) as she didn't feel up to going all the way. Both Ignatios and Joanna are in their eighties and are surprisingly agile for their age, long may the Lord continue to bless them.

Our trek took us back in the direction I'd trudged the evening before and then on beyond the village past Martyr's Bay, a short stretch of white sand thought to be the site of the first massacre of the monks by marauding Vikings. The other such site is a small bay at the northern tip of Iona known as The White Strand of the Monks (or in Gallic: Traigh Ban nam Manach).

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Martyrs Bay

Just beyond Martyr's Bay the road turns sharply right and heads inland and, eventually, over the lowest and narrowest part of the island to The Bay at the Back of the Ocean.

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The Bay at the Back of the Ocean

(The Bay at the Back of the Ocean is called in Gallic name: "Camus Cul an t Saimh" though I don't know if the English is a translation of the Gallic or just a nickname given it by the locals.)

When we arrived there we found two benches to sit on about ten or so metres apart and joked about splitting into monks and nuns (Joanna and Natalia sat on the first of the two benches and Ignatios and myself settled on the second); here we enjoyed a light lunch before saying our goodbyes to Joanna and setting off for St Columba's Bay. The going was rather rough under foot and a little strenuous but well worth the effort.

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St Columba's Bay

Also known as the Port of the Corracle (although this may be just a small part of the bay), St Columba's Bay is reputed to be the landing site of St Columba when he first arrived from Ireland in the 6th Century along with his companions in his corracle.

Only Natalia and myself descended all the way down to the bay as the path was rather steep and difficult to traverse; Ignatios waited for us on the hill overlooking the bay. On the way back we passed a rock that Natalia thought looked like a frog so we decided that would be it's name.

Frog Rock

(You can just about make out the shape of a frog in the picture above - we thought so anyhow)

The next day, Monday, was still fair though overcast and not so bright as Sunday but it did brighten up as the day progressed. In the morning, after the exertions of the trek to St Columba's Bay, I decided to take things a bit easier and just strolled down to the village to get some shots I wanted of the ruins of the Augustinian Nunnery.

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The Augustinian Nunnery

The Nunnery, founded in circa 1200AD, by Reginald son of Somerled of the Isles. His sister Beatrice (also known as Bethoc) became its first Prioress.

As I said, I had decided not to exert myself so much this day as I had been rather tired from the previous day's exersions. But come the afternoon, what with the brightening weather and Iona being what it is, I soon forgot my aches and went off to explore the highest point on Iona, a large hill, over one hundred feet high, called 'Dun I' (pronounced Dun Eee). I had heard someone remark that this was the only point on the island where they had managed to get a signal on their mobile phone. No luck for me though - I still couldn't get a signal.

So, being as I still couldn't ring home I decided to go off and explore up to the north of the island. So much for not exerting myself!

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Views Around Iona

Some of the views to be enjoyed on the beautiful Isle of Iona, some of them spectaular others just interesting.

I had with me my rather heavy binoculars hoping to see some wildlife. Oddly enough, apart from a few Shags seen on the water on the crossing from Mull on the Saturday, there was precious little wildlife to view: no Sea Eagles or Puffins; no Otters or Seals; just plenty of crows, starlings, cattle and sheep - I can see them anywhere. No doubt the Lord had other ideas for me and wisely kept me from being distracted. It would have been nice though.

In the event I decided to go back to the house and change my binoculars for my camera. There are a couple of white sandy beaches at the far north end of the island, and very beautiful they are as they're almost pure white sandy beaches and slope gently down into crystal clear waters of azure, aquamarine, turquoise and cobalt blue. When the Lord wants to impress He sure doesn't spare any effort!

Tuesday dawned with a heavy grey overcast sky and fairly heavy rain which lasted for most of the morning: a day for staying in and reading - though, in the afternoon, I did manage to walk down into the village as I was also hoping to ring home from the only phone box on the island but, rather unsurprisingly, it was busy. I can only ring my wife at certain times because of her work schedule and this would have been a good time as she only works in the morning on a Tuesday. Not to worry; I could catch her another time.

Lost on Iona? Surely Not!

Wednesday again dawned overcast but at least it was dry; just rather cold. As the morning progressed, though, the wind blew the clouds away and it got really warm. I decided, rather unwisely as it turned out, to go off on to the westerly of the two northern beaches, which I hadn't yet properly investigated, and see if I could walk all the way down to The Bay at the Back of the Ocean (I do like saying that). If I'd first bothered to have a look at a map I'd have realised the futility of that idea; but I hadn't and I didn't.

After returning to the house to get changed into shorts and a tee shirt (I'd been down at the Bay of Martyrs just south of the village in my cold weather clothes) I then set off (without a map, just misguided self-confidence) to my intended starting point on the north bay, known as Calva Beach (or in Gallic: Traigh an t-Suidhe). Here I actually braved a paddle in the edge of the sea, though that didn't last long - it was like stepping into a bucket of ice. At least the air was warm and the bay profited from the shelter of higher ground to the south blocking the last remnants of the wind.

So off I plodded to see just how far I could get, which was surprisingly far though nowhere near my hoped for destination and involved a little light rock climbing plus having to trudge through some rather boggy areas - the previous day's rain had greatly added to their bogginess. I then found myself in a rocky bay with tall cliffs to my left, the sea in front of me and huge rocks to my right; there was no way out except back the way I had come. But I didn't relish the idea of going back through the bog so I found an area where the sheer cliffs gave way to a more gently sloping rock face that I could scramble up; my idea being that I should hopefully be able to see a way forward and round to re-join my original plan and walk right round to The Bay at the Back of the Ocean. Oh, the joys of an ill thought out plan!

Once up on top of the headland I couldn't see any clear way forward but neither did I fancy climbing back down the rocky slope. As things turned out, though, I would have been far better served doing just that. What a dubious pleasure the gift of hindsight is!

So, somewehat reluctantly, I decided to press on. Before me was a valley and then another ridge of hills. I expected (or rather, hoped) that the valley we'd traversed on the Sunday to get to The Bay at the Back of the Ocean was just the other side of that second ridge of hills now stretched out in front of me. How wrong can one be!

After trudging down the hillside and then up and over that next ridge I was faced with yet another valley and, beyond that, yet another ridge. Had I realised it at the time there were about five such valleys and ridges I would have to cross before getting anywhere near to The Bay at the Back of the Ocean. And each time I got down into one of the valleys I found myself up to my ankles in bog, making my progress very slow indeed.

I felt lost but how could I be lost on an island just 3 miles long and I¼ miles wide, I kept asking myself. As I found out, it's easy when you're as deft as I was! Not that I was lost in the sense of not knowing which direction I needed to go in. My problem was, I kept finding what I thought were footpaths only to have them disappear on me again. At other times what I thought were paths when I got up to them turned out to be burns (small streams). I got quite good at jumping them.

At last I found a definite footpath with a clearly visible style over a fence - so, no mistaking it this time. Or so I thought!

I'd only gone a few hundred yards beyond the style when, once again, the path just vanished leaving me in yet more bog. On I trudged over the next ridge and came down the other side to find a ring of stones. Although I didn't know it at the time, I'd come across the remains of the hermits cell. Ignatios later told me that he'd failed to find it the last time he tried to take a party to look for it. It's easy I told him, you just need to get lost. Had I realised what it was there should have been a footpath from there that would have lead me back in the direction of the Abbey. But I didn't - either realise it or see any such path. So on I trudged.

Eventually I came out by one of the little crofting farmsteads that dot the island; I had to clamber over a locked gate so quite obviously I shouldn't have been there but there was no way I was going back. Luckily no one, it seems, noticed me and I was able at last to find my way on to the road and get back to civilisation. Aa I passed the Abbey I met Ignatios on his way down to St Oran's chapel for Vespers and made my apologies to him; I was in no fit state to join them for the service. Instead I went back to the house and had a long soak in a hot bath. My socks I had to throw away, they were just too badly stained from repeated immersions in the peat bogs. My trainers I had to consign to a plastic bag to await my return home and the friendly washing machine.

Well, at least I've learned my lesson - no more adventures without the aid of a good map and a clear idea of just what's involved. Until next time that is!

Thursday was another good day, although with the threat of storms promised from about midnight.

I went on to the White Strand of the Monks, the other bay at the north end of the island, and took some photos of the sea and the sand. It's so beautiful there, you could almost believe you've strayed in to heaven. But that was enough exitement for me after the previous day's jaunt. That was, until I remembered that I had promised myself I would trry once again to ring home as this was the next day that my wife only worked in the morning. So off I hiked down to the village and this time found the phone booth empty.

Sadly, when I did get through to Sue, my wife, although it was so good to hear her voice, she greeted me with the sad news of the repose of Fr Dennis', our Assistant Priest. It quite took the edge off the rest of my stay but I dedicated it to his memory. Ignatios from then on very gratiously included Fr Dennis in our prayers.

Stormy Seas and A Safe Passage

The wind really did blow up over night - gale force winds and lashing horizontal rain greated us on Friday morning. It's a good job I wasn't lost on the hills after that or those darned peat bogs may have come up to my waist.

We were quite apprehensive about the weather: although the forecast was for it to clear by mid-day, we were expecting Fr Marcel (promounced, 'Marchel'), a Romanian Priest to come over and serve Divine Liturgy for us; and he was intending to come over on the ten o'clock ferrry. We were sure he'd never make it but you never know with Fr Marcel; he tends not to let little things like gale force winds stop him. Apparently he was once coming over and, for some reason, the last ferry wasn't running. So he prayed to St Columba and suddenly the ferry turned up. It seems this kind of thing happens to him quite often. Ignatios thinks of him as a Saint in the making.

Needless to say, we should not have worried on his account. About half past ten, and in the still driving horizontal rain, who should appear at the doorway of St Oran's Chapel (we were nearly finished saying Matins) but Fr Marcel and seven of his congregation: two nice young ladies and five strapping young men. They were carrying all that Fr Marcel needed for the Liturgy including several huge Icons; and I mean huge! Two of them were probably in excess of three feet by two feet and the third was even more enormous though on canvas and rolled up - this one, when unrolled, must have been nearly seven feet tall by maybe four feet wide. Nothing seems to faze these Romanians, especially the weather; it certainly didn't dampen theri spirits; whilst Fr Marcel got ready for the Litrugy, the young men set to and sang an Akathist to Our Lady  (that day was the celebration of The Protection of The Most Holy Mother of God).

Fr Marcel Oprisan
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Fr Marcel

Fr Marcel seen with some of his congregation from the Romanian Orthodox Church in Glasgow. They made the lenghty and surprisingly short stayed visit from Glasgow over to Iona purely to be with us on the Friday of my stay and in order to celebrate an Akathist to Our Lady for the feast of her blessed Protection of Christians.

The Akathist was all in Romanian so I couldn't understand a word of it but it was so beautiful - those young men, especially their leader, have a rare talent. They went on to sing for the Liturgy, partly in Romanian and partly in English with Fr Marcel also singing his parts in both Romanian and English.

Afterwards the group repaired to the house for a quick meal after which they had to leave to get back to the harbour in time for the 2.30pm ferry. It seems Fr Marcel, with his car which he'd left over at Fionnphort, was booked onto a specific ferry crossing from Craignure back to Oban and, if he missed it, would not be able to get back to the mainland. Even so, they left it rather late and even then insisted on my taking a photo of them all with Joanna, Briony and Natalia - Ignatios hadn't by then returned from the Chapel.. They wanted it taken outside the house with a view behind them of The Abbey and St Oran's Chapel; sadly it was still raining, though not so hard, and the finished photo is a bit disappointing - St Oran's Chapel is lost in the mist and rain drops blur the image of some of the group. I promised to send it on to Fr Marcel, along with some others I took in the Chapel after the Liturgy. He then gave us all a great big hug and left to try and catch the ferry; knowing how things tend to work out for him I never doubted he'd make it. His faith must be enormous!

True to the forecast, the weather did improve after lunch, though rather later than predicted.

That evening, after our meal, I asked the group to pose for photos to remember them by. Ignatios gratiously took the final one so I could be on it - the only one from my entire adventure with me on it though Natalia has graciously sent me some of hers with my ugly mug on them.

Left to right: Natalia; Briony; Ignatios; and Joanna
Left to right: Briony; Joanna; Natalia; and yours truly
Left to right: Natalia; Briony; Ignatios; and Joanna
Left to right: Briony; Joanna; Natalia; and yours truly
Left to right: Natalia; Briony; Ignatios; and Joanna

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The following day was our last on the island and we had to say our sad goodbyes, both to each other and to Iona. As both Briony and myself had to catch an early ferry in order to meet our connections for the homeward journey, we had decided not to attend that morning's Matins and so missed saying goodbye to Ignatios who was already in the chapel by the time we came down with our cases. I can't answer for Briony as to how long it took her to get home but I know it will have been considerably shorter than it took me.

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Farewell Iona

The sound was still a little choppy as I made the crossing back to Mull at the start of my homeward journey; though no where near as rough as it had been for Fr Marcel and his group the day before - I certainly couldn't complain!

I set off from Clachanach at 8:00 in the morning for the walk down to the jetty in time to catch the 8.30 ferrry and finally got home just after 10:00 that evening. Whilst planning my trip beforehand I had been so preoccupied with my connections for the outward journey that I had failed to notice that two of my connections on the return journey were impossible to meet. The train was due in Glasgow Queen Street station at 15.30 hours and I needed to catch the connection for Glasgow Central which left at 15.30 hours. And then, when it got to Glasgow Central, assuming I had somehow managed to make that connection, it was due in at 16.00 hours and, yes - you've gussed it, my next connection, for Carlisle, was due to leave at 16.00 hours. In the event I didn't even try to make those connections and instead got a taxi (which I shared with another traveller who had also been on Iona) to take me between the two stations. Dong it this way I was in plenty of time for the 4.00 pm train to Carlise. I had to change again there for Doncaster but this time had the luxury of nearly an hour before my next connection was due.

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Farewell Mull

Waiting for the Isle of Mull ferry to dock together with some of the views I observed from its open deck on my return to the mainland. I didn't stay there too long as it got really cold and blustery. I decided the views would just have to keep on calling for me as I went below to the passenger lounge.

Of course, a retreat is not supposed to be just a rest or a holiday, though it is automatically both of those. For a retreat to have been fruitful it should achieve something spiritually. I  certainly came to Iona with no set expectations or agenda so, looking back, what have I achieved spiritually?

I would have to say, I now have a deeper love and appreciation of Orthodox Worship. I normally don't often get to more than the weekly Divine Liturgy and, of course, at St Columbas we are lucky that we are served Divine Liturgy weekly; many parishes, I know, do not. But to have engaged in a regular pattern of daily Matins and Vespers was, for me, my gift from Iona.

And so I returned home to the hum-drum of normal daily life and can hardly believe it is now over two weeks since I left Iona; although I can't say that Iona has ever left me. May God grant that it never does.

James Paul Shipgood

October 2010