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, CĂ©ilidhs (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'."