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).