PILGRIMAGE: Loch Ness, Scotland—Finding Hope by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Loch Ness, Scotland—Finding Hope by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

This morning, a cold rain crackled for hours against the dark windowpane of the guest room in the monastery of Fort Augustus.  This afternoon, then, I’m glad for the invitation to climb the stairs of the abbey’s bell tower with a brother who has to change the measurement card in the sunlight recorder.  (The Royal Weather Service once reported that this village has fewer hours of sunshine per year than any town in the United Kingdom.)  We’re on the narrow stone steps that wind steeply upward inside the square tower.  I clutch the hem of my black Benedictine habit in one hand to keep from tripping on it, and I start remembering what I’ve read about the geology of these Scottish Highlands.

Between three and four hundred million years ago, in a succession of tremors, Scotland cracked open along a diagonal fault running across the whole island from northeast to southwest.  The northern part slowly slid southwest some sixty-five miles.  Then, more recently (somewhere between ten and twenty-five thousand years ago), glaciers four thousand feet thick scoured the open wound and shaped it into what is called on the map, “The Great Glen.”  Today the glen includes a lake twenty-two miles long, a mile-and-a-half wide at its widest, and 700 feet deep for most of its length.  Tree-clad mountains rise 2,000 feet on either side of this, the largest freshwater lake in Great Britain and the third deepest in Europe.  This is Loch Ness.

At the southwestern end of the Loch, where the River Oich empties in, lies the hamlet of Fort Augustus.  In the 1700s, the English king put a fort here to control the clans and subdue the proud Highlanders.  On the site today stands the Benedictine monastery of Fort Augustus Abbey where I’m staying for the week.  It’s this monastery’s tower that I’m climbing right now.

Fort AugustusWe’re at the top of the stairs already.  While the brother sets about replacing the little cardboard disc in the sunlight recorder inside the tower, I step through a low doorway and out onto the walkway that circles the tower high above Loch Ness.  I rest my elbows on the rough stone parapet and take in the scene below.

The rain has stopped, except for an occasional stray drop that glints in the fickle sunlight.  Gray, frayed clouds and a few tattered rags of blue sky hang over the brooding black of the loch.  Steep mountainsides of gold, brown, green, and burgundy stretch quietly along both sides of the narrow lake to disappear in the dim distance.  Straight ahead, in the center of the scene, arching up out of the dark waters of Loch Ness in a gorgeous shimmering curve of colors, glows a shiny new rainbow.  Like most really bright rainbows, this one almost seems to be giving off a quiet hum.

Everything is hushed except for the whisper of the rainbow and the whistle of the winter wind flapping my cassock around my knees.  I’m struck by the unlikely contrast: the murky, mist-shrouded ink of Loch Ness and the sparkling colors of the rainbow.

The loch is famous for only one thing nowadays, of course – the notorious monster that shows itself every now and then, just often enough to keep scientists, writers, and tourists busy speculating.  After breakfast this morning, old Father Gregory told me that he and a friend saw “Nessie” from the monastery’s dock in 1971.  The dark waters of Loch Ness have become a symbol of unsolved mystery: somewhere in their depths lurks a creature left over from the first days of creation when God made the sea monsters.

The story of the rainbow, like that of the creation of the sea monsters, goes back to the Book of Genesis.  God has finished the work of creating the world, bringing order out of the primordial chaos, and sees that it is good.  Then, not long afterward, the forces of disorder reenter the picture.  There are signs that the order of creation is breaking down: the disobedience of Adam and Eve in eating the forbidden fruit; the murder of Abel by his own brother, Cain; and the arrogant raising of the Tower of Babel toward Heaven.  Then, with the coming of the great flood, the world is finally plunged back again into complete chaos.  When the waters have receded, Noah steps out of the ark, and God speaks to him, promising that never again will the dark powers of evil be allowed to overwhelm the Earth.  As the sign and guarantee of the divine promise the Lord fashions something brand new, a sort of supplement to the work of creation: the rainbow.  This, the only thing God is said to have created outside the first six days, the Lord now places like a “bow in the clouds.”  To this day, the rainbow is the sign of God’s vow to always control the forces of darkness, disorder, and chaos that keep trying to destroy our world.

You have to be in the right place at the right time to see a rainbow.  First, you have to be in or near a rainstorm, under dark clouds.  Second, you can’t be facing the sun, enjoying its warmth on your face, but must have your back to it.  It’s a perfect sign of hope, a gift for people who are overshadowed by rain clouds in their lives, who are experiencing storms of discouragement, despair, or depression.  It only appears to people who, for whatever reason, aren’t looking toward the light.  Perhaps they don’t know which direction to look, or maybe they’re angry and have turned their back on God.  But it is then that they are candidates for a rainbow.

This winter rainbow leaps out of Lock Ness the way hope springs up in the midst of a painful mystery.  The joyful bundle of light curves up from the murky loch like new confidence suddenly bursting out of the depths of an unfathomable problem.  The sunlight bounces off the raindrops the way God’s love sometimes shines through our tears to make a beautiful bow in the clouds, God’s “I promise” holding good in the face of our personal chaos.  The rainbow always appears sooner or later.  Sometimes it seems late in coming, sometimes it’s very faint, sometimes only a piece of it can be seen.  You can get pretty skillful at finding rainbows in clouds – but only if you’re convinced from the start that the rainbow is there somewhere.

“Well, Father, the sunshine recorder is reset.  Oh, I say!  You’re looking a bit cold!  Ready to go back down?”  It’s my meteorologist guide popping his head out of the door.  “Yes, thanks,” I answer, stealing a last glance at the rainbow before I follow him inside.


Are you someone who is “convinced from the start that the rainbow is there somewhere?  Prayer and lectio can help us to be more sensitive to the Lord’s rainbows on our journey.  Can you name a few signs of hope that God has offered you during difficult times (perhaps through giving you a faithful friend, a safe place, or a certain happy event)?


Sacred Scripture (Genesis 9:11-15)

God said to Noah and to his sons, “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the Earth.”  And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the Earth.  When I bring clouds over the Earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”


Rule of Benedict (Chapter 8, “The Procedure for Receiving Brothers,” vv. 7-8)

The concern must be whether the novice truly seeks God and whether he shows eagerness for the work of God, for obedience, and for trials.  The novice should be clearly told all the hardships and difficulties that will lead him to God.

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