A few places in the world are to be held holy, because of the
love which consecrates them and the faith which enshrines them. Their names are themselves
talismans of spiritual beauty. Of these is Iona.
The Arabs speak of Mecca as a holy place before the time of the prophet, saying
that Adam himself lies buried here: and, before Adam, that the Sons of Allah, who are
called Angels, worshipped; and that when Allah Himself stood upon perfected Earth it was
on this spot. And here, they add, when there is no man left upon earth, an angel shall
gather up the dust of this world, and say to Allah, "There is nothing left of the
whole earth but Mecca: and now Mecca is but the few grains of sand that I hold in the
hollow of my palm, O Allah."
In spiritual geography Iona is the Mecca of the Gael.
It is but a small isle, fashioned of a little sand, a few grasses salt with the
spray of an ever-restless wave, a few rocks that wade in heather and upon whose brows the
sea-wind weaves the yellow lichen. But since the remotest days sacrosanct men have bowed
here in worship. In this little island a lamp was lit whose flame lighed pagan Europe,
from the Saxon in his fens to the swarthy folk who came by Greek waters to trade the
Orient. Here Learning and Faith had their tranquil home, when the shadow of the sword lay
upon all lands, from Syracuse by the Tyrrhene Sea to the rainy isles of Orcc. From age to
age, lowly hearts have never ceased to bring their burthen here. Iona herself has given us
for remembrance a fount of youth more wonderful than that which lies under her own
boulders of Dûn-I. And here Hope waits.
To tell the story of Iona is to go back to God, and to end in God.
But to write of Iona, there are many ways of approach. No place that has a
spiritual history can be revealed to those who know nothing of it by facts and
descriptions. The approach may be through the obscure glens of another's mind and so out
by the moonlit way, as well as by the track that thousands travel. I have nothing to say
of Iona's acreage, or fisheries, or pastures: nothing of how the islanders live. These
things are the accidental. There is small difference in simple life anywhere. Moreover,
there are many to tell all that need be known.
There is one Iona, a little island of the west. There is another Iona, of which
I would speak. I do not say that it lies open to all. It is as we come that we find. If we
come, bringing nothing with us, we go away ill-content, having seen and heard nothing of
what we had vaguely expected to see or hear. It is another Iona than the Iona of sacred
memories and prophecies: Iona the metropolis of dreams. None can understand it who does
not see it through its pagan light, its Christian light, its singular blending of paganism
and romance and spiritual beauty. There is, too, an Iona that is more than Gaelic, that is
more than a place rainbow-lit with the seven desires of the world, the Iona that, if we
will it so, is a mirror of your heart and of mine.
History may be written in many ways, but I think that in days to come the
method of spiritual history will be found more suggestive than the method of statistical
history. The one will, in its own way, reveal inward life, and hidden significance, and
palpable destiny: as the other, in the good but narrow way of convention, does with
exactitude delineate features, narrate facts, and relate events. The true interpreter will
as little despise the one as he will claim all for the other.
And that is why I would speak here of Iona as befalls my pen, rather than as
perhaps my pen should go: and choose legend and remembrance, and my own and other memories
and associations, and knowledge of my own and others, and hidden meanings, and beauty and
strangeness surviving in dreams and imaginations, rather than facts and figures, that
others could adduce more deftly and with more will.
In the Félirena Naomh Nerennach (Note) is a strangely beautiful if fantastic legend of one Mochaoi, Abbot of n'-Aondruim in Uladh. With some companions he was at
the edge of a wood, and while busy in cutting wattles wherewith to build a church,
"he heard a bright bird singing on the blackthorn near him. It was more beautiful
than the birds of the world." Mochaoi listened entranced. There was more in that
voice than in the throat of any bird he had ever heard, so he stopped his wattle-cutting,
and, looking at the bird, courteously asked who was thus delighting him. The bird at once
answered, "A man of the people of my Lord" (that is, an angel).
"Hail," said Mochaoi, "and for why that, O bird that is an angel?"
"I am come here by command to encourage you in your good work, but also, because of
the love in your heart, to amuse you for a time with my sweet singing." "I am
glad of that," said the saint. Thereupon the bird sang a single surpassing sweet air,
and then fixed his beak in the feathers of his wing, and slept. But Mochaoi heard the
beauty and sweetness and infinite range of that song for three hundred years. Three
hundred years were in that angelic song, but to Mochaoi it was less than an hour. For
three hundred years he remained listening, in the spell of beauty nor in that enchanted
hour did any age come upon him, or any withering upon the wattles he had gathered; nor in
the wood itself did single leaf turn to a red or yellow flame before his eyes. Where the
spider spun her web, she spun no more: where the dove leaned her grey breast from the fir,
she leaned still.
Then suddenly the bird took its beak from its wing-feathers, and said farewell.
When it was gone, Mochaoi lifted his wattles, and went homeward as one in a dream. He
stared, when he looked for the little wattled cells of the Sons of Patrick. A great church
built of stone stood before his wondering eyes. A man passed him, and told the stranger
that it was the church of St. Mochaoi. When he spoke to the assembled brothers, none knew
him: some thought he had been taken away by the people of the Shee, and come back at
fairy-nightfall, which is the last hour of the last day of three hundred years. "Tell
us your name and lineage," they cried. "I am Mochaoi, Abbot of n'Aondruim,"
he said, and then he told his tale, and they knew him, and made him abbot again. In the
enchanted wood a shrine was built, and about it a church grew, "and surpassingly
white angels often alighted there, or sang hymns to it from the branches of the forest
trees, or leaned with their foot on tiptoe, their eyes on the horizon, their ear on the
ground, their wings flapping, their bodies trembling, waiting to send tidings of prayer
and repentance with a beat of their wings to the King of the Everlasting."
There are many who thought that Mochaoi was dead, when he was seen no more of
his fellow-monks at the forest monastery of n'Aondruim in Uladh. But his chronicler knew
"a sleep without decay of the body Mochaoi of Antrim slept."
I am reminded of the story of Mochaoi when I think of Iona. I think she too,
beautiful isle, while gathering the help of human longing and tears and hopes, strewn upon
her beaches by wild waves of the world, stood, enchanted, to listen to a Song of Beauty.
"That is a new voice I hear in the wave," we can dream of her saying, and of the
answer: "we are the angelic flocks of the Shepherd: we are the Voices of the Eternal:
listen a while!"
It has been a long sleep, that enchanted swoon. But Mochaoi awoke, after three
hundred years, and there was neither time upon his head, nor age in his body, nor a single
withered leaf of the forest at his feet, And shall not that be possible for the Isle of
Dreams, whose sands are the dust of martyrs and noble and beautiful lives, which was
granted to one man by "one of the people of my Lord?