Ann Morisy Interview: Hope always … springs up.

“HOPE has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.”
Studs Terkel

That’s the final line in theologian Ann Morisy’s manifesto for discouraged congregations, Bothered and Bewildered: Enacting Hope in Troubled Times. Her books are loaded with research drawn from sociology, political science, economics and theology. From that solid foundation, she raises her call to arms: The revival of Christianity—and the accompanying revival of communities—begins with small circles of men and women unleashing the power of their faith, their compassion and their creativity.

If you have never heard of Ann Morisy’s name until today, you should know that she stands in a long line of prophetic British writers whose appeals to conscience have crossed the Atlantic and built huge followings in America. That line certainly includes Charles Dickens (ReadTheSpirit is starting a Dickens reading group this week) and includes C.S. Lewis (see our earlier cover story on Lewis’ enormous legacy). That prophetic line also includes writers, teachers and musicians who have sprung from Scotland’s Iona Community (as examples, see these profiles of John Philip Newell and John Bell).

Care to read more on UK-US connections? All this week, sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker is writing about our up-and-down trans-Atlantic relations in his daily columns.

Care to see and hear Ann Morisy? She occasionally comes to the U.S. and will appear March 21-23 at the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor adjacent to the campus of the University of Michigan. Sorry—yes, we know that most of our readers don’t live in Michigan, where ReadTheSpirit’s core staff is based, but we couldn’t resist heralding Ann’s visit with this interview.


There are echoes of Dickens, Lewis and the Iona writers in Morisy’s work. She preaches that congregations should not wallow in their anxieties about the future. Congregations are not poor, besieged outposts waiting for some do-gooder to come save them. In fact, every congregation is made up of men and women, and the truth is that each person can contribute in an “economy of abundance,” one of Morisy’s favorite phrases.

In other words, even if your options in life are extremely limited—perhaps you are wheelchair bound in an assisted living community—you still have a lot you can share with the rest of the world. Your contribution to abundance may amount to your compassionate smiles and encouraging words to others. There is no excuse for refusing to share, she argues. And, in fact, the vast majority of men and women are not so extremely limited—and can give far more on a daily basis.

The problem, Morisy argues, is that our societies—especially in the UK and the US—are tragically out of whack. Most Americans, today, know about the yawning wealth gap between the “rich 1 percent” and the rest of us. But Morisy’s preaching and writing doesn’t let the 99 off the hook. She asks audiences: Are you a Baby Boomer? Then, to those in that generation, she says: You’re contributing to the imbalance. Aging Baby Boomers—and she is one of them, she admits—are demanding that the majority of the world’s resources flow toward them. In other words, even if you’re among the “99 percent,” you’re not free of a moral responsibility to share.

“I write as a Baby Boomer, and on reflection it does indeed seem as if I have had an uninterrupted stream of benefits throughout my life,” Morisy writes in her book, Borrowing from the Future: A Faith-Based Approach to Intergenerational Equity. “But maybe I and my fellows are in for a shock. Our confident expectation of financial security rolling steadily into deep old age is threatened. The collapse of banks and the ensuing unsustainable mountain of debt that nations face mean that the future is going to be tough—even for the blessed generation of Baby Boomers. All the components are lining up for an intense bushfire as Baby Boomers and younger generations have come to terms with their—oops, I mean our—hampered desire to acquire and consume.”


As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I have conducted many of our Cover Story author interviews via long-distance connections with other countries, including the UK. However, Ann is based in Streatham on London’s south side, working out of a home office that runs on an intentionally modest budget. Her own telephone connection is via the Internet and has such limited capacity that our 90-minute interview was interrupted dozens of times. Eventually, Ann turned off all the lights and other electrical devices in her office in the hope that it might improve her connection. It didn’t. So, in the end, it was impossible to publish a typical ReadTheSpirit Question-and-Answer transcript.

Here are some of the things Ann did say, between Internet disconnects.

She is proud to be part of the laity in the Church of England; although she is a theologian, she is not ordained as a priest. She says: “To distinguish myself from academic theologians, I call myself a community theologian because I like theology that grows from the ground up.”

Ann is 61 and teaches a lot, these days, about the need for older men and women to keep learning—and contributing to the larger community. “As Baby Boomers are getting older, we are a pioneering generation entering this very long old age that people are experiencing today.” She works across the UK training communities in multi-generational dialogue. “We try to encourage churches not just to respond with pastoral care in relation to older people—but to encourage older people to think and reflect—and do their damnedest—not to be a pain in later life. … If we fall prey to being a pain in later life, we can really wreck the lives of those around us—for decades.”

That kind of in-your-face preaching and teaching is guaranteed to spark some anxious responses, and Morisy says she has not been eager to establish a personal website or other online column. Shifting to slang, she chuckles and says, “I like me privacy. I like to keep me head down.”

Fortunately, although she values her privacy, Ann isn’t shy and chooses when to emerge with her best shots—sometimes in book form and often in public workshops and talks, usually across the UK. This week, she brings her prophetic ministry to Michigan. We encourage our readers to find out more about this remarkable teacher. No, we won’t see most of you in Michigan—but you can sample Ann’s books and you can seek her out in the future.

This report is by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. You are free to repost and quote from this column.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Iona hymn writer John L. Bell talks about touring the U.S.

Iona Abbey, heart of the worldwide Iona Community on the isle of Iona off Scotland’s western coast. Photograph by John Hile.John Bell is a hot ticket for congregations, clergy conferences and Christian communities around the world, but the truth is:
He’s a tough guy to track down!
On Sunday, Bell talked with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm about the start of his current U.S. (and Latin American) tour. He is sought after by Protestant, Catholic and non-denominational churches around the world. But, Bell started our interview by quickly dismissing interest in the online realm.

“I am happy to talk to you,” Bell told Crumm on Sunday, “because you know the Iona Community and the work that I am doing—but I don’t have much use for online media. The things written online aren’t all that accurate. Sometimes I am sitting at a conference, waiting to be introduced, and I realize that the person who is introducing me must have gone to Wikipedia for the details. I don’t ever to go Wikipedia or anywhere else online to read about myself. But I can tell you: There must be things online that aren’t very accurate about my life and work, because they do keep popping up as I travel.”

One problem is that Bell shares a name with nearly 50 other John Bells listed in Wikipedia, including athletes, artists, politicians, scientists—and other musicians. It takes some savvy online searching even to locate John Bell’s current American schedule. He doesn’t have his own website or blog.
So, to help John Bell accurately kick off his 2012 American tour …


John Bell in one of the few online photographs available for republication.John Bell draws a crowd! Not only is he personally responsible for a long list of hymns and anthems sung in churches around the world, but he also is a popular teacher on Iona-Celtic-Christian approaches to prayer, worship and work with the world’s most needy communities. (ReadTheSpirit has published many stories about Iona’s important Christian influences. Here’s a 2011 interview with John Philip Newell, another influential Iona writer. And, from 2009, here’s an earlier interview with John Bell about his book on reviving Christianity. NOTE: All ReadTheSpirit stories can be republished, as long as you link back to our website. See our Creative Commons sharing license below.)

Coming soon: February 1-4, Bell is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at a Presbyterian educational conference. Then, February 3-5, he is in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at First United Methodist Church for a global music weekend. From February 13-15, he is in Phoenix, Arizona, for a clergy conference. And, February 23-25, he is in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a clergy conference. In March, Bell is in Atlanta. He also is visiting two countries in South America. In May, he is in Atlanta, Tulsa and Bangor, Pennsylvania. By June, he is in North Carolina.

Best place to find details about his U.S. tours? Iona Community New World Foundation keeps track of his plans and posts updated event information—and some links for further information. The Foundation also posts a helpful index to a wide range of Iona-related links, including the Wild Goose organizaton that is John Bell’s professional home base in Scotland. Want to go right to the source in the UK realm of the Internet? The Wild Goose Resource Group also maintains a short profile of John Bell.

Interview: Iona hymn writer John Bell

Iona Abbey and cross. Photograph by John Hile.DAVID: Let’s start with biographical details. You’re John L. Bell—to distinguish you from the other famous John Bells out there. And, I believe you’re 62 right now.

JOHN: Yes, that’s right.

DAVID: Where do you live these days? That’s not clear to me from some of your online biographies.

JOHN: Glasgow, Scotland, is home, but I’m on the road between eight and nine months of most years. Right now, I’m over here in the U.S. for eight weeks doing different events. I’m also taking care of some business with my publishers and I plan to visit a small community in Paraguay. So, I’m doing some public events, some private events and some personal visiting.

DAVID: Why is Paraguay on this trip?

JOHN: We have a relationship with a small community there. Every year, volunteers come to us in Scotland from Paraguay. I want to visit their home, see where they come from, and experience some of their culture. This year, I’m also traveling in mainland Europe and in parts of England and Ireland.

DAVID: You’re an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland and you’re famous for composing music used in churches around the world. But, how do you prefer to introduce yourself before a group?

JOHN: I say that I’m a resource worker in areas of worship and spirituality. That’s really what I do. Sometimes, I work in universities and seminaries. Sometimes I work at conferences. Sometimes I work at local churches. I focus on different things in different places. I may work with congregational music and show ways that music can be improved; or I may talk about scripture and help people lose their fear of engaging with scripture; or I might help to prepare men and women getting ready for ministry in seminary; or I might work with people trying to deepen their individual spirituality.

DAVID: You have a unique perspective as an outsider, traveling widely across the  U.S. Can you tell us anything about trends you’re seeing in American Christianity?

JOHN: Oh, America is such a huge country that if I make any comments, I can immediately be contradicted by people with contrary examples. So, I would not want to make any specific comments. But, I can say this generally: I see a lot of what we might call non-liturgical churches that now are interested in styles of music and worship that have a much more ordered sequence. They are reaching out for more traditional forms. And, at the same time, I’m seeing some more liturgical churches that are trying to open up.  I see conferences organized by more traditional churches inviting people from nondenominational churches or megachurches to address them. And I’m seeing some nondenominational churches inviting people from more historical churches to speak at conferences.

DAVID: So, you’re seeing something of a crossover in Christian culture. Do you think American churches are looking for some kind of new middle ground?

JOHN: I don’t know if they’re trying to find a middle ground. But, I can say this: I would hate to see the church become so intermixed in traditions that we wind up with a sort of morass of grayness. For example, if your gift in the church is lively song and a strong emphasis on social justice like the Mennonites, then that’s an important and distinctive gift to share with others. Orthodox and Catholic churches have gifts for exploring the mystery of God and those are true gifts. Some traditions have gifts in their welcoming nature and in showing hospitality. I would say: Major in your gifts! A failure of ecumenism would be to merge everything into a sort of shapeless mass of sameness. God made us different to represent the full spectrum of all colors within Christianity.

DAVID: At ReadTheSpirit, we have covered some of these movements back and forth through Christian tradition. For example, Shane Claiborne—a very popular American speaker and author among innovative Christian leaders—now is heavily promoting Common Prayer. There’s a new edition coming out this week of his book called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

JOHN: Yes, I have friends in Britain who already are using his Common Prayer book and appreciate that, because it’s rooted both in traditional practices and in contemporary language. He draws on the spirit and wisdom of a whole lot of people in his Common Prayer book. I think that approach is much more attractive to people in this postmodern society—rather than telling people that they have to spend endless hours wrestling with tangles of archaic religious language in some prayer book from an earlier era.

DAVID: You and John Philip Newell and other Iona writers are now known around the world. Do you think of yourself as a global voice?

JOHN: No. I don’t think about it that way at all. I believe that for my work to have any authenticity, it has to be rooted in the place from which I come. All my own writing and composing is done in Scotland. I don’t write anything while I’m traveling—with one exception. I do believe that it’s important for me to engage with and learn form people in the developing world.

But, I never write something with the thought that I expect it to be translated into other languages. I never stop to think whether someone in a distant country—Finland or Argentina or some other country—will want me to come talk about what I’ve just written. If I thought like that, then I would have taken my eye off the ball. Spirituality must be localized and nurtured in the soil from which it has grown.

And I don’t think of what I write as coming directly from me to the world. That’s not how I work at all. I would never write a book where the material hadn’t gone through friends and colleagues and people I trust in our community. My work is developed in conversation with other people. I have a very strong feeling that God has blessed me and given me gifts that come out of a particular geographical and historical situation. As long as I’m true to that—then what I do may have value elsewhere. But if I were to think of myself as some kind of global writer, then I would lose the spiritual plot of my life. That may not be true for everyone, but it’s true for me. I live in Scotland; I’m a person who is Scottish; my heritage draws on the experience of the Celtic church; and our faith has been formed by living and working among impoverished communities. These are my spiritual roots. These are what give me energy.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Interview with Celtic Christian writer John Philip Newell on New Harmony: The Spirit, Earth and Human Soul

JOHN PHILIP NEWELL, center, leads prayers for peace in New Mexico.

A New Harmony
by John Philip Newell
pulls us across boundaries
of race and religion

In Part 1 of our coverage of A New Harmony, by John Philip Newell, we reported on this new book’s visionary call to men and women toward a timeless unity.
We also published a brief excerpt, so you can read some of John Philip’s own words from this important new book.

TODAY, in Part 2, we welcome John Philip Newell for our weekly author interview.

ALSO THIS WEEK: Read about ‘I Hope for a World Where …’ Don’t miss our invitation to join in a united prayer for a better world in keeping with themes John Philip Newell has been teaching in his recent books. It’s a simple yet a powerful effort to join our individual prayers for peace.


DAVID: Let’s begin with a question readers have asked me, following earlier stories about you in ReadTheSpirit. It’s a simple question, but also an important one: Who are you? You travel so widely now and you talk about unity across religious boundaries. How do you describe your own life today?

JOHN PHILIP: My wife and I live in Edinburgh. From our flat, we look out over the botanical gardens. That’s very much my home base from which I am traveling these days. We spent July this summer in New Mexico, where we tend to spend summers teaching. As I’m talking to you now, I’m in Canada with family. That’s where my father, William, and my mother, Pearl, live. He was a minister and ended his working career as the Canadian director of World Vision International.

I was baptized John Philip, but for a long time the John was hidden away by a J. at the front of my name. But John Philip is my full name and it’s what my family calls me when they want to express affection. So, a couple of years ago, I realized it was important to reclaim this name of my heart. I’m now going by John Philip, rather than J. Philip.

I’m ordained in the Church of Scotland, part of the Reformed tradition. That’s the church that saw itself as the Catholic Church continuing in Scotland through the process of the Reformation. When people ask for more, I explain that I was reared in the Christian household. I write from the Christian household. I draw heavily on the Celtic Christian stream of spirituality, but that tends to be confusing to people. They get the impression that there is some Celtic Christian church. What I mean by using that phrase is: I draw a lot from that particular ancient stream.

DAVID: You use a lot of water metaphors in your teaching and writing: streams, waters, wells from which we can draw water. This year, one of those shared wells is the special attention you’re paying to gathering people from across the Abrahamic faiths for prayer. How is that going so far in 2011?

JOHN PHILIP: The Praying for Peace initiative is something that is in the forefront of my teaching this year, but my teaching schedule was set well in advance. So, I’ve been inviting prayers for peace and chanting for peace to become the beginning of my teaching work, as I travel to these places that were scheduled quite a while ago. I want people to feel the yearning for relationships within the entire Abrahamic household. When I was teaching in New Mexico, we used words from the Hebrew scriptures, from Jesus and from the Quran as part of our morning and evening practices.


JOHN PHILIP NEWELL on Iona.DAVID: You have always written a lot about prayer, sometimes comparing our quest as Listening for the Heartbeat of God, the title of your book back in the 1990s. In this newest book, you write: “In the sixth century on Iona, one of the rules that St. Columba gave to his monastic community was to pray ‘until thy tears come.’ When tears flow, something very deep within us is stirring. Prayer is about getting in touch with the deepest dimension of our being.” What you’re writing about sounds very much like descriptions of prayer we’re hearing from Quaker writer Philip Gulley and from Eugene Peterson, creator of The Message Bible. They both teach that prayer is less about recitation of lines and more about paying attention. Am I reading your own new book correctly in making these connections?

JOHN PHILIP: Absolutely, there’s a connection there. Gandhi referred to prayer as a way of getting in touch with the most intense yearnings of the heart. That’s how I view deep prayer practice. We are paying attention to what our unconscious is throwing up at us and, at the same time, we are getting back in touch with the most holy yearnings of the heart.

DAVID: We’re in a realm here that I think is challenging for a lot of readers. For example, I can’t recall another recent inspirational book by a major Christian writer that includes as many stories drawn from dreams as your new book. Your book is full of your dreams.

JOHN PHILIP: That’s intentional. Writing about my dreams is a part of exposing my heart, sharing my heart with readers. For me, the sharing of dreams is the same as sharing important transitional moments in my life with readers. Dreams come up to us from a very deep place within us. Dreams are characterized by a wonderful uniqueness, of course, but they also come from a common place. Carl Jung called it the collective unconscious. It is possible to share a dream that is both deeply personal and at the same time invites a response from deep within the listener. It is like drawing from a well that is within all of us.

Whether we’re talking about accessing the well of dream life or we’re talking about the discipline of prayer and meditative practice, I believe the deeper I move into the inner well of my being—the closer I’m getting to the inner well of your being—and the inner well of all being. We sometimes mistake prayer as a process of separating ourselves from others. We sometimes can feel we are turning away from the wellsprings of creation. I am saying: Prayer is about accessing that spring of the sacred, the soul force of God. This is the greatest force for transformation in the world.


DAVID: Readers will be interested, I think, to find that you’re not talking about turning away from the world. Much like Dr. Rodney Taylor who talked with us about Confucius recently, you argue that prayer—this mystical form of prayer you write about that is so influenced by Celtic teaching and Carl Jung and other influences—is really about directly confronting the wounds in our world. It’s not about going off somewhere and soothing ourselves individually. One figure you write about, who also appears in our own book Interfaith Heroes Volume 1, is Etty Hillesum, who died in Auschwitz in 1943. You introduce her in a chapter called “Looking Suffering Straight in the Face.”

JOHN PHILIP: I am very drawn to Etty and her stature of soul. I am impressed with her desire to look suffering straight in the face, as I write in the book. I think that is an essential part of the pathway toward new beginnings and healing in our world. We must address, confess and confront just how broken we are individually and in our communities, nations and all around the Earth itself. The way forward is not to somehow turn away and downplay the world’s wounds.

Etty left us these diaries and letters, where often in a single thought she is able to speak about the glory of a blossom she sees outside her window from her apartment in Amsterdam to the horrors of the rounding up of the Jewish community in ghettos. Sometimes, we all feel fear. Sometimes, we all want to look away from the brokenness of the world. We’re afraid that we might be swallowed up by the darkness. Yet, Etty was able to look directly at it in strength and move back and forth between her hope for the world, her hope that she was making an impact.

This is very close to the heart of peacemaking, I think. Etty sees in every moment—in every relationship she encounters—the choice between darkness or toward redemptive, transformative relationships.  What Etty shows us is that this choice between darkness and hatred and brokenness—and redemptive relationships—that choice is in every moment.

DAVID: There are many efforts today by many groups trying to reunite what we call the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. You’re talking about that, too. On a daily basis, you are encouraging that and practicing that form of prayer. But you’re also talking about something much, much bigger than that. Before your book ends, you’re also reaching even farther East to India and really you are writing about your vision of unity that could circle the entire world.

JOHN PHILIP: I am writing about something new, but I am also writing about something very deep. I am calling us to liberate a new unity and harmony, but this also is very old, very deep.

DAVID: You talk about Thomas Merton, who traveled to Asia to connect his own Catholic practices with Buddhist monks. He died in that journey in 1968 in a tragic mishap with some electrical wiring in his hotel room in Bangkok. But here are Merton’s lines from his now-famous talk that he prepared for monks in Asia: “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

JOHN PHILIP: Merton was a great prophet in saying this. For me, that is a very liberating vision, because I think part of the paralysis today comes from people believing the lie that we are essentially separate as people, as nations, as individuals. Too many people believe this lie that we must be in opposition to one another. What Merton was reminding us, just before his death, was that we are one and the One we come from is deeper within us than the many fragmentations around us today. The way forward is about remembering this essential oneness within us and asking people: Are we prepared to take up the cost and the responsibility of truly living as one?

Care to read more about John Philip Newell?

Please connect with us and help us to reach a wider audience

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

Interview with Iona Community writer Jane Bentley

Earlier this week, we reported on the release of a spiritual guidebook to the legendary isle of Iona—destination of countless pilgrims from around the world. In Around a Thin Place, Jane Bentley and popular Iona writer Neil Paynter have produced a spiritual guide to the experience of an Iona pilgrimage. The book is not available via Amazon (although an occasional Amazon re-seller lists it). The best place to get it—and all of Neil’s books—is the Wild Goose Publications site, which is the media-production arm of the Iona Community.

TODAY, please meet Jane Bentley in our weekly author interview …


DAVID: What brought you into a relationship with Iona—and the community of people who live with Iona at their heart? Tell us how you discovered Iona.

JANE: I was born just west of London in the 1970s and I’m 38 now. This has been a long journey for me. I was raised in the Church of England but I left that all behind when I was about 14 and went to atheism for a while.

It was a trip to Iona that made me take a second look at faith. People think they’re coming to Iona for answers, but that’s not the purpose. Principally, Iona is a place that asks people questions, rather than giving them answers. That’s what it did for me. I came here with a general interest in the history of Christianity.

And, eventually, I found myself led back to Christianity. I saw on Iona people who feel that it’s truly a part of our Christian calling to care about peace and the environment and the needs of other people. I felt myself, over a period of years, moving from my atheism to being an agnostic and eventually back to Christianity. It took a long time but that journey back to faith began on Iona.

ST. MARTIN’S CROSS just outside Iona Abbey, where the daylong pilgrimage begins each week.DAVID: You’re a co-writer and editor of this guidebook. But you’re much more than that professionally, right?

JANE: I am a musician. I’ve just graduated with my doctorate in music and education that I completed through the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. For my doctorate, I worked through different schools there and studied the way Iona uses music with people.

DAVID: You’ve worked with music on Iona, and I know that you also work with music extensively in hospitals and other settings. You’re a professional in theater arts and, we might say, a professional in the spiritual and therapeutic use of music. But you didn’t come to Iona as a professional. You came as a lay volunteer. That’s one of the fascinating things about Iona. A lot of the people running the place are ordinary folks who are given these remarkable jobs.

JANE: That’s right. I first came to Iona in 1997 as a volunteer layperson. I ended up doing six weeks on the island at that time. One of the great things people discover about volunteering at Iona is that they show a lot of trust in people. Even if you don’t have a lot of experience in leading worship, at Iona you are trusted to plan worship and lead it. Obviously there are clergy persons leading Eucharist, but everyone on the staff is encouraged to lead worship. That experience taught me a lot.

DAVID: So, here you were as a skeptical artist, experienced in theater and music but certainly not very experienced in matters of traditional religion. And suddenly you were immersed in this community that had you leading worship and leading pilgrims on these daylong walking retreats of the island.

JANE: Yes, Iona grew around me.

DAVID: The pilgrimage around Iona that you and Neal describe in the book is a bit like that, isn’t it? People may think it’s a personal quest to reach a destination, but the pilgrimage really is a living, ever-changing way of reflecting on your own life and the lives of the other pilgrims around you. The pilgrimage is quite dynamic. I’ve completed the long pilgrimage twice and I have to say: It was dramatically different the second time, compared with the first.

JANE: The long pilgrimage is a great way to see the island and see more sights than if you were just day-tripper to Iona. Lots of people are interested in the history of St. Columba, who allegedly landed all those years ago on the south side of the island and then founded the original Christian community there. But most people would never find and reach that point without a pilgrimage group. The tracks that lead down there to the south end of the island are barely discernable. The ground we cross is difficult.

As we walk together on that day, the experience is more about the other people around you than it is ticking off sites on some tour. You get into conversations with people as you walk. There’s time and space for a lot to unfold as we walk. I didn’t expect that the first time I went on the pilgrimage.

Eventually, the pilgrimage can become an act of prayer—and it unfolds as you’re discovering this community of pilgrims. In our book there’s not a lot of historical information. That wasn’t our goal. We’re offering readers much more reflective pieces in this book.

DAVID: People who haven’t been to Iona or made any global pilgrimage may be wondering: What’s so special about this place? Why couldn’t I just go for a walk in the woods with friends close to home and experience the same thing?

JANE: On Iona, there is the sheer physicality of this landscape and the fact that we don’t have absolute control over it—or the weather that comes in off the Atlantic. In the winter, the ferries to Iona sometimes won’t sail over for days because the conditions are so bad. We discover that we are less the masters of our own destinies there. Iona strips away this illusion of control we have in our ordinary lives. We find that we have to adjust our own living patterns within something much bigger than we are.

Plus, many people come to Iona at a period in their lives when they are looking for something—searching for something, even if they’re not quite sure what that is. To encounter lots of other people from around the world in that same situation in their lives means that there is real potential there to open up in ways we might not ordinarily do.

Iona has been a sacred place for millennia, even before Columba arrived on the island. On Iona, we sense this very long continuity of human engagement with the sacred. That creates a powerful momentum. And, of course, then we return to the rest of the world, hopefully looking for more fresh ways to rediscover God.

Care to read more about Iona?

READ A PILGRIM’S STORY: In 2007, we published a series on our first pilgrimage to Iona.

Please connect with us and help us to reach a wider audience

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

167: Conversation With J. Philip Newell, an Evangelist from a Far Continent

For more than 1,000 years, Celtic Christians have been evangelists from a distant land, bringing fresh insights to the faithful around the world — and sometimes finding themselves harshly rebuffed for their effort.
    Throughout the 20th Century, the Celtic revival flowered and began to re-seed Christendom –  even before similar movements took hold in the U.S.
    Millions of Americans are familiar with Jim Wallis, the best-selling author of “God’s Politics” and founder of Sojourners. But, in Scotland in 1938, 10 years before Wallis’ birth in 1948, the Rev. George MacLeod founded the Iona Community with principles that are a first cousin to what Wallis shaped decades later.

    Millions of Americans are aware of a renewed interest in the Orthodox realm of Christianity — rediscovering the beauty of icons, the seemingly fresh perspectives of Orthodox theology and the way that Orthodox worship engages all the senses. MacLeod was making this connection in the 1930s.
    Millions of Americans love the hauntingly beautiful Celtic music that’s everywhere these days. But the Celtic musical revival in worship really is the full flowering of a generation of Iona leadership in which J. Philip Newell ran the historic abbey in the far west of Scotland and talented musicians like John L. Bell literally were producing a whole new hymnal and book of liturgy.
    Countless Americans already know Newell’s inspirational voice — calling to them to re-engage their spiritual senses through popular books like “Listening for the Heartbeat of God.” Now, Newell takes a startlingly different approach toward readers and offers a full-fledged manifesto that seeks to reshape the way most Western Christians think about the core of their faith.

    (If you’d care to learn more, read our own series on A Pilgrimage
to Iona
. You also can click on the cover or the title of Philip’s book
and you’ll jump to an additional review of the book — and can buy a
copy direct from Amazon, if you wish. We’ve got even more helpful links at the end of this story.)

    This isn’t the first time Americans have heard this appeal to a Creation-based spirituality — and an abandonment of the original-sin-and-redemption approach to the faith. In 1983, for instance, American theologian Matthew Fox published, “Original Blessing,” a milestone in the rebirth of this strain of spirituality.
    In his earlier books, Newell already has been reflecting these themes. But “Christ of the Celts” — weighing in at a remarkably slim 161 pages — is really Newell’s full-fledged Christology.
    And, since timing is everything in our rapidly churning global culture — Newell couldn’t be hitting American bookstores at a more opportune time. Everywhere readers look these days, American evangelicals are engaged in vigorous — sometimes even angry — debate over the future of Christianity.
    From the traditional end of the spectrum, Wheaton College English professor Alan Jacobs has a brand-new book appearing this month, “Original Sin,” trying to remind Americans that the traditional original-sin approach to faith still serves a very good purpose. The book proclaims that “original sin” is nothing short of “the cornerstone of our self understanding.”

    Then, at this precise moment, here’s this slender, smiling pilgrim from Scotland, his curly hair perennially windblown from hiking the highlands, stepping onto the global stage and telling Jacobs — and all of those arguing American evangelicals: “Sorry, friends. You’ve got a few things wrong.”
    Whether you agree with Newell — or regard him as a heretic, as many surely will — his spiritual message is powerful. He calls to weary men, women and young people and asks them simply to:
    Remember God’s goodness within you.
    He says: At the core of our lives is goodness, not original sin.
    He says: At the core of the Earth community, there is goodness. And, as God says in Genesis, the Earth itself is — good.
    This is a voice you cannot afford to miss in the historic debate on Christianity’s future. This is a book that, if your small group tackles its 8 chapters, you’ll be overflowing with discussion for a couple of months — and, likely, more.

    Here are highlights of our Conversation with Philip Newell from his home in Edinburgh, Scotland.

    DAVID: Many readers are going to be startled by this book, Philip. When you and I met in Iona last year, you were this very soft-spoken leader of a pilgrimage group, decked out neatly in your yellow rain gear — and I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for the way your global audience may think of you: the neatly contained, whispering voice from Scotland inviting them to rethink their Christian spirituality.
    This book is short, but it’s a major — well, the word “manifesto” comes to mind.
    PHILIP: Yes, this is a first attempt at a new Christology from within this Celtic resurgence. It’s an attempt to further root what this movement has to offer in the world today.
    But I love the phrase from Jewish mystics who talk about new-ancient words. I’m speaking about an ancient vision here but in a new way.
    As this material has been emerging, from within me and within the context of my meeting with so many people around the world over the last number of years, I’ve been aware that for some time I was speaking of the new birthing of Christ and putting it in future tense. Finally, I realized that it’s not future tense. Something is stirring now and we’re being invited now to explore this new way of seeing. We’re bringing the treasure of our tradition here –- Christ right in the heart of us.

     DAVID: My impression is that, until now, many people have bumped into the Celtic tradition mainly through music in their parish or perhaps an inspirational book. Many people think of the Celtic movement as calling people back to a love and appreciation of nature.
    But you’re pointing people another step forward in their understanding of the Celtic movement, right?
    PHILIP: Yes. I’ve been devoting a lot of my teaching and writing energy over the last 15 to 20 years on aspects of bringing the insights of the ancient Celtic tradition to people today. I think for the first major part of that effort -– at least the first 10-plus years of that — most of our focus was on the creation theme and understandably so! We were so hungry and desperate to find language that deeply incorporated the language of creation into our spiritually.
    But that’s only half the picture. At the profoundest of levels what the Celtic tradition has to bring us is not just love of creation — but love of Christ and love of creation held together.

    DAVID: When people start reading this book, they’re going to experience some surprises. Like Pelagius! Many readers won’t know his name at all — but those who do will be stunned. As far as I can recall, this is the first Christian book I’ve read in years that says: Hey, Pelagius was an all-right guy!
    I mean, your book is coming out in the same season that Alan Jacobs freshly slams Pelagius for arguing against the doctrine of original sin. Jacobs has no use for Pelagius at all. You’re saying he was an important prophet and his message is relevant today.
    PHILIP: Pelagius has been so badly misrepresented.
    A number of years ago in England, I was at an event in which Jurgen Moltmann was giving a talk and he took another swipe at Pelagius as countless others have done over the centuries. At the end of the talk, I asked him, “Have you read Pelagius?”
    He said, “Of course not!”
    I have a lot of respect for Jurgen Moltmann, but about what other theologian would he have thought to say something like that: I’ve never read him, but we all can safely criticize him.
    So much of our western Christian tradition has assumed they knew what he was teaching and on the basis of this, they’re willing to dismiss him. But, there’s been very little engagement with the material as Pelagius presented it.

    DAVID: There are others who’ve been raising this point. Tell us a little about the other voices.
    PHILIP: In the Celtic tradition for me, it was James MacKey’s book in the early 1990s, a volume James edited called, “An Introduction to Celtic Christianity,” especially from the Irish perspective. For me there was quite a groundbreaking article in that collection arguing that Pelagius was not just a “one-off” or some kind of “exceptional teacher-slash-heretic.” Rather, Pelagius was speaking from deep within a perspective that had a common ground in the Irish-Celtic tradition early on. That article opened up a new way of seeing Pelagius for me.
    If we get into reading his material, I think we can see that Pelagius was reflecting a tradition rather than just being an eccentric.
    DAVID: In the States, of course, many people are aware of Matthew Fox, who comes out of the Catholic church and for more than 20 years has been talking about Creation Spirituality. Has Fox been important in your life?
    PHILIP: Very much so. I think that Matthew Fox’s “Original Blessing” was a very significant work in many respects and it’s in “Original Blessing” that Fox flags up a type of realization that the Celtic tradition has some important perspectives to speak into today.
    I think Fox was prophetic on that front. That book came out before people had seen the big contribution of the Celtic stream of today. And, certainly on that point, the understanding that what is deepest in us is blessed — and is essentially is “of God” instead of “opposed to God” -– is so much at the core of his thinking. And, that’s what I find at the center of the Celtic Christian tradition, as well.
    I suppose that’s the common ground with Matthew Fox. The area of distinction is that so much of the work he has done in the area of Creation Spirituality is very new work and I think one of the most important aspects of the Celtic tradition that resonates so deeply with people is that it’s a recovery of an ancient tradition.
    It’s drawing from an ancient stream and trying to apply that stream to our world today. Of course, Matthew Fox also does that with many of the great mystics. But he’s also often drawing from quite a variety of new work and new thinking.

    DAVID: Your book seems so — so thin when you first look at it. And yet you cover so much ground in the book. You talk about the meaning of the cross. You touch on gospels that didn’t make it into the Bible. At one point, you talk about a gospel that’s closely associated with gnosticism, a movement that stressed secretive knowledge about the faith and formed inner circles of believers.
    Let me ask you about that point, because even flipping through your book in a bookstore, people may note those references and think you’re trying to link the Celtic with the gnostic tradition.
    PHILIP: No. I think the trouble is that the terms for gnosticism are so broadly used these days that I’m often hesitant even to talk about the terms. Just as I’m hesitant to use the term New Age.
    DAVID: Well, the good news about the phrase “New Age” is that, for the most part, the only people still trotting out that term on a regular basis are evangelical critics of what they perceive to be a “New Age” movement. It’s not a phrase we hear in the mainstream anymore, over here in the States.
    PHILIP: So much of what I’m talking about has been reduced in many places to sort of Boogeymen. You say “New Age” and it’s like you’re trying to scare someone. To a certain extent, the terms around gnosticism have been turned into Boogeymen, too.
    The terms mean a lot of things to a lot of people.
    I am attracted to the root of the original word. If what we’re talking about is a gnosis, access to a deep wisdom, then I am attracted to that. What I’m very critical of is any sense of secrecy in that wisdom. I’m also critical of any sense that higher wisdom disparages the physicalness of the body or the Earth.
    The Celtic tradition is rooted emphatically in the body and in the Earth and in physical matter.

    DAVID: You know that many people will disagree with points you’re making here — but the central voice in your work will be powerful and healing to so many. I’ve seen it myself at Iona. I’ve heard it from so many people around the world, who have emailed us here at ReadTheSpirit.
    There seems to be so much potential here — or perhaps that’s not a word you’d use.
    PHILIP: No, I tend not to use that word “potential.” There isn’t anything wrong with what you’re trying to convey with the word, except I think that word can be a starting point toward so much in our Western Christian inheritance that runs very deep and has been colored by this doctrine of original sin.
    People talk about “potential” to give the impression that we all have potential, but that means we need to become something other than ourselves. The assumption becomes that what we are right now isn’t good. What this path leads us toward is believing that we need to become something else to fulfill someone’s idea of potential.
    That serves the old spiritual paradigm.
    It’s this thinking that leads us to wake up in the morning feeling haunted, fearing what’s deep within us. Afraid.
    And what we should feel as we wake up is blessed about the goodness that’s already here in our lives and in the community around us.

    DAVID: I’m going to close by sharing with readers just a few words to illustrate where you take readers in the course of your new book.
    This is from the opening chapter, “The Memory of Song.” I love this particular passage because in this section I hear echoes of one of my other favorite writers, Frederick Beuchner. Here’s what you write in that chapter:
    “I do not believe that the gospel, which literally means “good news,” is given to tell us that we have failed or been false. That is not news, and it is not good. We already know much of that about ourselves. We know we have been false, even to those whom we most love in our lives and would most want to be true to. We know we have failed people and whole nations throughout the world today, who are suffering or who are subjected to terrible injustices that we could do more to prevent. So the gospel is not given to tell us what we already know.
    “Rather, the gospel is given to tell us what we do not know or what we have forgotten, and that is who we are, sons and daughters of the One from whom all things come. It is when we begin to remember who we are, and who all people truly are, that we will begin to remember also what we should be doing and how we should be relating to one another as individuals and as nations and as an entire earth community.”

    Care to read more?
    We’ve provided a link to our own ReadTheSpirit series on Iona.
    Visit Philip’s personal Web site.
    The photo of Philip, above, is from a set of portraits made by photographer Claudia Tammen, a freelance photographer who lives in Silverado, CA. She is currently working on a book with Philip. Her web site is
    Order a copy of Philip’s book via Amazon and judge it for yourself.
    Wikipedia’s article on Pelagius is a mixed blessing. There are some obvious flaws in the Wiki text as it stands at the moment — but the overall article is a good online summary of key points and issues in Pelagius’ life. Plus, there’s an intriguing series of links toward the end to Pelagius references in literature. For example, fans of Jack Whyte’s popular series of novels about Arthur’s Britain, for example, can read about Pelagius in the course of that fictional saga.

    PLEASE, Tell Us What You Think! Click on the “Comment” link at the end of the online version of this story. Or, Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly.

026: Pilgrimage to Iona, Part 5: “The Island’s Final Spiritual Riddle”

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

     Welcome to the final chapter of our 5-part series: A Pilgrimage to Iona! For today’s VIDEO, there’s a link below.

    Let’s Clear Up one point of confusion that has been voiced by readers: In our story about the pilgrimage, Rick Miller and Beth Miller are not related, although they have the same last name. If you’ve followed our story throughout the week, hopefully you “know” Beth now as the wise and resourceful leader in our fellowship of pilgrims. Perhaps if we stepped into the pages of “The Lord of the Rings,” a trilogy of novels mentioned more than once on Iona, Beth would be a cross between Aragorn and Galadriel—wise leader and visionary. You might envision Rick Miller as the Legolas in our company of pilgrims—quick, quiet, wise and resourceful. And, no, they’re not related by blood or marriage.

    At this point, we know you’re packed for the journey and eager to go … So, on with our Spiritual Adventure …



The Island’s Final Spiritual Riddle” 

“Is a chapel in a graveyard a strange place to end a pilgrimage? I think not.
    Simon de Voil, guide on Iona’s strenuous walking pilgrimage

ona is small.
    Even before the orb of the sun has broken over the shoulders of Mull’s mighty peaks –-
    Even before the winds of day can disturb the silver sheet of water that separates Iona and the abandoned granite quarries of Fionnphort, making it seem inconceivable to a newcomer that four experienced men could have drowned in this placid little sound within recent memory -–
    Even before the sheep stir and call in the pasture beside the abbey –-
    Even before a proper cup of strong tea is brewed or served –-
    Our fellowship of a dozen American pilgrims is pushed into community with Others –- the dozens of pilgrims who have arrived from other lands.
    Each week, pilgrims are herded into the two-story stone residence hall, where the abbey staff sorts everyone into 20 monastic cells. Pilgrims are packed sometimes three and even four into these tiny rooms with the most basic of fixtures: narrow beds, one chair per room, one wooden chest and a wee table no bigger than a footstool tucked between the beds.
    Then, before dawn in this cramped residence, we find ourselves forced into this new community — in the showers.
    The showers are so few and so small that morning showering is a slow procession. “Like lining up for a little eternity, isn’t it, just to get a drizzle of warm water down our backs in a phone booth so small that you can’t even scrub your back,” one pilgrim from Liverpool says.


    It was hard enough dealing with the awkwardness and messiness of living with the dozen pilgrims I knew so well from home. Now, the reality of living shoulder to shoulder with people from around the world is a jolt.
    I poke my head into the narrow anteroom that leads to the one men’s shower on our floor and find a line of other men so tightly packed that I cannot fully open the door.
    A man from Fornby in a fleecy robe and a thick towel around his shoulders sees that I am surprised and hesitant about this cramped situation and he grins cheerily. “Queue up, young fellow!” he calls.
    I cannot back out now. So, stepping into these confines, my towel and soap and shampoo tucked in the crook of my arm — I glimpse in my mind’s eye the yawning chasm that now separates me from the comfortable bathroom I enjoy back in the States.
    Just then, a tall Swiss psychologist, Ernst Meier, leans forward in the line two places in front of me and smiles back in my direction. “David!” he calls out.
    “Ernst,” I say and nod politely, thinking: What is European protocol in a shower line?
    “David, last night when we were talking, do you remember what we talked about?” he asks. “You told me that some of your family comes from Switzerland and you told me of this village that is yours: Jegenstorf. And, you will remember that I said I did not know this village at all.”
    “Yes,” I said nodding. A man from Liverpool is nodding, too. Ernst now has the attention of the entire line of waiting men.
    “Well, I have looked into this!” Ernst says, pointing a long finger at me.
    “You have?” I ask. I am stunned. Over the years, I have casually told thousands of people that my family tree has a good share of Swiss within its trunk. And never before has anyone “looked into this.”
    “Yes,” Ernst says, quite seriously as if he has just run a battery of tests for some exotic disorder. “And I have found this Jegenstorf, too. It was something of a search, because you said your home was near Zurich. And it is in the canton of Berne, actually. But I tracked you down.”

    I try to nod graciously. His turns of phrase are compelling. He tracked me down?

    “You see, here is the problem: Your village is a place that people like us —” and then he chuckles and shakes his head at his own phrase. “I say, ‘Like us,’ and what does this mean?” he says, now mocking himself as he repeats again: “Like us?”
    He continues, “I mean, people like me from the big cosmopolitan centers, you know, like I am from Zurich, very cosmopolitan, or even Berne — people like us from these places would not even know about a village like your Jegenstorf.”
    I am thinking: MY Jegenstorf? I’ve never been there. This is the stuff of family mythology since my childhood.
    “It is a small place, very rural and they have these distinctive houses there. Do you know this?” he asks.
    And, oddly enough: Yes, I do know the houses. How do I know them?
    Then, he actually clears a space in this jammed anteroom. Somehow the queue of robed and towel-draped men — like latter-day monks — parts sufficiently that Ernst can spread his long arms side to side. He dips his knees and looks up at me, lowering his entire frame so that his body forms a low triangle with his arms spread out.
    And, oddly enough: I know that shape. I know what he is modeling.
    “The houses are built like this, aren’t they?” he asks me. “With these long, long roofs like my arms here that nearly touch the ground on each side.”
    He is miming a family home that I have never visited, but that flashes forward in my mind — a Kodachrome snapshot taken decades ago by the first relative in my family to return to Switzerland, after most of a century had past, to find the family homestead.
    Ernst is showing me that home in a shoulder-to-shoulder anteroom in the cells of Iona.
    All I can say is: “That is it! I do remember, now, seeing a photograph of that when I was just a boy.” And, I am seeing it again in Iona.
    “Yes,” he says, kindly. He rises. A man from Fornby now shoulders his way out of the little shower and it now is Ernst’s turn in the booth.
    “Well,” Ernst says. “What I would tell you, David, is this: You should travel there. It would do you much good, I think. That is a pilgrimage for you, isn’t it? You really should go home again.”
    But — in that moment, I have.

    Hot showers are essential, if difficult, on Iona because pilgrims often get wet and muddy.
    The core of a week at the abbey is a one-day walking pilgrimage across the length and breadth of the island itself. This ritual dates to the Rev. George MacLeod’s revival in 1938, when he brought both clergy and craftsmen to the island to rebuild the monastic portions of the abbey that the Duke of Argyll had not reconstructed in his revival of the church just before World War I.
    MacLeod searched Iona for the most memorable geologic and historical points of interest on the 3-mile long by 1-mile wide island. Then, he wrote a guide to reflections that should be read to pilgrimage groups at each point. Often, he performed this delicious challenge himself, even to the extent of standing atop Iona’s highest peak, called Dun I, spreading his arms wide and inviting his weary band of followers to envision Jesus himself standing on this peak in one of the gospel stories.
    “Oh, some of George’s meditations, like the one on the peak of Dun I, were said to be grand scenes, indeed,” the Rev. Malcolm King, current rector of the abbey said. “He was the master of such things.”

    And, ever since MacLeod established that muscular and spiritual challenge for visitors to the island –- each week, pilgrims continue to spend one full day on a seven-mile-long course: hiking, climbing, slogging and occasionally crawling across the rocky ridges and deep bogs of Iona. And, just when the newcomers seem winded or overwhelmed with the weight of their muddy boots, the Iona guides to this day pause for religious meditations suggested by MacLeod.
    This is much like the Muslim Hajj in which the basic pilgrimage is the journey to Mecca, but the heart of the experience involves a strenuous walking course to points of sacred reflection. At one point along the arduous course, Muslims even pick up stones and throw them in a physical demonstration of their rejection of evil.

    In MacLeod’s walking pilgrimage, to this day, men and women stumble over rocky crests and slog through knee-deep bogs to reach the rocky beach where St. Columba and his 12 monks first landed in 563.
    Pilgrims tend to flop down on this beach, despite its lack of sand, and feel the red, white and gray, ocean-worn rocks rattle as we try to settle our weight comfortably on this punishing surface. Rocks are not an ideal bed for over-taxed muscles and sore ankles.
    Our guide, Simon deVoil, a young Scottish staffer at the abbey, lets us squirm and even invites us to eat some sandwiches packed for us that morning in the refectory. But he keeps our focus on the rocks all around us.
    “We want you all to select two of these rocks!” he says at length. “The first stone you pick up will represent all that we pray to cast away from us and leave behind today. So, I’d pick a good sized one, if I were you –- to throw away as much as you possibly can at such an opportunity, right?”
    We chuckle and search the shore for appropriate rocks.
    “Then choose a second to represent spiritual gifts we plan to take home,” he says. “But don’t take too many –- we’ve lots of pilgrims and we don’t want to walk away with the whole beach, now, do we?”
    I laugh again at this line. Then, I watch the other pilgrims around me. This is only the middle of our week on the island and I see pilgrims picking up rocks as big as melons to cast away from them. I see pilgrims pocketing four, six –- even 10 stones to carry home.
    There’s a whole lot of spiritual work unfolding here, after all.
    Pilgrims reach way back and fling their rocks with abandon! It’s a wonder that no one is knocked down in the process. And I remember a Muslim friend who came back from the Hajj with a bandage just behind his ear and he explained to me that an especially high-spirited pilgrim somewhere behind him had unintentionally knocked him cold in the stone-throwing phase of the Hajj.

    Of course, there’s far more than throwing and saving stones.
    We sing. Scriptures are read. We pray.
    There are many reflections involving the geography and geology of the island. An amber-colored pond high in the ridges at the south end of the island, once the source of Iona’s drinking water, is the site for a meditation on the precious nature of water for billions of humans all around the world.
    But we begin to realize that the spirit of this walking discipline is not really in the words or music. There’s something else working in the complex chemistry.
    At some point throughout the day — and that point differs for each of us — we find ourselves just a little annoyed as this realization dawns on us. I begin to suspect: Is this yet another riddle?
    Exactly where in this sodden, boggy, rocky, ankle-twisting landscape is the Spirit?
    And, then we grow weary. Even the fittest among us grow weary.
    Gradually, we realize that at least part of the energy within this spiritual exercise lies in the humbling experience of bruising ourselves — in pride, if not always in muscle. It lies in falling down in the slick ooze of the bogs, scraping our shins on sharp-edged ledges and tripping on the knot-like stems of heather.

    Finally, when the abbey itself actually is within our view — just an easy walk — Simon de Voil waves his arms and leads us away from it to our final point of meditation. No, not inside the abbey where there are comfortable seats on which we could rest. No, he herds us all into the centuries-old stone chapel of St. Oren in the Iona graveyard with its stone floors and lack of seats.
    We stand on aching muscles.
    Now, this is no longer a riddle, but a cruel joke! This is some cheesy attempt to revive the medieval Dance of Death — those grim artworks designed to bring Christians to their knees with visual reminders that the figure of Death comes to dance with each of us.
    Simon solemnly intones: “Is a graveyard a strange place to end a pilgrimage? I think not.”
    Then, he leads us in a weary rendition of the hymn that affirms: “The world is not my home forever.”
    Is that truly the end?

    Not quite.
    Several more waves of revelation await us.

    The first comes as we pull off sodden clothing, wash, gulp down Motrin and ponder how fragile we are as humans when grappling with even the smallest of islands.
    Each wave of Others who cross Iona, even in this narrative that you have been reading this week, claims to understand something about this island and, by making such a claim, to control Iona in some way.
    On the contrary, humans work on Iona like waves crashing on the craggy rocks. Intellectually, we know that each roll of the brine does reshape the rocky shore — but imperceptibly, of course, and this realization that we feel in our sore muscles is one of the truly Celtic revelations in our long quest: We are part of a Creation that should humble us in our fleeting dance across its shores.

    The second revelation comes at dinner as the pilgrims tell their stories over the long oak tables. And this, too, is Celtic because it is a lesson about the spiritual goodness of community. This lesson stumbles from our lips — all of our lips — as a heartfelt litany in the refectory as we remember and affirm these things:
    “You!” we call to a companion. “Yes, you! You pulled me from that bog where I might have lost my shoe and what was left of my pride forever! Thank you!”
    “You had that stick that helped me regain my footing!”
    “You showed me how to rest on the heather!”
    “You laughed with me!”
    “You brought me ice for my ankle!”
    “You pulled me up on that ledge when I know I would have gone head over heels!”
    “You! Thank you!”

    Then, there is a third revelation — and, now, we think we are completely off the boundaries of the neatly printed schedule of abbey programs that hangs each day on the refectory wall. As the week has unfolded, men and women — Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants and people of no specific religious denomination at all — have felt drawn to end their day — even after the nightly 9 p.m. abbey service — with night prayers.
    And where do these pilgrims spontaneously gather?
    It’s only known by word of mouth, so it’s not immediately discernible that night prayers are even taking place. I don’t find my way toward this circle until the night after our long hike, well into the week.
    And, where?
    The pilgrims gather, as they feel so moved — with no formal organization — in St. Oren’s chapel in the cemetery. That is the very place I had dismissed as a cruel joke, a literal dead end.
    And their numbers swell through the week as relationships form and the Spirit works on people to restlessly draw them toward more and more acts of communal worship — so that even the 9 p.m. abbey service cannot  quench their desire just to pause and pray together.
    By the time I finally catch on and head toward St. Oren’s, I have to crowd into the little chapel. Candles glow, but so low that it is not entirely clear who is praying close at hand — until Ernst moves to the front of the chapel and says that, finally, he feels moved to share one of his most treasured gifts from the mountains of his homeland.
    He opens his mouth and, in a resonant bass, he intones a centuries-old, Swiss-German invocation of God’s and the Virgin Mary’s protection on farmers in the unforgiving landscape of the Alps — farmers from tiny towns like Jegenstorf, perhaps.
    Then, and only then, do I recall something Malcolm told us, plain as day, on our first night at the abbey. They were words that I jotted in my notebook with the dutiful discipline of a journalist who jots down everything, in case it might mean something later. But they were words that I immediately dismissed as meaningless — until this moment in St. Oren’s chapel.
    Now, sitting in the glow of Ernst’s bass voice — echoing centuries of faith from the Alps — I realize what Malcolm meant when he said: “You will learn here that we are something different on Iona. We are not a hotel. We are not a retreat center. We are a community. And, in time, you will discover this.”





     Do you see the final riddle, yet — and its answer?
    On the final morning on Iona, Ernst sprinkles salt on his porridge in the Scottish manner. He has learned this from some of the staff on Iona, he says proudly, and rather likes it this way.
    Then, he tells his new friends around the table that he has decided to take a break in his years-long habit of setting out on quests for spiritual revelations around the world.
    Already, he has been to Asia to live for a time with a shaman and to the rain forests of the Amazon to look for tribal healers. He has trekked along the pilgrimage routes to Spanish shrines.
    “Oh,” he says, shrugging. “Ohhhh, there is perhaps one more pilgrimage I want to make in Tibet someday — but that will be some day, I think. Because, now, I may not feel so moved to make these trips — at least not for a long while.
    “There is something about this place. Iona. This place, I think, will have a long, as we say in  German, a long nachklingen,” and he flattens his hand and moves it slowly through the air like a calm wave flowing from person to person. “Iona will go on and on among us for a long time like the lingering sound of a perfect note.”

    Before boarding the ferry at the Iona jetty, we move into the abbey one last time and together we pray these words from the liturgy of parting: “For the path that lies before us now, and our futures in your hands, we thank you, Living God.”
    The entire abbey staff walks the narrow road with us to the jetty and stands, shoulder to shoulder, as the steel ramp of the ferry rises.

    And this is the final spiritual riddle of Iona:
    Yes, Iona is small.
    And, yes, Iona is as big as the world.


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025: Pilgrimage to Iona Part 4: “Dangerously, We Rise; We Fall; We …”

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

     Welcome to the fourth chapter of our 5-part series: A Pilgrimage to Iona! For today’s VIDEO, there’s a link below. At this point, we know you’re packed for the journey and eager to go … So, on with our Spiritual Adventure …

Dangerously, We Rise; We Fall; We …”


      “It will be difficult traveling for some time.”
    The Rev. Malcolm King, Warden of historic Iona Abbey


ilgrimage is dangerous.
    It has always been this way.
    In another sacred place, Jerusalem, deep in the archaeological excavations beneath the lowest chapels in the mysterious Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which marks where Jesus was crucified and buried, Armenian Orthodox priests may show fortunate pilgrims a 1,800-year-old inscription etched in the rock faces that once lay exposed to ancient travelers outside of Jerusalem’s city walls. Now, an entire historic church sits on top of these rocky surfaces.
    This rarely glimpsed etching on the stones shows a Roman vessel that carried early pilgrims and words that say, in translation, “Thank God we made it!”
    The rough-hewn nature of this etching suggests great sincerity in that prayer! After all, many pilgrims in ages past died en route. Many reached their goal and never returned home to tell their story.
    Memories of past pilgrimages resurface on our way to Iona. A memory of my visit, years ago, to see that ancient inscription on those rocky surfaces in Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulcher resurfaces in my mind’s eye as our group discovers the dangerous, one-lane roads and steep hills that lie ahead of us on Mull, the enormous island we must cross to reach our last ferry to tiny Iona.
    Boats. Danger. I see the etched prayer again: “Thank God we made it!”
    I hope that we will be breathing this same prayer soon.


    It is now dusk on this, our second night on the pilgrimage road, as we slip out of the last port on mainland Scotland, Oban, on a ferry that quickly retreats from the smokestacks and fishing nets of that sea-side village. The ferry moves us, our van and all of us, toward those mountains on Mull. Once the steel ramp of the ferry thunders onto the shore of Mull, our leader Beth Miller fires up our van and rumbles in low gear up onto the jetty.
    At last, this feels as though we are nearing our sacred dot at the end of the world, but still we must cross Mull where the one-lane roads are so narrow that two vehicles cannot pass each other unless one pulls off the road and waits for the other to pass. Beneath leaden skies, we set off in the van, each dip and switchback of the road obscured by rock, stone walls, bracken and now, as night rolls over us, by coal black skies.
    Beth hits the breaks unexpectedly!
    A truck looms around a corner! It’s lights bounce crazily in our eyes as it bounds over potholes and ruts. Easing our van to the road’s shoulder, Beth waits as the truck rattles past us with inches to spare.
    Beth says to us, “Help me, now. Help me watch ahead.”
    Rick Miller our best navigator is at her side. Rick is watching, we figure. He’ll help Beth.
    But the rest of us are tired, bone weary. How can we possibly stay awake and keep watch? Another pilgrim near Rick is so tired that his head dips forward and nearly smacks the dashboard.
    The road dips and our heads dip, too, until Beth hits the breaks again for more blinding lights! This time, a tour bus passes so close that our eyes are wide and our breathing stops.
    “That definitely was a gasp,” Beth says to us collectively. “No need to gasp. We’re safe. But, please, stay awake and help me watch.”
    We try. We fail. The road curves and dips perilously onward.
    We rise. We fall.
    Lights shining!
    Whose lights?
    What is coming?


    Wake up!
    Are we on Iona yet?
    No. I shake my head silently. Looking out a window, it seems that what passes for morning sun in autumn in watery western Scotland has arisen around us. We find ourselves in a white-walled cottage overlooking the sea — or what little of the sea we can see — through the mists. We are in a breakfast room now, several of us watching these morning mists compress all light across the Scottish hills, bogs and the sea beyond into a narrow range of deep blues, grays, umbers and — greens.
    What greens! Even in this void of clear sunlight, the grass is an unearthly green — the green of jade and emeralds as if the turf glows from somewhere inside the soil.
    “There’ll be more coffee in, oh, about three minutes,” our fellow pilgrim, Rick Miller, calls from the kitchen. The sight of him is reassuring. He’s such a solid pilgrim.
    If Rick’s well; we’re well, aren’t we?
    Rick moves toward me and, together, we watch the unusual range of colors through the window.
    “You’ll enjoy his coffee!” pilgrim Dora Ziegler says. “Rick’s making French Roast just a few cups at a time and there’s already cereal and toast and all good things waiting for us here.”
    Now we are three, watching the mist. Rick and Dora and me.
    Then, I notice a fourth pilgrim, Doug Paterson, sipping coffee nearby and I finally sit near him, when Rick serves me a fresh cup of his rich coffee. Sipping from my own cup, I say to Doug: “It’s hard to describe what this feels like after what we’ve been through — so little sleep and then all of our adventures already — and then waking up here this way. It feels like — like we’re waking up in a foreign film. Maybe Ingmar Bergman,” I say, although I know that the Swedish director died recently. He’s certainly not making any new films
    I continue to ramble: “Perhaps we’re in another world. Perhaps last night on those treacherous roads, all sleep deprived from the long flight and with those awful, one-lane, blind curves — perhaps we didn’t make it. Perhaps this is our first day in a new world.”
    “Hmmm,” Doug says, shaking his head. “It couldn’t be Heaven, though, because I’m not here with Karla,” his wife, who is half a world away as are all of our spouses as we pursue this pilgrimage.
    “Nor Amy,” my wife, I say. “You’re right. Can’t be Heaven. But perhaps we’ve arrived at an inn between worlds and we have to figure out how to live together until the others arrive some day.”

    “How to Live Together Until the Others Arrive Some Day,” in short, could serve as the title for Iona’s story.
    In each age of its history, those who control its sacred sites claim that they understand its misty essence, but they really turn out to be caretakers of the sacred site until ….
    Well, consider this: In the 6th Century, St. Columba proclaimed Iona a new global center for Celtic Christian art, study and reflection. He built a monastery that blossomed to the point that  many historians credit Iona as the birthplace of the fabulous, illuminated gospels that later moved back to Columba’s Irish homeland for safekeeping and became known as the Book of Kells.
    Why did the Book of Kells need safekeeping? Because Columba’s legacy was all but extinguished when the Others arrived — in this case, the Viking raiders who all but erased Columba’s community in the early 9th Century. The Vikings were looking for territory and booty and murdered their way across Iona in pursuit of both.
    But they certainly didn’t own Iona in any meaningful way.
    In 1200, still Others built a new abbey — and a nunnery, too, this time. Iona became a haven for the Benedictine order, loyal to Rome.
    All went well there — until the Others arrived in the turbulent centuries of change after the Reformation.

     Just before World War I, the Duke of Argyll, who controlled the sacred site — which had fallen into ruins — foresaw still Others coming and rebuilt the abbey, yet again, as a global center for ecumenism — the startling idea that Christians of many denominations might like to share a sacred space.
    And so it went on Iona with other Others: In 1938, the Rev. George MacLeod organized the modern Iona Community, a new-style lay-and-clergy religious order concerned with the welfare of the poor. He brought both pastors and talented craftspeople to the island to rebuild the entire abbey structure from the ruins surrounding the church that the Duke of Argyll had rebuilt.
    MacLeod’s crews rebuilt the centuries-old refectory, library, chapter house, cloisters and the monks’ cells. All were rebuilt to house modern pilgrims who began to flock to his new Iona movement. But even MacLeod, who was virtually a force of nature himself, could not reshape this sacred outcropping of stone for all time.
    Others came, like the composer John Bell and inspirational author Philip Newell in the 1980s and 1990s to turn MacLeod’s community into something else again — a vanguard in the revival of what they called Celtic music, worship and theology. The core of their affirmation was that Creation and human life are essentially good, not sinful from the start, and that the Holy Spirit moves in community in the specific direction of the world’s poor and oppressed.

    But what’s most intriguing about this history is what transpired in the long gaps between the arrivals of these Others. Even when something wasn’t blossoming here, Iona always seems to have retained its sacred aura.
    In 1764, for instance, when the sacred sites were all but dormant, British scientist John Walker visited Iona to assess Iona’s botany and geology. He dutifully reported on soil, rock and grasses, but could not help but declare himself amazed that even the inhabitants of “lowest rank” have “a remarkable propensity to whatever is marvelous and supernatural … with numberless legends, which have been handed down …”

    Now, Iona is in the midst of one of those waiting periods again, trying to discern when Others will arrive. That’s essentially the message, these days, from the Rev. Malcolm King, a priest and one of the 250 worldwide members of the Iona Community who became rector of the Abbey in July.
    On our third night of travel, as we finally arrive at Iona and join dozens of other pilgrims from around the world, Malcolm gathers us into the abbey’s chapter house and begins to tell us about this sense he has of sweeping spiritual change around the world.
    Iona’s revolution in neo-Celtic worship with easy-to-sing, prophetic songs of praise now is common in many places and, “We’re no longer on that cutting edge,” he says. The world is changing, too, and people are not looking merely for religious rules to follow, he says. Most importantly, they are looking for spiritual community, he argues.

    He says, “We live in a time of transition and it will be difficult traveling for some time.”
    Who is helping Malcolm scan the misty horizons from his abbey — his inn between the worlds?
    “I’m very impressed with Rob Bell, who’s from your place, isn’t he? From Michigan?” he says.
    Malcolm goes on to explain that he is amazed at how close Bell’s books, “Velvet Elvis” and “Sex God,” seem to be to the heart of the Iona commitment to breaking down barriers and building inclusive community. After all, this kind of Rob Bell-like rallying cry has been the lifeline of the abbey’s spiritual heritage for nearly a century.
    Malcolm even speaks like Rob. Or does Rob speak like Malcolm? It’s difficult to discern the direction of the connections in the disorienting landscape of pilgrimage.
    In any case, it is clear that: “Religious boundaries are coming down,” Malcolm says. “We no longer put things in separate spiritual boxes. Everything is connected.”
    Or, as Rob likes to put it: “Everything is spiritual.”

    But, forgive me, kind readers, if this particular scene in our pilgrimage is sounding too cosmic — too, well, too misty to grasp.
    We are, after all, on a quest for the concrete feel of sacred turf.

    So, here is what it really feels like as a pilgrim at Iona — quite honestly and concretely:
    On our first night at the abbey, after opening worship and an initial talk by Malcolm, Beth gathers a few of us in the nearly empty abbey and apologizes to us. She planned for a year and brought us here for the glorious neo-Celtic music and, for a few weeks this autumn, the abbey is even lacking a musical director. The staff is waiting until the spring pilgrimage season to bring in a new full-time musician.

     On our first night at the abbey, a staff member who normally doesn’t play for worship volunteered to fill in and — with a noble spirit — plinked out the melodies to hymns on an electric keyboard.
    “I’m so sorry you didn’t hear what I heard when I was here last time,” Beth tells us late that night just before bedtime in our monastic cells. “I’m so disappointed for you.”
    We are amazed that our leader feels this way!
    We rush — almost in unison — to reassure her!
    We are stunned that she has missed the significance of the revelations we’ve already had. Just one hour earlier, pilgrim after pilgrim — American, British, Swiss, German, nearly all — reported a similar revelation.
    It started for each of us when someone told us simply to step outside the abbey and the cloisters. At first, this seemed pointless in the dark of the night, but for a moment all around Iona the mists, the fog, the clouds had all vanished and the remoteness of the island even erased the distracting glow of urban lights.
    We each walked out — one by one — following what we thought of as casual suggestions to take a little cool night air.
    We’d just poke our heads outside for a moment and take a look. What could it hurt?
    Then, we looked straight up.
    Jaws went slack.
    The Milky Way stretched like a glistening stream from horizon to horizon and constellations were clear as road signs. We felt as if we merely pushed off our from our toes, we would fall upwards into the heavens. We had traveled backward through time already to reach this place, hadn’t we? We had survived the rise and fall of misty landscapes that left us dreaming in new ways, hadn’t we?
    Anything might be possible here!
    I couldn’t see any other pilgrim — just those stars. But, apparently Doug Paterson was near me in the dark, head thrown back, because I heard him whisper upwards into the gleaming night sky: “I haven’t seen stars like these in years!”
    Talk about a pilgrim’s simple prayer of thanks!
    We told Beth not to apologize to us. It was just that she had come looking for songs.
    And, instead, our gift that night was stars.

    And, this too is a dangerous truth about visiting inns between the worlds. They invite travelers to plunge into uncharted lands, to feel as though they just might fall into the heavens, especially when we are surprised by:
    Lights shining!
    Whose lights?
    What is coming?

The Last Chapter: “The Island’s Final Spiritual Riddle”