My cousin Wendy stayed with us this week en route to Iona, an island she loves very much. I thought I would share with her my reflections on the surprising geology of Iona which I spoke about on Creation Sunday at St Mary’s Cathedral in 2016. I had just returned from a pilgrimage to Iona with a wonderful group from the congregation. So here it is. Enjoy.
The pilgrims stood on Traigh an t-Suidhe close to the northernmost tip of the Island of Iona. The fierce westerly wind was driving heavy grey seas as the tide rose noticeably with every crashing wave. Gulls swooped around us seemingly totally in control of their flight in the gusts that challenged our balance.
But we had not gone there to imagine Columba and his fellow monks fleeing past lives in their Irish homeland. Nor their journeys east to the Highlanders and the Picts and Lowlanders further afield. Nor to envisage the waves of Viking pillage, carnage and latter day settlement, or the arrival of the Benedictines centuries later and the building of their Nunnery and Abbey, or age of the Scottish reformation, the crofting and the weaving, the 19th century potato famine and mass migrations. Nor had we walked to wonder at the 20th century re-buildings and those who make the Iona we know in our age.
We had gone to see the rocks.
The outcrops being assaulted and inundated by the waves. Grey and brown and pink lumps of stone, mini mountains never rounded smooth by ice and ocean, but standing proud in jagged defiance, everywhere you could turn.
This is a narrow strip of Lewisian gneiss forming the west coast of Iona. The very roots of mountains once formed by the crashing of continents, the first meeting of the original land masses of Scotland with England. The forces and pressures of continental collision, which formed peaks of Alpine proportions, 3 billion years ago.
That number, 3 billion, I have not made up. The St Mary’s pilgrimage to Iona last week included a professional geologist. And for the first time in my experience we took part in a pilgrimage through time. We have been blessed here engaging with members of the congregation who are astrophysicists in the recent past.
They have shared with us the wonders of the universe, the science of black holes, and the extraordinary discoveries of gravitational waves echoing the start of all things. They have taken us into an understanding of deep space. This pilgrimage to Traigh an t-Suidh was a close encounter with deep time.
The age of these rocks have been verified by analysis of zircon crystals within their structure. These are not just ancient rocks, this strip of Iona is formed of the oldest rocks anywhere in Europe. But Europe was not what it is now, nor where it is now. All of this was going on somewhere well south of the equator. And as the land masses migrated north, so they were eroded by weather and by several generations of ice age denuding.
All of this causes me to wonder. Which is why we celebrate Creation Sunday in this Church. We need to wonder. And to appreciate how the universe came into being, and how the world was made. And that took time. Our geologist, Alex, offered us a time gauge to get a sense of perspective.
If the story of planet earth could be expressed as a unit of measurement, say a yard in length, or the length of the stretch of your arm from shoulder to fingertip, this Lewisian gneiss was being formed less than half way along, about mid humerus, the upper arm bone.
I am caused to wonder about that antiquity. The history of the planet. And humankind’s place in it all. There were no mammals in those days. Perhaps the only living things were simple bacteria like entities. Plants were yet to exist. There was a lot of sea. But no molluscs, fish, reptiles or birds. No dinosaurs yet of course. And remember, humans, they only emerged a couple of hundred thousand years ago. On our yard arm, our geologist explained, humankind comes in as one light shaving of a fingernail.
I am made to wonder about time, the processes deep within our planet, and on its crust. I am made to wonder about the perspective of time. I am made to wonder about the immense powers in the universe and in the earth. The creation’s intricacies too. The origins of life. The miracle emergence of the diversity of organisms, fungi, ferns, grasses, plants, shrubs and trees. Oh and let’s not forget the fruits and of course, the apple itself. Life, all dependent on the elements of carbon which derived from the making and dying of other suns of other universes, and of course oxygen.
Think of the miracle the idea of sentient being allowing in due course the evolution of homo sapiens-sapiens. That’s us. The capacity and the development of consciousness, reason, science, art and spirituality. The capacity of wonder itself, the human experience of community, affection and yes the miracle of love. The ability to make choices, take risks, make mistakes and learn from them. To say sorry to each other and make changes. The capacity to harness the powers of the earth, to mess it up and make it well.
For me, this causes me to wonder about a creating God. Essentially at the ground of being. A God who creates and lets go. A God who lures, not controls us, to respect, care and love. Here we are groping towards a good theology of creation, and therefore a satisfactory but always inadequate theology of the existence of the being of God. And what kind of a God. And towards a good Christian anthropology.
What is unique about the Christian approach to all of this is the affirmation of the presence of Christ in all of it. For if Christ is not simply a remarkable human story, with a tragic episode. Christ, as the epistle to the Colossians suggests, is at the heart of all this bringing into being. It is through Christ’s agency, the generative Word of God, that everything came into being in the beginning. And it is Christ who has sanctified it, lived it, suffered in it, and redeemed it. Christ is, this Church affirms in one of its Eucharistic Prayers, “God’s first and final purpose. Bringing to wholeness all that is”.
A standing at Traigh an t-Suidh brings an encounter with this creative life. It brings with it awe. It brings profound respect. It brings a challenge to live wisely. And to choose life. Which is as we have seen – is astonishing, and generous, powerful, creative, generative love.
We touch those truths in so many ways. And perhaps one way to start is to look at these quite modern stones from which this building is made. And then the people here today.
“Christ is before all things, and in Christ all thing hold together.”