As your ReadTheSpirit team, we took our first extended retreat — and WOW did we accumulate a whole lot of exciting stories for you. We traveled to Scotland and eventually to a remote island in the Atlantic: the isle of Iona that has been drawing pilgrims for more than 1,000 years.
You’ll hear more about the unusual way we approached this pilgrimage — and lots more about Celtic themes, the spirituality of the natural world and uplifting stories about the pursuit of peace and justice in our often troubled world in coming weeks, right here at ReadTheSpirit.
Today, we’ve a special treat — from a tiny town in Scotland where we experienced the following True Story that we just couldn’t resist sharing with you.
The Dog in the Doorway
CELTIC SPIRITUALITY calls us back to a closer relationship with nature — a principle vividly brought to life in the tiny Craignish Church of Scotland, which bravely withstands gale-force winds on a peninsula that extends into the Atlantic from the Highlands. This is a true story as illustrated in the photos taken discreetly (without flash or fuss that morning) as we American pilgrims worshiped in what we assumed, from the start, was an intriguing, centuries-old church. We soon came to realize that it was more remarkable for its relationship with Creation that we could have imagined as we initially passed through its double set of doors.
Here is what unfolded:
On a recent Sunday morning, the outer door to the church closes promptly at 10:15 a.m. as the congregation of a dozen souls and nine visitors hears the opening chords of the first hymn. Then, one of the parishioners carefully closes a second door leading into the main area of the church — thus, leaving her dog secured in the closed-off entryway between the two doors.
We sing several hymns. We listen to passages from Deuteronomy and Matthew. We sing some more.
Then, a lay preacher, vested in a purple stole over his tweed jacket, steps into the pulpit to hold forth on the day’s text and lead the congregation in prayer.
“Truly our first duty is to love the Lord,” the preacher declares part way through his sermon. “Really this is a pure definition of religion — love of God.”
Just then, a sound like the deep lowing of a cow comes from somewhere outside the sanctuary. Visitors glance at each other, because there are no pastures near this church. The sound could be someone’s hungry stomach grumbling, perhaps.
“And the second great commandment that Jesus gives us is to love each other,” the preacher continues.
The lowing rises again — and now it is apparent that the sound emanates from the doorway or, rather, this small space between the two doors. As the zenith of this service nears, the dog apparently is feeling some movement of spirit and is limbering up his own responses.
“Why do we love each other? Why do we do this?” the preacher asks. A respectful silence reigns. No response. After all, this is a rhetorical question. Pausing for effect, the preacher launches into his answer: “We do this because it is an extension of God’s love of us. For God has created us in God’s own image.”
Still there is silence and, despite the chilling winds blowing off the loch below the church, the preacher warms to this theme, declaring loudly, “God has set us apart from all the rest of creation.”
Now, this strikes home. A loud lowing erupts and rises into a keening somewhere between a whistle and a hum: “Heeee-mmmm.”
The preacher wraps up his sermon without further canine contributions. Raising his arms invitingly toward the congregation, he asks, “Shall we pray?”
He begins with a long and respectful salutation to God, then an invocation of the Creator’s presence among us and eventually he asks: “Lord God, we thank you for your entire global community around this Earth.”
He prays for the poor in other nations, lifts up several parishioners going through difficult times.
Then, the preacher intones: “We remember that people don’t always look ill, but may be hurting inside. We pray for all who are in special need of your care.”
When these responses first were heard, some visitors and parishioners were smiling — and a couple of the visitors were even biting their lips to hold back chuckles. Now, all of us have fallen into a rhythm of communal prayer. Deep into this litany of compassion, our canine cantor is proving himself quite thoughtful — emphasizing only certain petitions, it seems. The preacher is entirely at ease as his prayer moves toward its concluding plea:
“And finally, O God, we ask that you help us see how we can help others around us this week, taking care to bring to our minds all who may be in need of your care – and who are simply seeking the gentle touch of your hand.”
“Heeee-mmmm. Heeee-mmmm Heeee-mmmm.”
Another hymn, a benediction by the preacher — and the service ends with a tall, elderly parishioner scurrying into the sacristy to pour pots of fresh coffee and tea while another parishioner reopens the inner door.
Finally, our canine companion is welcome to join the fellowship hour — and readily receives the gentle touches that are immediate answers to our collective prayers.
CARE TO READ MORE?
Read our recent Conversation with neo-Celtic author J. Philip Newell. He comes from the Iona Community, the destination of our own pilgrimage.
COME BACK each day this week for more stories and, on Wednesday, a Conversation With best-selling author Matthew Fox on his latest book about unlocking the secrets of our spiritual yearnings.
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(Published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)