On yearnings met and of journeys’ end


A South Uist Skyline

‘The Western Isles’ – the very name of the string of islands that runs north to south 70 miles off the coast of mainland Scotland evokes a sense of yearnings met and of journeys’ end. Seeing them from the east at the setting of the sun, you can easily understand how they have accrued a mythic status, evoked for instance in the Grey Havens of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a last resting place, a place of peace.

I am on South Uist, the most northern of the traditionally Catholic islands (26 miles long with a population of 1,400), that lies above Eriskay, Barra and Vatersay. With three other Jesuits (from Ireland, Netherlands and South Africa), I am a guide on a Week of Guided Prayer. Seventeen islanders are participating. Most meet with us one-to-one every day. We are encouraging them to pray with scripture. We are hoping that Lectio Divina and Imaginative Contemplation will be an enrichment for their lives of faith.

It is often said of the Isles that the veil between earth and heaven is thin here, and it is true that even when the winds are high, a quality of stillness pervades. In a terrain in which human movement and activity is so little in evidence, the grandeur of the skies, the mesmeric flight of birds and the unhurried movement of sheep and cattle calm the spirit and encourage a contemplative regard on all around.

I am struck by the quiet assurance with which the retreatants speak of God’s presence in their lives, by their commitment to a rhythm of morning and evening prayer, and to attendance at Mass.  Those born on the islands draw deeply on a tradition of Gaelic prayer, a rich tapestry of invocation and thanksgiving that provides a protective cloak around their lives. There is too an acceptance of the cycle of life and death, and a sensitivity to the importance of dream and an apprehension, through direct experience, of the closeness of the living and the dead.

Walking back

Walking back from St Mary’s Church, Bornish, after the last of the day’s meetings, up the road that meanders gently along from the machair, the coastal meadowlands, I find myself thinking of a short story by Tolstoy. In centuries past a newly appointed Bishop decides he must go in search of three hermits who he has heard live on a remote island at the very edge of his diocese. He feels concern for their spiritual lives, anxious that, cut off as they are, they should have all the support they need to keep true to the faith. Not without ordeal and adventure, he finally arrives at the island. The hermits are there. Full of ardour for their souls the Bishop asks, ‘How do you pray?’ ‘We are three, and Ye are three. Lord have mercy on us’. ‘And the Lord’s prayer?’ ‘We did not know there was a Lord’s prayer’. So the Bishop sets about teaching them. Come the day of his departure, the Bishop boards the ship content that he has done his duty and has assured the spiritual wellbeing of these humble souls, the remotest members of his flock. Hours later, a cry goes up from one of the crew and looking out across the sea in the direction of the island now barely a speck on the horizon, the bishops sees coming across the water one of the hermits. ‘My Lord, I am sorry. Try as we might, we have been unable to remember what you have taught us, and before it was too late I thought I must come to ask that you tell me again those words’. Abashed the Bishop bows low before the hermit, ’My child, there is nothing for me to teach you. Go in peace and pray for me’.

The tale is apt, cautionary. The question needs to be asked, what are we contributing in being here and by offering a retreat in daily life in the Ignatian tradition? The people we are meeting are already people of faith and people of prayer.

‘I have never said this to anyone before, Father’, twice said in the course of this week. I am reminded of the woman with the haemorrhage in Mark’s gospel: ‘She told him the whole truth’ (Mk 5:33). For all the supportiveness of an island community, for all the strength of family ties, I sense a deep privacy in the spiritual realm of these people.

So our coming from the outside is in itself a gift. We offer an opportunity for things to be said that might otherwise remain unsaid. The saying allows for what is good and true to be validated– the touch of God can be affirmed as not fanciful – and release from unhelpful thoughts, which in some instances might have troubled someone for a long time, can be achieved.  

Group of retreatants from South Uist

The retreatants ask questions, about what to do about distractions in prayer, or about the meaning of particular lines of scripture. They are not without very good priests to whom to ask such questions, but in the course of a series of conversations, a confidence can be born that such questions can be asked without embarrassment. So there is some faith development going on here. 

And for a few there is some discernment. It may simply be in the order of recognising that in the light of God’s love they can let go of thoughts that have troubled them. But in one or two instances, it goes further than this, and moves towards a sifting of desires and resistances in relation to a life of greater service. The question of what more can I do for Christ is around.

All the above makes our presence here eminently worthwhile but it is of course at the point when discernment is at play that we would hope to make a distinctive contribution as Ignatian religious.

We have learnt from those we have met that life is as challenging here as anywhere. Something of the romantic view of the islands has been helpfully tempered.  It rains a lot here, especially this summer, and the wind blows hard at times, and making a living, and working a croft, as many do, is clearly demanding. But there is majesty in the surroundings and tranquillity to be found, and there is great faith. We hope we will have done some good to those we have met. What they can be confident about is that they have done us good.

Matthew Power SJ

South Uist Sunset