The journey to Iona is long. For many of us “living in community” for the week, of which Mo’s Mob (as I shall term the party of Ministry@Work and other contacts) formed a quarter, it has taken a lifetime.
In another sense, it took two days. Most of us in Mo’s Mob were able to take the same train to Glasgow and thereby begin our shared pilgrimage. Mo had had a vivid dream a few weeks before, in which she had been left in Glasgow, and this proved almost prophetic: a mix up over bags meant she had to dash back from Queen Street to Central station to retrieve her suitcase, with help from a couple of policemen, whom she charmed in her trademark fashion.
On the train to Oban, I sat next to “member in residence” (the Iona Community is dispersed), Chris Polhill, who took very seriously her role as the organising spirit for the week, and soon we realised that the couple sat opposite were also coming to Iona, and friendships were struck up. It is that sort of place. Indeed, much later, chatting with Iona’s director, Rosie Magee, about her native Northern Ireland, I found that we had a close friend in common from my university days, now living in Belgium. Iona’s outreach and inreach covers the world. As well as couples and individuals, we shared our time with groups from Loch Lomond and Canada, while the volunteers came from across Europe and indeed the Southern Hemisphere.
Our last (fish) supper on the mainland (13 of us dining in an upper room in Oban) closed a day of long travels. The next day we sailed in glorious sunshine to Mull, traversed the island to catch the ferry to Iona (in a little squall, which as we found, most weather here does) and duly fell in love with this pink granite heaven, a “thin place” as they say hereabouts, where the gap between earth and heaven is narrowed.
Iona is where St Columba founded his monastery, bringing (Celtic) Christianity to Scotland, from where it would be taken on by St Aidan to Lindisfarne, the Holy Island of Northumberland, and hence to the North of England. Oban’s beautiful and simple Roman Catholic Cathedral is dedicated to Columba and it was approaching there that I bumped into fellow M@W chaplain and his wife, Liz.
When the full 40 or 50 living in community on Iona were introducing one another, it was said Liz felt she had come back to boarding school. My knowledge of boarding school is more of reading about Hogwarts (or St Trinian’s – I’m feeling slightly anarchic as I write this), but shared rooms with bunk beds, a long trip to the showers or loo (especially as many of us need to go in the middle of the night at our times of life!) certainly bear out Liz’ observation. Next year Iona hopes to do substantial refurbishment, so don’t be put off! Living in community also means sharing work tasks (eg cleaning or serving meals) and opportunities to contribute to the worship and other activities, eg a fireside ceilidh (songs, stories, poems) and a dancing ceilidh courtesy of my musician roommate, Tom from Saltbox, and fellow enthusiasts among the week’s “residents”, as we were termed.
The worship began with a boogie woogie “he’s got the whole world in h is hands”, later we had an unaccompanied Iona Gloria (briefly taught to us in 3-part harmony) and we closed with the rock musical Godspell hit, “Day by day”, which gives a favour of the diversity of musical styles. Diversity is one of the values in this place of welcome to all, of peace and justice and care for the environment. Right from the founding days of George MacLeod, these principles have guided Iona. Nowadays John Bell is often to be heard voicing them on Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”. However, I should say the music started with a very brisk tempo, as did the mealtimes, especially if you are serving. Perhaps it is the sea air. Or the cold, damp air: ferns are growing abundantly inside the abbey!
But who would not care deeply for the environment, when the breeze, the salt sea spray, the flora and the fauna, the very rocks themselves all speak powerfully of the beauty of God’s creation and of the presence of the Holy Spirit? German volunteer Leonie spoke powerfully about the impact of our choices in the clothes we buy on the environment, asking us to examine what we were wearing. Its being too cold to check the labels on my underwear (likely to be Chinese or Bangladeshi), I found I had put on a gratifyingly Scottish scarf to brave the draughty abbey, though my neighbour Clare was wearing 3 items she’d knitted herself, al as warm as the welcome and humour we had shared since meeting on the Oban train. Indeed, much knitting is afoot by the common room fireside; the bumps on our journeys are teased out to the sound of clacking needles.
While people are drawn from most corners of the world to Iona, it was a surprise and delight after Saturday evening service to have a tap on the shoulder from a fellow singer in Staffordshire’s Ceramic City Choir, whose husband had worked with my roommate, Tom: this is a dispersed community in which there are many threads of contact.
The Sunday sermon took its theme from the weather, here and now, and over in the Caribbean, where hurricane Irma had just wreaked devastation. Her vision as that we should be the eye of the storm: calm, a source of shelter and support to those around us, when the situation around us, especially climate change, let alone political turmoil, is wreaking havoc.
That evening we had a quiet service, brief spoken prayer framing a quarter of an hour’s silence. For me, the thought which came to me in the silence was to focus on the long-term vision in life, not to fret about short-term worries. For example, to put effort into the marriage relationship, and not to spend too much time worrying about the wedding, to lift my eyes to the future helping clients and not to concern myself with current office politics.
Tuesday’s pilgrimage was an opportunity to walk around much of the island of Iona (about 3 miles long and 1 mile wide), reflecting on aspects inspired by its history and nature: the Nunnery ruins evoked memories of unspoken women of faith, the rocks (including Lewisian gneiss, some of the oldest rocks in the world) evoked creation ad re-creation, the opportunity by throwing one pebble into the turquoise sea and picking up another off the white sand beach at Traigh Mor to cast away sorrows we wish to leave in the past and to take up future joys. In that same spirit, the evening’ healing service was gentle and inclusive, allowing one to take part in privacy and peace.
Wednesday, a second day of calm and largely fine weather, portended well for those taking the trip to Staffa (held back by Monday’s winds) and the hexagonal basalt columns of Fingal’s cave, in legend the opposite end of a giant’s path crossing the sea from the Causeway coast of Northern Ireland. I had already visited both, the latter when visiting the Corrymeela Community on retreat, where Columba was known as Colm Cille, before fleeing murderous retribution in Ireland and devoting his life as a monk on Iona. I sought my peace on North Beach, where I found poetic inspiration, not usually my thing. Another gift from Iona, or to use its Gaelic name, I’.
On North Beach, Iona
It is the ancient conversation
Between breaking surf and sea-worn rocks
That fashions sand of dove white, love white.
Grain by glinting grain builds up
The foundation on which I lie dreaming,
Lost in the sunlit symphony of waves.
At my back the handknitted machair,
The daily tasks that bind us together,
Trusting in the tension of now and tomorrow.
Above, the storm-birthed rainbow
Smiles anew with flashes of rose and thistle,
Fuchsia and thrift, at forgiven clouds,
Bearing their needle-sharp rain away,
Which now bathes their wounds with gentle tenderness,
Giving life to new flowers of Protean beauty.
I’ is wee. And I am we,
The we, who dreamt each other across the ocean,
The we, whose wild goose spirit, wind-blown yet compass-drawn,
Brought us to our northern shore.
Gathered round the fire, we shared songs and poems, reflections and stories, rhythm and melody, laughter and nostalgia. But o dancing. No bother: Thursday closed our week with a ceilidh communion (sharing the peace by dancing “strip the willow” through the abbey church) and the a dancing ceilidh at the nearby MacLeod centre, to live music from our new-formed Community band, weaving fold-inspired hymn tunes and Scottish traditional music into an Iona fusion.
Iona is a “thin place”. So what does it mean to live in community here? Part of it is the elemental quality of life where the ocean meets the ancient rocks and the wind blows through the squalls of rain to reveal the rainbows (we saw four at once on one occasion, so superabundant were they) and the sunshine. But part of it is getting closer to heaven by the way we serve one another at meals, in daily tasks and above all by the way we consciously come alongside one another in conversations of a chaplaincy quality, to work through some really deeply felt issues and find new inspiration to fire our spirits back home.
Andrew Smith, September 2017