Seeking the Wild Goose

As a teenager, I grew up listening to the music of celtic rock band Iona.  One song in particular has stuck in my head ever since.

Here I stand, looking out to sea
Where a thousand souls have prayed
And a thousand lives were laid on the sand
Were laid on the sand

Years have passed, since they have died
And The Word shall last
And the Wild Goose shall fly
Shall fly

Here I stand, looking out to sea
And I say a prayer
That the Wild Goose will come to me
That the Wild Goose will come to me

 

 

Jutting out into the cold, stormy waters of the Northern Atlantic ocean off the coast of Scotland lies the tiny, rocky island of Iona.  To get there even today requires many hours of travel by train and ferry.  It was here, 15 centuries ago, that Saint Columba founded a tiny monastery.  And over the years, that tiny monastery became a center of gravity for the spread of the budding Christian faith.  It had none of the pomp, wealth, or power of Rome, and yet monks from Iona travelled in tiny boats over tumultuous seas to carry the message of the cross throughout Northern Europe.
When I was 19 I met a Christian girl from Finland who proudly told me how the gospel had been brought to her country from Iona more than a thousand years previously.  These early navigators chose to see the treacherous waters of the Atlantic and the North Sea not as insurmountable barriers, but as highways.
TrevorIonaMore than once, Viking raiding parties attacked the island, and on one occasion, as the song lyrics above note, the monastic population of the island was massacred on the beach at Martyrs bay.  A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to make my own pilgrimage to the island, and stand on the same beach that the martyrs died on, and that I heard sung about as a teenager.
It was a profound and holy moment.  But even more powerful, perhaps, is the fact that even today, more than a millennium later, there is still a Christian community on Iona.   The impact of those ancient saints is still being felt across Europe.  And I can still count myself as connected to the same family of faith.
One fascinating aspect of Celtic christianity is that they chose, it is said, to represent the holy spirit in their art not as a dove, but as a wild goose.  It intrigues me that they chose to symbolize the third member of the Trinity in this way.
Wild.
Untameable.
Haunting.
Free.
I know that sometimes we have a desire to tame faith.  To organize it, put boundaries around it, make it safe and predictable. But faith, I have found, is often unpredictable.
Chaotic.
Disruptive.
Wild.
I wonder if those Celtic monks chose to imagine the Holy Spirit as a wild goose as a result of their experiences on navigating the restless northern seas?  A missionary in Antioch, or Rome, or Constantinople, may have decided to walk to another city, and have a fair idea of the journey ahead of him, and the time it would take to arrive.  But a monk pushing a small, oil-soaked leather coracle off from the beach in Iona may have had little idea where the winds would take him; whether he would find safe harbour at the end of his voyage or whether he would be swept up in a terrible storm.  Perhaps he was forced to learn to trust in the unexpected guidance of the Holy Spirit?
 Before he put out into uncharted waters, the renowned navigator Saint Brendan is said to have prayed these words:
Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?
Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honor?
Shall I throw myself wholly upon You, without sword and shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on?
Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?
Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks?
Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land?
Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict?
Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean?
O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?

I have been blessed, over the years, to encounter communities that have taught me a little bit about this Wild Goose, the Holy Spirit.  As a teenager, I attended a Pentecostal summer camp, where profound, emotional encounters with the Holy Spirit were as commonplace as worship services that lasted until the early hours of the morning.  In my twenties, I was fortunate to be part of the Emerging church movement, as a loose-knit group of people tried to figure out new and creative ways of being Christ followers.  During trips to England, as well as visiting the island of Iona, we also managed to attend Greenbelt Festival, a fascinatingly diverse celebration of art, justice, and faith.  And a couple of years ago I heard of a similarly-intentioned festival here in North America, the appropriately named Wild Goose Festival.
On their website, they explain their name like this:
“Wild Goose” is a Celtic spirituality metaphor that evokes unpredictability, beauty, and grace.
We take inspiration from this concept, as well as many events such as GreenbeltBurning Manthe Iona Community and SXSW.
This year I’m going to make a pilgrimage to Hot Springs, North Carolina, to attend this festival for the first time.  And I’m looking forward to meeting passionate, different, disruptive, innovative, diverse people.  And maybe, maybe, I’ll hear the call of the Wild Goose once more.