Monday, July 25, 2016

24 July: Expectations of a Thin Place

The Isle of Iona is regularly referred to as a "thin place." But what does that mean? Thin places are spots in the world where the veil between heaven and earth seems less opaque, where all that separates the natural from the supernatural, spirits and angels and demons from the living, is as thin as tissue paper. The curtain between this world and the next is drawn back, and heaven and earth meet. Well, that's the idea, anyway.

Historically, Iona fits that description perfectly. Saint Columba came here from Ireland in the sixth century and from the island Christianized the northern Celtic world. Legend tells that the island was home to a group of pagan holy men before Columba turned it into a flourishing center of Celtic Christianity. Columba was known to have conversed with angels on a hill in the center of the island, where they flew from heaven to meet him in the nighttime. The Book of Kells, practically a sacramental vessel itself that illuminates in a tangible, artistic way the love of God revealed in the Gospels, was written here. You can see it today at Trinity College, Dublin. Many spiritual treasures from this time can still be found on Iona: from the hermit's cell to St. Brigid's Well, the island is teeming with connection to the ancient Celtic world, a world in which the mystical union of heaven and earth was understood in concrete, natural ways. God is in the running water, the flowing air, and the quiet earth.

Today sees a different picture that I did not quite expect to find here. Celtic Christianity no longer exists, not in that historic form, anyway. Columba and his angels have been gone from the island for hundreds of years, and while there was a Benedictine revival in the 13th century, and pilgrims continue to flock to the island, Columba's project is largely a relic of the past, an attraction to be sought out and visited by tourists as well as pilgrims. I was surprised to discover little connection between his world and ours, even in the same geographic space. 

While the modern Iona Community has a laudable commitment to peace and justice from a Christian perspective, it lacks the contemplative spirit of the earlier monasticism that inhabited this island, a spirit I hunger for more and more. One of my main disappointments here has been to discover a breach between the Christianity of Columba and the Christianity of the Iona Community.

With this knowledge in mind, I began to ask myself a couple months ago, "Does this remain a thin place?" I have been pleasantly surprised to discover that the island retains much of the thin-place spirit it is famous for. A major reason for this is that the natural world here is just as mystical and magical as I imagine it was in Columba's day, albeit with the conveniences of modern life. Full, 180 degree rainbows, days when the mist is so thick that the Isle of Mull disappears and Iona becomes a wandering ship lost in the endless expanse of the gray ocean and sky, the waterfalls on the side of the mountain Ben More, fragrant wildflowers, unique chirping birds, and snails sporting beautiful, intricate shells - God's creation is stunning here, unbridled and wild. The march of industrial  progress and and civilization hasn't really reached these shores, and visitors often feel as if they've come to the end of the world.

And I think that right now, if I am honest, that is good enough for me. I am comfortable, after two months, coming to the conclusion that yes, this is a thin place, but one that is the result of God's presence in the natural world. To be frank, I don't connect with the spirituality of the Iona Community all the time - I expected more monasticism and less preaching. More prayer, and fewer ideas. This is because the work the Iona Community does here (good work) in the centers is to equip week-long visitors to return to their own communities having learned something from this community's commitment to peace and justice, from the ecumenical worship and work, and from the inheritance, in some way, of the Celtic tradition. That model works for pilgrims who come for a week, and it worked for me last May - very well. The problem is that I expected more of that last bit - the Celtic tradition - to pervade every aspect of life as a staff member, when in reality the ethos of the Community is no different on this island than it is in Glasgow or London or wherever members are dispersed throughout the world. This is not a monastery. Coming to peace with that fact has been a major part of my growth here, introducing reality to my expectations.

And so that leaves me with a thin place, yes, but not the one I expected. I feel close to heaven here in a rainbow or gorgeous eleven o'clock sunset, but not always in the tenth Peace and Justice service that has reiterated the same point to me for two and a half months. And that's okay. God created a beautiful world, which blesses its creator with birdsong, sunshine, and rain.

Saint Columba famously predicted about his island,

Iona of my heart,
Iona of my love,
Instead of monks' voices
Shall be the lowing of cattle;
But ere the world come to an end,
Iona shall be as it was.

Some say that the Iona Community and its presence here fulfills this prophecy. Other hunger for a day when the Celtic monastic tradition will return. Nevertheless, this remains a thin place, a place drenched in God's mystery and awesome presence. It is a crossroads where pilgrims meet. A world at land's end where creation cries a never-ceasing Benedicite. A place of peace.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

3 July: Getting Sick Far from Home

I can log a new experience in my book of travels: being sick away from home. Far away from home. Thinking back on last week, I'm not sure that I've ever had an experience that has made me more aware of what I take for granted at home: that my parents will be easily accessible, that I understand the healthcare system in the place where I live, and that I will know what to do, or have people tell me what to do, in response to my health needs. But I am not at home. I am on a remote island in the Scottish Hebrides, where my parents are accessible only by phone, where there is a National Health Service that seems like a foreign language to me, and where the doctor comes only once a week. Above and beyond the tonsillitis, the most distressing part of last week was learning to cope with a sick body away from the securities of home.

At the same time, I was learning how much home a community like the one in which I live can provide to a person in need. I was constantly looked after by the people living and working with me, and by the community at large. Friends from the kitchen brought my meals to my room, tea was always close at hand, and the doctor stayed open an hour later than usual on his one day on the island to see me, although I later made a trip to the larger Isle of Mull to visit his surgery (what all doctors' offices are called in the UK - no one operated on me!). That trip was provided by our maintenance coordinator in his own vehicle. Through the care of my friends, I was reminded that when we live in community, we are cared for, and I found myself thinking often last week of those living without a support network - the elderly, the neighborless, those who cannot afford adequate healthcare, and those who live in places where such healthcare is unavailable because of war, poverty, or disease. We in the developed world should thank God for what has been provided for us, and work to ensure that others enjoy the things we take for granted.

The Iona Community spends a lot of time teaching and preaching about peace and justice as a form of Christian service, and it is a theme that runs throughout the worship each week in the Abbey church. Sometimes, however, we can spend too much time talking about justice, and the systems that prevent a just world from blossoming, and lose sight of what it means to those in need. It is important to identify systemic injustice and a Christian response to such sin, but we also can't forget what people need: food, water, medicine, and care. Love. I am guilty of forgetting this simple fact when the list of injustices around the world grows daily. Being sick, however minor an experience it was for me, reminded me of the care I receive that I take for granted, and I hope gave me a better perspective on the problems facing God's children in less privileged parts of his world. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

20 June: Isolation and Tragedy

The Isle of Iona feels very far away from the rest of the world. Sometimes, this isolation is more social than geographic. It took me only a day and a half to get here from Crawfordsville, Indiana, but sometimes family, friends, and all else that makes the world familiar seems light years away. This includes the news. I have access to the Internet at only one location in the Abbey, and most days this means walking here to sort through email and check the news for about 30 minutes (newspapers drop in from time to time, but not regularly).

And as such, it was not until a few seconds after I posted my blog to Facebook last week that I learned of the shooting in Orlando, and so began a week characterized by feelings of isolation, homesickness, and frustration by me and most of the staff. The shooting affected me more than others in the USA have, which is a sobering thought - that there are countless similar instances against which to compare this one. I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps it is because I am far from home, or because I am growing older and these events seem more real to me than they did when I was a child. Maybe it is because this latest act of gun violence claimed more lives than any other in US history. I am also aware of the details unique to this case. I have many friends in the LGBT community, several of whom were celebrating Pride month at establishments like the Pulse nightclub last weekend. I am scared for their safety. I am also scared by the growing threat of ISIS and extremism both abroad and in my own country. So for a multitude of reasons, this hit a little closer to home than I would have liked. 

But while my thoughts were elsewhere, I was still here, on this remote island, attempting to live in community with people who were similarly scared, frustrated, and angry at the world that seems so dark and full of sin at times like these. 

That very night, however, these two worlds came crashing together in a way I did not expect - in worship. Every Sunday, the volunteers organize a nighttime Taizé prayer service in the Abbey. Taizé is an ecumenical Christian community in France famous for its contemplative worship that makes use of repetitive, chant-like songs in many languages, including Latin, French, German, and English. At Iona we sing Taizé prayer by candlelight seated on the floor.

This week, I was leading the service with another volunteer, and it was my responsibility to read the intercessions. And after learning about the massacre in Florida just hours before, there was no way that I could pray what I had already planned. It was clear that we would instead pray for the situation we found in front of us. But what can one pray in the face of such evil, such darkness, when so many people are feeling the absence of God and his love? The only words I could find were "Lord, have mercy." The Kyrie. Words that for me, don't try to explain how such suffering can exist, but don't run away from such suffering, either. So we prayed, in our doubt, in our fear, "Lord, have mercy." Kyrie Eleison. And that became the framework for our prayer as we prayed for Christ's light to illuminate our darkness, as we prayed for for those who had died, for their families, for the man who committed the atrocity, and for ourselves, each stained by sin and death. 

It wasn't an uplifting experience, but it was an honest one. Fifty candles burned in a rack above our heads, one for each life stolen in a rain of bullets. It brought the dark and dangerous world into our safe, quiet island community, and that's about all we could do. To make ourselves vulnerable, to feel someone else's pain. Prayer and church shouldn't always make us happy. But it should always put us in communion with all of God's world, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Prayer should break down the isolation between us and God and between us and the world.  It has been said that the Church should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I hope that we did that faithfully last week.

Rest eternal grant to your fallen children, O God. Let light perpetual shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

12 June: Ora et Labora

While neither the Iona Community nor its centers here on the island are monastic in the ways that word is usually used, it is the inheritor of a monastic tradition that lasted on Iona from the sixth century to the Reformation, and as an intentional Christian community, it has much in common with monasticism.

The most significant overlap between traditional monasticism and life on Iona is the rhythm of daily life in communities like this one: ora et labora. Prayer and work. We find our daily lives shaped by these two great occupations, and they are also the crossroads where we as individuals meet in community. In our work, we serve one another, the guests staying in the two centers, and the wider world as we practice the ancient tradition of hospitality. In our prayer, we bring all of life before God - our individual and corporate lives - and do so in communion with Christians around the world and Christians throughout the centuries. 

We begin each day with Morning Worship in the Abbey Church.* The ecumenical worship of the Iona Community draws on many Christian traditions, with much inspiration taken from Celtic spirituality, and gives us a common tongue with which to worship God. It is not quite Anglican, not quite Presbyterian, not quite Roman Catholic, but familiar enough to most Protestant and Catholic Christians to give us comfort and unsettle us at the same time, something that the Church should always strive for. The morning liturgy ends with everyone standing, and it feels slightly unfinished, as our work for the day flows directly from the worship. Ora et labora. 

In fact, in communities like this one there is little distinction between our work and our prayer. Everything we do, no matter how mundane, is treated like an act of worship to God. And this is something that should not be reserved exclusively for monasteries, or communities like Iona. It is not hard to imagine that work and prayer overlap here, where people sing "We are waiting for the dishwasher" to the tune of "We are marching in the light of God," where we gaze at centuries-old Celtic crosses during our work days, where there seem to be enough Bibles for every resident and sheep on the island, and in at least as many languages. It's easy to feel this synthesis of prayer and work when you start and end every day praying with your friends and colleagues in a candlelit abbey, where everyone seems to be a pilgrim. 

But where it's just as important, if not more, to understand this relationship, is back home in our daily lives, in the communities from which we came and to which we will return. And that insight is something that I hope to take away from this experience. 

Not everyone is called to be a monk - I risk sounding like the Master of the Obvious saying so - although it is a lifestyle that I have been fascinated with for some time. Rather, I believe that we are all called to incorporate this bit of monastic wisdom, this truth of ora et labora into our many vocations - vocations of mother, father, student, teacher, engineer, nurse, taxi driver, artist, computer programmer. People of all vocations could learn from this understanding that makes our daily work a little more holy and our prayer and worship a little more practical. Imagine if we saw what we do from Monday to Saturday as an extension of our "spiritual lives" that are so often allocated one hour on Sunday mornings. Imagine if we extended these lives not by more prayers or pious behaviors, or more study of scripture (although those are all good and necessary practices for the Christian life), but with an understanding that even the simplest tasks we do are done for the glory of God and are pleasing to God. One of the most important insights of the Reformation was that God blesses all work, not just that done in a church by educated, ordained clergy. 

What would our lives look like if we adopted this attitude? What would our prayer life become if it was liberated from a cordoned time and place and infused into every hour of our lives, every action. Would employers pay their workers a fair wage if they saw the writing of a check as an act of worship? Would our business and political leaders be more respectful of the earth if they thought of their work as a prayer made in unison with all of God's creation, a never-ceasing flow of praise from humans, animals, and the natural world? Would we treat each other with more kindness and respect if we thought of every conversation as a prayer, a call-and-response song performed for the glory of God? 

As I reflect on the practical implications of this lifestyle, I am struck that such a model may be one of the keys to holiness, to living a life in right relationship with God and his creation, his people. Perhaps this is one of the keys to living out God's will, to "pray without ceasing."

Monastic wisdom indeed. 


*A highlight of last week was leading the Morning Worship on June 9, the feast of Saint Columba (you know, the guy who started this whole thing).

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

8 June: Intersecting Communities

Blogging, like journaling, takes time, something that I always seem to lack in this community. While not a bad thing necessarily, I think I could be doing a better job of taking time for myself and to update this blog.

Life in community continues to unfold itself to me in new and interesting ways. I am especially struck by the multiplicity of communities on this island, something I hinted at last time. The Iona Community is not the only group that finds a home and welcomes visitors to this island. While they may be the inheritors, in a physical sense, of Saint Columba's project and the later Benedictine medieval legacy, they occupy only one spiritual and geographic space on Iona.

There is also a parish of the Church of Scotland, the established presbyterian tradition that provides a Christian presence in every community in Scotland. A Roman Catholic house of prayer is run by a nun, receives guests on retreat, and offers the services of a priest for Mass when one is available. Bishop's House is the retreat center of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and provides a sense of home for me in its familiar liturgies and traditions. I often drop by for Compline in the evenings and make it to Eucharist when I can - both are offered daily. What is special about Bishop's House is that it exposes me to a different community of pilgrims with whom to interact. Like my fellow volunteers, these pilgrims all have different reasons for coming to the same place, and they diversify the spiritual flavor of the island.

One might otherwise think that these four religious communities would be at odds with one another - the Roman Catholic retreat, the Anglican Bishop's House, the presbyterian parish, and the ecumenical Iona Community. Surprisingly, however (although perhaps not surprisingly if you know anything about this place), the communities work together to make a sort of spiritual quilt that that is broad enough to cover the entire island and provide enough of the legacy of the Celtic Christian tradition to welcome visitors with vastly different expectations and past experiences. Even the church services do not conflict. If one were keen enough, he could start his day with Eucharist at Bishop's House, follow that with morning worship in the Abbey, catch a service at the Catholic house of prayer, and end with back-to-back Anglican Compline and then a quiet service in the Abbey, or on a Sunday go to four communion services in a row, with enough time for a pleasant walk between each (I promise not to do this too often). In all seriousness, this is a practical, outward sign of the mutual respect these communities have for each other.

Too often in our culture, especially in the United States, we see church as something to be marketed, no different than any other consumer good. We erect large billboards promoting our services, make a distinctive brand and catchy slogans. We "church shop" as if communion with God and each other can be examined, selected, and purchased like an item at the grocery store. We see church as something to be consumed, to entertain us. At its best, the Church resists this, and here it does so beautifully. People come to Iona as pilgrims, not as consumers. They come because for the past seventeen hundred years, people have found this island to be a place to connect with God and God's creation, to feel close to Heaven, and to leave behind the busyness of everyday life for a short while. Christianity feels authentic here, even in the diversity of expression that the different traditions provide.

And churches aren't the only communities on Iona. There are the farmers, the island residents, the seasonal employees of the two small hotels, the shop owners, and the hundreds of pilgrims and tourists that visit every day. Like the churches, these communities intersect in interesting, often surprising ways - on the village streets, in the pub, on the beach. It is these moments of connection that make life here spontaneous and break the monotony of a regulated, isolated existence. And as people are coming and going at such a rapid pace, these points of intersection change daily, for the community we create here is not the same today as it will be tomorrow. Who knows what or whom God will bring us tomorrow? We can only wait and see.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

24 May: Life in Community

I've been on Iona almost a week now, and immediately I've been thrown into a new community, one in which sometimes I feel like I've lived for three hours and at other times three weeks. Community as a concept pervades every aspect of my life on Iona. I am working for a community - the Iona Community - whose members are dispersed throughout the world, with only one member in residence on the island at a time. I live in a community - the community of resident and volunteer staff who work for the Iona Community in its two centers and run the daily operations of programs, hospitality, and pilgrimage on the island.

Living in community is a real joy, and the joy and happiness that comes from such a life is evident to me after only one week. A sign reading "How good it is, how wonderful to live together in community," a slight alteration of the 133rd Psalm, hangs in the volunteer common room in the MacLeod Centre, my residence and place of work. I live and work with people from Sweden, Germany, Japan, Scotland, the Czech Republic, the USA, England, Australia, Uganda, Canada, Finland, and South Africa, and the diversity of the group extends far beyond nationality and native language. Differing world views, ages, political persuasions, diets, and global perspectives abound. We are all in different places on our journey through faith, and we all bring a unique story of how we came to this remote island in the Scottish Hebrides to work without pay for eight or more weeks and pray twice a day in a restored 13th century abbey. 

Despite all of that difference, living in community gives us a common purpose and identity that binds us into a whole. Through a life of common prayer and work, through hikes, late night conversations, Céilidhs (traditional Scottish dances) in the village hall, bonfires on the beach, and pints in the pub, we learn others' unique stories and make ourselves vulnerable enough to share our own. We grow close, and we say goodbye. This community is not permanent, nor its membership static over the summer. The volunteers ("vollies" for short) said goodbye to one member the morning they welcomed me and six others. Tomorrow we will say goodbye to two members who have come to the end of their short time here, one of whom I am grateful to have met for a brief while and sad to see go. 

This is what community is about to me, after only one week here - the giving and taking of ourselves and others as we form a united whole out of many. E pluribus unum, this American might say. And I fully expect that understanding of community to change and mold over the next nine weeks. What a great time this will be.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

18 May: Journeying to Iona

Iona Abbey, my home for the next ten weeks

There's always been something for me about writing on trains, where the pace of travel mirrors the pace at which the mind works to express itself in the written word. And I can't imagine a more beautiful place through which to travel by train than the cool alpine forests and lochs of western Scotland. My journey to Iona is almost complete - I have come to the end of my three-day pilgrimage, this bizarre Triduum which saw my graduation from Wabash on Sunday, my journey to England Monday, and the trip up to Scotland yesterday evening. After such a rapid change of scenery, I'm looking forward to the stability that ten weeks on Iona will provide.

I believe that I am following God's call back to this place, where for one week last year I sensed more growth in my discernment than for a long time before and after. Last Sunday we celebrated the feast of Pentecost, remembering the descent of the Holy Spirit on the earliest Christians and the "birthday" of the Church. I can't help but think, however, that the spirit must be chased sometimes - like something precious caught in the wind that is always just a few feet out of reach. That is what I feel like I'm doing now - chasing the spirit back to a place I only recently left, to this island. And perhaps it is just the beautiful scenery - we are passing Loch Lomond as I write - but the voice I heard calling me back here seems to get louder the closer I get. 

Such personal pilgrimages and wanderings are often lonely exercises, and already I have begun to adopt the isolating, self-sufficient mental attitude I learned last year when I was so often on my own in foreign cities. But Iona is a community, and as I quickly discovered last May, it is not a place to go and think big thoughts quietly on a stone beach, cut off from other humans. Rather, God speaks here in community, in human interaction, through food, drink, and common prayer. I have just met up with four fellow pilgrims, who begin work on Iona today. We will arrive already a small community. 

My prayer is that I will give myself fully to this community in the coming weeks, and that it will in turn reveal itself to me, and that the Holy Spirit may work through us all in the process.


PS: Speaking of Loch Lomond, I had no idea last year that it is on the route to Iona from Glasgow! My return to this part of the world reminds me of a line from this famous loch's ballad: "We'll meet where we parted in yon shady glen, on the steep, steep side o' Ben Lomond, where in deep purple hue the highland hills we view, an' the moon looks out frae the gloamin'."