023: Pilgrimage to Iona Part 2: “Spiritual Riddles of the Ancient Abbey”

INDEX to All 5 Parts of our “Pilgrimage to Iona” series:
Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5

    Welcome back to A Pilgrimage to Iona! Remember, we’ve got many treats for you this week: First, the story itself. PLUS, videos so that you can hear voices from Iona.
If you want to read more, just click on the book covers we’ve sprinkled through our stories
this week. And Photos? Click on John Hile’s photos to see a larger image pop up.
    Ready? Packed for the journey? Here we go again …

Spiritual Riddles of the Ancient Abbey”

    “You will find peace. We all do.”
    An unexpected messenger in Paisley, carrying a lampshade.

ona is full of spiritual riddles.
    And, the leaders of the world-renowned, ecumenical community based at the centuries-old Iona Abbey seem to toy with pilgrims like Zen masters serving up mind-boggling Koans as shock treatment for over-stressed minds.
    Some of the puzzles are playfully petite.
    Iona is famous for its neo-Celtic style of prayer, concretely related to the needs of daily life and often pulling people toward a connection with the poor or the natural world. The Rev. George MacLeod, the spiritual architect of Iona’s most recent rebirth in 1938 said that the goal of this new style of worship was to make prayers “shorter and more to the point” so that both the privileged and the poor could fully participate in the experience.
    Shorter and more pointed, perhaps. But never dull.

     Early one morning, pilgrims stumble bleary-eyed into the medieval refectory adjacent to the abbey for breakfast. On the long oak tables, they find a choice of cornflakes or porridge and, standing on a raised platform at one end of the room, a chaplain for the meal prays, “Oh, Lord, may we not be like cornflakes: brittle, thin and crunchy — but like porridge: warm and comforting and full of natural goodness.”
    Who would reach for cornflakes after that? Pilgrims order steaming bowls of porridge all around.
    But, the very next morning, pilgrims find the same breakfast choices awaiting them, including steaming bowls, but the prayer intoned by that meal’s chaplain is twisted: “Lord, may we not be like porridge: stiff, stodgy and difficult to serve — but like cornflakes: crisp, fresh and ready to serve.”

    Pilgrims roar at the joke, then pause in wonderment: So, what is a hungry pilgrim to eat? 

    Some of the spiritual puzzles are cosmic.
    Iona’s neo-Celtic hymns and prayers, part of a creative explosion in arts and letters that flowered among the Iona staff on the island in the 1980s and 1990s, wound up filling entire new hymnals and prayer books. These new sacred texts often drew upon ancient images of God’s creation. Hymns by Iona’s chief composer, John Bell, sing of the stars and the moon dancing in praise of God.
    A Psalm rephrased by the Iona worship team asks God to make “the mountains bring peace for the people, and the hills bring forth justice.”
    What a fanciful metaphor! Hills could never move!
    But, turning our logic head over heels, the truth is quite different: Iona itself has moved and in a profound way.
    When the world’s highways were oceans and powerful leaders like the Irish nobleman who became known as St. Columba cruised the continent’s coastlines, Iona lay near the center of the earth. That’s why Columba chose it for his Christian community in 563. That’s why it was devastated by marauding Vikings in the early 9th Century and the priceless Book of Kells came to Ireland as a refugee of the bloodshed.
    Since World War II, however, airline routes have become our global highways and, in less than a century, Iona has moved to an end of our world.
    That’s why a journey to Iona ranks among the earth’s great pilgrimage routes today. And that’s why pilgrimage itself is a puzzle — a flipping around of mind, body and spirit to reorient all three. It’s why there’s a global revival of Labyrinths — the practice of prayerfully walking along a spiral path and, after reaching the center, twisting around again to walk back out. It’s why there’s a revival of spiritually surreal films like Luis Bunuel’s “The Milky Way.”

    We enjoy these cosmic puzzles:   
    Yes, the rock of Iona is said to be primeval and unmoving amidst the waves.
    And, yes, God moves even these mountains.

    On our road to Iona, our retreat leader knows all of this already and wisely prepares us for what lies ahead on the little island — even while we are stalled in an insufferably long line for a passport inspection at the Glasgow airport.
    We have flown all night and, as our mostly sleepy pilgrims begin to simmer in this long line, Beth Miller chants softly, “Hurry and wait. Hurry and wait. There’s no point in hurry, ‘cause travel is wait.”
    As always, she is right.

    A pilgrimage is slow because it is physical. This is not a transcendent flight from a comfortable perch of meditation, while we remain safely ensconced in our bedrooms or chapels at home. The Iona Community knows this, too, and embeds the truth in morning prayer, every day at the Abbey. Pilgrims and staff together pray these words:

    “We will not offer to God
    “Offerings that cost us nothing.”

    So, sleepless and sore from cramped traveling through the skies, we stand and wait respectfully in Glasgow airport, before even approaching our six days on Iona.
    The physical nature of our bodies in motion together is not ethereal at all. This is incarnate faith — an affirmation that the dozen of us moving together in this mindful, if awkward, way must actually MEAN something. It HAS to mean something, doesn’t it?
    But the very next thing we “mean,” after we clear customs, is nausea. One of us falls ill from the next stage of waiting outside Glasgow airport with taxi and bus fumes rising all around us until an otherwise capable professional woman in our group looks flushed and anxious, embarrassed at the burden she is posing on the rest of our company.
    We feel for her.
    For a time, this is our “meaning”: Tending to our physical needs, settling our friend in a better place, navigating restroom breaks for all of us, purchasing and distributing water bottles, buying the list of snacks we have requested, waiting further for a delayed passenger — all before our party can truly head into what we thought of as our pilgrimage road.
    “We will pass some beautiful Lochs today, when we get started,” Beth says.

    That’s another puzzle: We cannot seem to get started, darn it all!
    But, we are started already.

    The truth is that everything we have experienced — ALL of it — is pilgrimage, which really is the physical challenge and messiness of a dozen humans traveling as one.
    And, as in all things on this journey, the Iona Community knows this even before we set foot on their island home. I am writing this line about the “awkward” nature of our progress and the “messiness” of a group like this on Friday morning as we finally ride westward in a van somewhere between Glasgow and the Atlantic coast — completely unaware that, on the little island still far ahead of us, one of the leaders at the abbey, Rowena Aberdeen-deVoil also is setting pen to paper.
    Rowena is preparing a homily for the following Thursday evening’s communion service, when she will stand in the abbey among us and will tell us that this kind of spiritual adventure, from a distance, “seems wonderful until we are faced with the messiness of being with others in community.”
    Two pens on paper, still hundreds of miles apart, jotting down lessons about our experience of human “messiness.”

    If we could have pulled back from Earth a bit and could have looked down, we might have been able to see pilgrim groups — ours and others — and the Iona Community leaders themselves all in physical motion toward a Center.
    This resonance is not only in our movements. The resonance is not only in the two pens, mine and Rowena’s, moving together miles apart.
    It’s built into the Iona process of reflection.
    Already waiting for us, ready for our welcoming service at the abbey on Saturday evening, is a prayer in which the leader of that worship service will call upon God as “Spirit of unity, go-between God.” Then, printed in the service text, our lines written for us. We will unite in saying, “We have come on journeys of our own — to a place where journeys meet.”

    Muslims returning from the Hajj speak of these truths.
    They talk about the sheer physical challenge of dealing with heat, the need for water, the press of the crowds, the waiting, all of which is a central physical element of Hajj. But then, they say, the vistas open up and they see the world’s many peoples represented around the sacred sites. The pilgrim to Mecca comes home transformed both by the physical exertion as an individual and by the vision of a larger community than the pilgrim could not possibly have envisioned, safely ensconced in his home.
    Or, in Christian tradition, turn to the 14th Chapter of Matthew and contemplate the messy, awkward physicality of Jesus’ journey. He had just been treated rudely in Nazareth as the chapter opens, then his cousin John the Baptist loses his head. Jesus wants to withdraw, needing time alone, but a great crowd follows him relentlessly. To avoid a humanitarian crisis, Jesus  must feed this multitude.
    That done, he still wants to be alone and sends his disciples off in a boat and — again — he cannot escape the physical concerns of his community. Waves rock his followers’ boat and Jesus walks across the water to reassure his friends.
    That isn’t the end of the physicality of that one chapter of Matthew! The boat lands and Jesus is surrounded by the sick, Matthew tells us, so eager to attract his attention that these ill men and women literally clutch at the hem of his robe.
    He doesn’t flee. He heals.

    This is the concrete reality of moving in spiritual community! It’s messy. It’s human.
    Jews reflecting on the High Holy Days speak of these truths, as well.
    The observances of the New Year, the Days of Awe and the Day of Atonement mean little if the person setting out on this journey of spirit does not repair relationships on Earth. Wrongs must be righted to the extent humanly possible. Apologies and reconciliation must knit the community together again for the fast of Yom Kippur to hold its full meaning.


     And, as all of our spiritual circles near our convergence on Iona, as in days of old, unexpected messengers — perhaps even angels — mark our course and speed us on our way.
    In Paisley, outside of Glasgow, we stop at another medieval abbey, not as old as the site of St. Columba’s abey on Iona, but also part of the religious flowering in this part of the world.
    Layers of the faith are so thick here that a 100-year-old, stone-walled Methodist church seems like a youthful interloper near Paisley’s abbey.
    However, as if we had not had enough puzzles already, we learn that the far younger Methodist church now may be too old to survive much longer, situated in a changing commercial district in downtown Paisley.

    This news comes from an unlikely messenger — a tiny woman with slate gray hair carrying, without obvious explanation, a large lampshade in her hand. She appears suddenly and tugs at my elbow, surprising several of us as we stand on the street in Paisley contemplating the visibly dilapidated Methodist church.
    “Are you developers?” she asks the three of us. Then, eying us carefully, she says, “No, I can see now you’re not. No. No, I just thought you might be developers come to save our building, but — well, at least I can see that you admire our church, don’t you? I’m a member there myself.”
    She casually turns the lamp shade in her hand as we nod and express our admiration for the tall stone structure with a row of mostly down-on-their-luck businesses on the first floor.
    “The building needs work,” she says. “And our membership is so small now. We’re older like me and getting smaller, too,” she says, chuckling softly as if this is just the sadly amusing way of things: Faith ebbs and flows, layer upon layer.
    “I just hoped you might be developers, you know?” she says. “Thought you might have come here to save us by saving our building.  But I can see you’re not. You’re travelers. And, where are you going?”

    “Iona,” we say almost in unison.
    Her eyes actually begin to glisten in the morning light. She waits for a long moment as her eyes fill.
    “Iona,” she says at length. “Peace.”
    We wait — now carefully schooled in waiting.

    She nods and repeats, “Peace. That’s what I feel whenever I set foot on Iona — peace.”
    “That’s what we hear,” I say.
    “Oh, yes, you heard right. You’ll love it. You will find peace. We all do.”
    One of our pilgrims, photographer John Hile, asks, “May we take a photograph of you?” He raises his camera, trying to frame a portrait of her as she stands beside us, glistening eyes scanning our faces.
    But she turns to scurry away, lampshade now tucked at her side. Over her shoulder she calls to us, “Oh, no, not me. Not me.”
    She’s too quick to properly photograph, but her flight is too late in another way. We may not have been the messengers she was waiting for, but she and her message of peace already have become a part of our pilgrimage.

Chapter 3, “A Conversation With Our Pilgrimage Leader, Author Beth Miller”

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