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New paths to familiar destinations

28 April 2017

Paul Vallely reflects on the relationship between innovation and tradition


AN ATTENTIVE reader contacted me after my description last week of the island of Iona as a place of innovation rather than tradition (Comment, 21 April). Wasn’t the great inheritance of Celtic Christianity fundamental to what makes Iona special to people of faith today?

There is a paradox about Iona. Sitting out there at the extremity of the British Isles, it’s a place that people today visit to seek spiritual peace and quiet. But what first made it special was its posi­tion in the sixth century as an engine of sacred innovation.

It was Iona’s early monks who came up with the idea of marking a grave with a stone bearing a cross. Then the development of the cross reached new levels of creativity with the massive four-metre-high crosses that spread from Iona to the rest of Britain, with their elaborate double-sided carvings of great Bible scenes, and elaborate patterns symbolising eternity. Even now, we do not fully understand the significance of the placement of the crosses in a liturgical landscape in which the sun falls on them differently as the hours and the seasons progress.

In the scriptorium, which made Iona’s library one of the powerhouses of Dark Age learning, new dyes and inks were discovered to produce the magnificent version of the Gospels known as the Book of Kells. (Kells was only the place to which it was taken for protection from the Vikings.) The Abbey’s museum also contains pieces of the first glass ever made in Scotland. One of the windowpanes is so old that Columba’s seventh-century biographer, Adomnán, may once have peered through it.

Other people’s innovations become our tradi­tions, I thought, as we picked out an unfamiliar path from the Abbey to the hermit’s cell on the west of the island. It was more than a decade since I had been on an Iona Community pilgrim­age, and the route had been changed to avoid ero­sion to the island peak. As we set off, there was a path of sorts. Such, I pondered, is tradition: a path worn by others, which we follow.

But paths can lead you into bogs. On my return home last week, I went to a lecture about Eusebius’s odd rewriting of the Gospel story. This was not an error, as many have assumed, but a deliberate attempt to make Christ more attractive to elite educated fourth-century Ro­­mans, says Dr James Corke-Webster, lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Durham Uni­versity. He was dismissive of earlier academics who assumed that the writers of antiquity were somehow not quite as bright as they themselves.

One of Melvyn Bragg’s guests on Radio 4’s In Our Time, about the 13th-century English philo­sopher and scientist Roger Bacon, made a similar point: the past is not just a trajectory to the present.

The death of a friend this week reminded me that every generation is equidistant from eternity. That’s what the communion of saints is about. It is how those who have died are still with us. And yet they sometimes teach us that, on occasions, we have to find new ways of getting to the old destinations.

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