final reflection on Iona (for now)

This is a picture from Rachel’s camera of part of the group as we were leaving Iona on the ferry to Fionnphort (before the bus ride across Mull to Craignure before the ferry to Oban before the bus to Glasgow–this is a day-long affair). As is always the case with retreats, the people make or break an event. One of our group members this week, Ian Campbell, goes every year, and he said the group doesn’t always function this well. On the first night, I looked around the refectory and thought, “What could I possibly have in common with anyone in this room?” But sure enough, as lives unfolded, everyone had something to teach me, from the public health professor to the woman who organized a choir for homeless people to the Swedish pastor who pursued ministry as a second career, having been told she couldn’t as a woman the first time she tried. You don’t get a dynamic, compassionate, willing to ask hard questions group every day.

What’s remarkable about Iona is that as ancient as it is, the place also feels very modern (or postmodern, if you will). It felt a little disconcerting at first, but it was intentionally designed as a living, breathing community dealing with the lived experiences of people right here right now, always. So even if it’s cliche, I think it might be by design that the people end up being the most central part of the Iona experience. And I was incredibly fortunate to get to learn from all of them.

Next report– Madrid sans bullfight.

A tie between Iona and First Christian Church of Oakland

I was really inspired by this cross in a tucked away corner of the Abbey. It made me feel connected to my home church, which is discerning its call to be a church oriented around a vision of peace. It was a reminder to me of how big that vision is, even though we’re trying to keep focused on the implications of that in Oakland. What a gift to know we do not stand alone in that process of bringing about God’s peace in the world!

An Iona ethic?

In an interview in Time magazine in 1948, Iona founder George MacLeod said, “As feudalism was the earthly seeding-bed of Thomas Aquinas, as emergent capitalism was the forcing house of Calvin, so our scientific, political, economic structure, without precedent, whose birth is our present agony, will be the seeding-bed of new discoveries of God’s approach to Man, and of the manner of our response. . . . Like Christian in his Progress we are inclined to say ‘We do not see the Gate, but we think we see a light.'”

What I find compelling about the worship at Iona is the fierceness of other-focus, and the dignity and divinity of humanity that is embedded in the liturgy. At the end of scripture reading each morning, instead of “The word of God. Thanks be to God,” the reader says, “For the word of God in scripture, for the word of God among us, for the word of God within us,” and we respond, “Thanks be to God.”

By and large Iona seems to draw a certain type of pilgrim–the type that would appreciate the Carrie Newcomer song “Betty’s Diner,” which Rachel Frey and I sang at the talent show last night. Her lyrics about how God is found in people comforting each other and drawing strength from each other in the booths of an all-night diner were described by more than one listener as “innately Iona.” That bridge between the sacred and the secular continues to be lived out here 70 years after it began to take shape, and it’s something I’m excited to share when I get back to the states.

I’m not sure whether MacLeod would have loved knowing he also shared this same passion for Holy Work with Bengali native Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote at the turn of the 20th century one of my favorite religious poems of all time in his collection Gitanjali:

Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!

He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones. He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. Put of thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil!

Deliverance? Where is this deliverance to be found? Our master himself has joyfully taken upon him the bonds of creation; he is bound with us all for ever.

Come out of thy meditations and leave aside thy flowers and incense! What harm is there if thy clothes become tattered and stained? Meet him and stand by him in toil and in sweat of thy brow.

My favorite comic, Billy Connolly, comes from Edinburgh. He comments, “People tell me all the time, ‘I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve never been to Scotland,’ like it’s a special accomplishment. Or they’ll say, ‘I went to Scotland and it rained.’ OF COURSE it bloody rained! What do you think it is, Majorca?!”

I’m on the vaguely remote isle of Iona (you take a train and a ferry and a bus and a ferry to get there from Glasgow). And it’s, yup, raining. Apparently the founder of the monastery kept sailing until he found an island where you couldn’t see Ireland from the highest peak. You find yourself wondering, “If St. Columba was experiencing such fierce persecution by the Irish in the 500s, why didn’t he sail SOUTH?” How did they manage to worship when it feels cold and wet in August with far better heat retention in 2009?

Perhaps the same way the cold and wet doesn’t stop people from meeting God here now (even in winter, when the staff stay as the tourists/pilgrims thin out). It’s what I’ve heard described as a “thin place,” because the divine and the profane dwell so close together. We do not sit at the end of morning worship because moving directly from the sanctuary to our assigned morning tasks is one motion of continuing to worship God.

Every dinner conversation has been rich and meaningful. Yesterday I heard a phenomenal story from a Swedish pastor. It reminded me that transformation is as difficult a task abroad as it is in the states. He said that in 1975, someone had managed to take down the fence and icons at the communion table so communion was closer to the people. He came to the parish in 1977. He was walking up from the cemetary in clerical robes when an old woman exited the sanctuary, saw him, and made a beeline. “Ah, a pastor; I have something to tell you. I haven’t been here in 30 years. I’m here now and they’ve CHANGED something. Make them put it back the way it was!”

Usually this type of confrontation would make the pastor freeze. But he got up his gumption and said, “You haven’t been here in 30 years and you expect me to change things back from the way it was made by people who HAVE been here?”

“They can BE here,” she huffed; “they just can’t CHANGE anything!”

(Imagine telling that story in your second language, by the way.)