The island of Iona, off the western coast of Mull, has always held a special place in my heart. It was during my first visit to Iona over thirty years ago that I began to reflect deeply on my relationship with God's church. As a priest, I helped lead two groups of pilgrims to this "thin place", a beautiful landscape where the earthly and heavenly are felt to be especially intertwined. It was whilst returning from Iona that I first resolved to seek an opportunity to train as an iconographer. Most recently, last year, it was to Iona that I went to begin my period of sabbatical - two weeks of solitude and reflection on my onward path and the direction in which God was calling me next.
© 2022 Catherine Lomas
This past few weeks, I have been working on the icon of St Brigid. Originating in Ireland, Brigid is remembered for having founded the first female monastery in Ireland, at Cill-Dare: the Church of the Oak (Kildare) in 470. The monastery became a "double monastery", for men and women, and Brigid became its abbess. However, it is Brigid's links with Iona that interested me most as I designed her icon. In Gaelic “Hebrides” means the Islands of Bride or Brigid, and Iona is just one of these.
Each time that I have visited Iona, I have made my way to its highest point at Dun-I. Though it is not at all high by Scottish standards, it does afford wonderful views of the whole island, as well as looking upon the Abbey below.
The Well of Eternal Youth, a natural pool in the cleft of rocks just below the cairn of Dun-I, is associated with Brigid. St Brigid appears in Celtic myths as having blessed the little pool while visiting Iona on the Summer Solstice. The blessing was to bring healing and renewal to all that came to seek a new beginning in their lives.
This theme of "new beginning" is echoed at the southern shores of the island too, where the "Bay of New Beginnings" is honoured at the site of St Columba's first landing on the island.
How fitting, therefore, for these two Celtic saints to have been amongst the first icons that I have painted as I set out on my own new beginning. For those of you who have been, you will know from experience that travelling to Iona is not undertaken lightly. Whether you drive, take the bus, or the train (I have done them all!), it is a long way. It requires a certain determination to plan the route, work out the timings of ferries, to keep going when you crossed the Scottish border hours ago and still feel nowhere near. This is my reflection for where I am at right now too. New beginnings are hard work. Standing at the beginning of a journey and recognising how far you have to go, seeing the effort that it will take, and summoning the energy to keep going when it appears so much easier to turn back: these are all features of pilgrimage, whether the journey is to far-off isles or along untravelled paths in our daily life. Working on the icons of Saints Columba and Brigid helps to remind me that we do not journey alone. Their faces look upon me as I paint them and I sense their presence with me, urging me to keep going. Their links with Iona remind me that they have been with me all that time, watching over the paths I have travelled even to bring me thus far. We are fellow-travellers. Ultimately, however distant our destination may seem at times, we walk together with all the saints on the Way of Christ.
My icon greetings cards (including St Columba) are now available for sale from St Clare's at the Cathedral in Coventry, and from their online shop (click here to open their shop in a new window).
Four of my icons will be included in the icon exhibition of the British Association of Iconographers to be held from Friday, September 29th to Sunday, October 1st 2023 at Liverpool Parish Church (Our Lady & St Nicholas), Old Churchyard, Chapel Street, Liverpool, L2 8TZ. The website for Liverpool Parish Church can be found here.