In 2008 I participated in Washington National Cathedral’s pilgrimage to Iona, a tiny island in the Inner Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland. Iona is the place where St. Columba landed in the mid-500s and founded one of the most important monasteries in Christian history.
Iona is only three miles long and a mile and a half wide. During my time there, I explored virtually every square foot of land. I enjoyed getting away from the rest of our pilgrimage group and spending time in the wilderness areas of the island with only God and the wind to keep me company. For such a small place, Iona has an interesting variety of topography.
One afternoon, I walked the marked path to the center of the island and across to its western coast. I then headed due north to a “dun” or high rocky hill that marks the island’s northwest corner. I scrambled to the top of the small mountain and edged as close to the precipice as I dared. From there I could see virtually the whole island. To the east, I could see the lights of the abbey blinking on, as dusk settled over the land.
Suddenly I realized night was coming too quickly for me to return the way I’d come, so I decided to head straight across the northern end of the island, where there was no path and the landscape appeared to be tall grass. Before coming down the small mountain, I made a mental picture of the landscape.
Within a few steps of trudging across the island on my new route, I realized the tall grass masked boggy ground. The wet mud sucked at my boots and made walking difficult. To add a comic note, at that moment my wife called me on the international cell phone I carried, and just as I reported to her, “Honey, I’m stuck in a bog and I don’t know my way out,” the call was dropped! From the valley I couldn’t see my way to the abbey, and as darkness fell I feared getting lost.
I said a quick prayer, and (maybe for the first time in my life) I was able to recall with crystal clarity the mental picture I’d constructed of the landscape. In my mind’s eye, I could see the narrow gap at the other edge of the bog, which would lead to the solid ground near the coast and then to the abbey. Eventually, I made it home without incident. If I hadn’t remembered the view from the mountain, I’d never made it through the valley.
Early in Lent, churches in many denominations read the Gospel account of the Transfiguration, when the disciples on the mountain see Jesus transformed into glory. After their vision, Jesus leads them down the mountain and begins the long trek to the cross on Calvary. It is the journey of Lent. It is difficult and arduous, and on the way it is easy to get lost.
What will direct the followers of Jesus through those difficult days, and what will guide we Christians through this Lent, is the view from the mountain, of the One who is the Son of God, the fulfillment of every promise God has ever made. The vision of the glorified Christ will illumine our hearts, minds and souls, and with it in the center of our vision, we will walk with confidence through this and any valley.
St. John’s is located in downtown Roanoke at the corner of Jefferson Street and Elm Avenue and gathers for Sunday worship at 8 a.m., 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Find St. John’s on the web at www.stjohnsroanoke.org.