I have just returned from an amazing trip to Scotland and I’d like to share a bit of a report and some reflections on my time away. When I first heard about the Iona Community over 15 years ago I knew I wanted to go there someday and I finally got my chance. My best friend, Liz, is also a Presbyterian pastor, serving in New Jersey with her husband, Scott. Since Scott is a native of Glasgow and a member of the Iona Community I asked them if I could join them if they ever took a group over there and this was the year. I met up with them, 6 members of their congregation, and 2 other pastors in Newark and we journeyed together for a few days in Glasgow and a week at the Iona Abbey.
The Isle of Iona is a small island off the west coast of Scotland, where in 563 Columba founded a Celtic monastery that was very influential in its own times. In the middle ages it was the site of a Benedictine abbey and over the centuries has attracted many thousands of people on their own pilgrim journeys. The Iona Community, founded in 1938 by the Rev George MacLeod, then a parish minister in Glasgow is an ecumenical Christian community that is committed to seeking new ways of living the Gospel in today’s world.
I was privileged to be able to participate in an event led by the Wild Goose Resource Group and invited experts in “participative liturgical renovation”. Through plenary sessions, Bible study and workshops we looked at how the places where we worship contribute to the worship experience. We explored creative ways to use space, art, music, participation and liturgy to help people worship God in new, faithful, meaningful and appropriate ways. One of the most significant and moving aspects of my time there was getting to join in singing led by John Bell. Having experienced him in other conference settings it was real gift to sit in a room with him and about 40 others as he led us in simple harmonies and melodies that touched the heart. Then, when the congregation filled the Abbey each morning and evening for worship the words spoken and sung were stirring.
Part of living in the Abbey is committing to be a part of the community while you are there. Together with the 50 others staying in the Abbey from the US, the UK and Europe, we ate meals around table and shared in the tasks of daily living. I was surprised by the joy I found in joining in that work. We were divided into teams responsible for setting up, serving, and cleaning up meals. We were also all assigned a particular chore to do each morning after worship, such as chopping vegetables, scrubbing toilets or mopping floors. The work contributed to the feeling of connection and community and carried through to our worship and our learning.
Each week volunteers a the Abbey lead a 7 mile pilgrimage on the island. This pilgrimage took us through muddy bogs, up rocky hills, down into a marble quarry, onto the beach of Columba Bay, and even through a golf course unlike any I’ve seen before (imagine cows and sheep grazing on the greens). At each of the eleven stops along the way we read scripture, heard reflections, and joined in prayer. Daniel, the leader of our group, liked to sing so at several points our stops also including singing. When we reached the highest point of our journey we joined in “Over My Head (I Hear Music In the Air)” and when we ended our journey in St. Oran’s chapel at the Abbey we all sang a beautiful chorus of “Alleluia!”
George MacLeod described Iona as a “thin place” – only a tissue paper separating the material from the spiritual. To spend some time in such a historic, beautiful and inspiring setting is to be open to challenge and the exploration of new horizons. That was certainly my experience and now I know why so many people return to Iona again and again.
Now I will try to recover from jetlag and a long, crazy travel day as I sort through the notes, books, songs and thoughts I’ve brought back with me. I am grateful that this congregation gives me the time and some funds to be able to take this kind of trip. Thank you for that. I am also grateful beyond measure to serve in a congregation that already is open to thoughtful, faithful, diverse ways of worshipping God in both contemporary and more traditional settings. As I was reminded by some of the other participants that week, that is not always the case. I look forward to sharing more of what I learned and experienced with you all.