époque press ezine
by Mark Pennington
The leader of the peregrination brought us to Saint Columba’s Bay, where we crunched onto the beach.
‘I want you to pick up two stones. Throw one into the sea, and with it, throw whatever it is that is troubling you in your life right now. Keep the other, and take it home as a reminder.’
‘Who needs rocks?’ I thought, as I picked up my wife…
Geologically, the western half of the island of Iona is composed of Lewisian Gneiss, an ancient metamorphic rock, formed at depth under immense heat and pressure. Its principal colour is dark grey, with extensive gnarled veining of lighter greys and brick red. Knobbly headlands stick out into the sea in strange formations, with rock pools on the beaches. It is most striking, and most beautiful.
Saint Columba’s Bay is a shingle beach in the south, close to the margins of the gneiss, flagstone and marble, where the water crashes on the rocks and washes through the stones. It is where Iona’s most esteemed past resident is said to have landed, on his own pilgrimage.
In truth, my wife was out of reach and out of mind, so I looked down. I knew immediately what I wanted. Not marble, washed in from the nearby vein – very fine for the mantelpiece, but I don’t have a chimney. What I do have in my life are gnarly, pressure-driven formations. Mid-career and mid-life, responsible, given to burdens. I selected a large piece of gneiss close to my feet, and a small one. I held them together, walked to the water’s edge, aimed slightly left, and threw the large one with energy. As intended, it cracked onto the rock just above the waves, fell in, and disappeared. Perfect.
My small stone is smooth. The red and grey veining is fair, but it speaks of turbulence. I took it home. I keep it at work, where I handle it regularly, turn it in my fingers, as a reminder.
On the whole I avoid the kind of religion which teaches you to throw rocks. But undemonstrative is a very long word, and there are times when it is not worth spelling. I visited Saint Columba’s Bay as part of the Tuesday Pilgrimage of the Iona Community, itself an element of a week entitled Gathering Place. Peaceful liturgies twice a day in the gneiss-walled abbey, where the candles flickered as the wind blew, while the building remained unmoved. Art-led worship, prayer for healing, prepared song in four parts. No benediction in the morning, nor call-to-worship in the evening: for what is your day?
On a fine afternoon, I took a walk by myself, and followed the road to the northern tip of the island. From its end, footpaths led off either side of the headland. Aware of the rocks, I forked left for the gneiss experience.
Here, with the tide out, I walked on sand through miniature ravines, lost to the motion of the wide world. At the water’s edge, I settled onto a smooth, low formation. The air was light with the sound and salt of the sea. My hands sought positions clean of seaweed and shells. I began to observe, altogether alone. First up, the swirling, textured patterns of my training shoes, manufactured to bear forces, fitting. Beyond, the gneiss: grey and red shapes silhouetted against the sky or the water, here a rearing whale, there a small blunt-headed creature taking warmth on the shore. All around, smooth, irregular outlines, formed by the heaving of the earth, and storms.
The tide began to rise and fill the pool below my feet. Its base was pale sand, setting a variety of stones: black, brown, red and white, veined and whole. As the waves ebbed and flowed, the water rippled in and out. My eyes were drawn, and I watched the bottom of the pool intently. It appeared to be rising and falling under the moving water. I breathed, and the earth breathed with me, bright and beautiful, illuminated by sun, the secret earth of Iona.
I stayed there for a long time.
Mark Pennington is a writer of short and long fiction and observational pieces. He is honoured to be chair of the Leeds Writers' Circle (est.1926)