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.