Sacred Places Journal
30 September, 2001: Iona: A Place of Worship
I read from Riochenda Miers, Scotland: Highlands & Islands, a Cadogan Guide, London 1998:
"Samuel Johnson came here in 1773 and wrote, 'that man is little to be envied whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.' Today he may have felt differently. Opinions differ: for some the sanctity of the restored abbey has been erased by the zeal of Iona Abbey Ltd. and they find it hard to kneel to say a prayer among the hugging and hand-holding and happy clappery of the community despite its commendable focus on world-wide issues. Instead they find their peace . . . in the remoter parts of the island.
"Iona is special in spite of all the trappings and communal bonhomie. Walk away from the designer holy place," the guidebook advises, "and climb the small hill, Dun I. Look down on the restored buildings where so much attention has been paid to the fabric that they forgot to restore the Holy Spirit . . . stay quiet and you may catch a faint echo of ironic laughter and feel a charismatic presence beside you. St. Columba was known to have had a well-developed sense of humor."
Whatever Iona may or may not be, however, it is a place of worship. On this Sunday I waken to driving wind and rain. Morning prayers in our tiny chapel are led by Fr. Stephen, a Franciscan monk who came to the island for yesterday's great event-the wedding. His beautiful voice fills the room with warmth against the storm. At breakfast we learn he was a former opera singer, as was his mother. He tells us of his friendship with New York Fire Department Chaplain Mychal Judge, the priest who died administering last rites on the sidewalk in New York. "He was the bane of my life," he says lovingly. "He was at the Franciscan study center when I was a seminarian. He a liberal, I a conservative. He could be a destabilizing influence, but most of all, he was a compassionate man. Supremely compassionate. The kind of priest that was too good to be true."
Fr. Stephen worries whether the the ferry will run through the rough sea to get him to the next service he is to lead on the Isle of Mull. The ferry comes, and he runs, in sandals and habit, to catch it.
We huddle together and walk to the tiny, dark, candlelit St. Michael's chapel behind the abbey. Tiny, 80-year-old Fr. Mark in a chasuble decorated with a plaid Celtic cross, reminds us in his soft highland voice that we are doing what Christians have done for 2,000 years-celebrating Eucharist. And they have been doing it in this spot for 1,400 years. The storm stills, and the sun streaks through the leaded window as he elevates the host.
Next, to morning service in the abbey. I go with some reluctance, I admit, but am drawn by the chants filling the cloister as I stand outside the abbey door. The service is blended, certainly, creative, even, but not happy clappy. The sermon, after a dramatic reading of the story of Lazarus, is about unwinding each other's grave clothes. The rows of candles flicker and glow against the stone walls.
In the prayer for unity I recall the understanding to which I have come, that unity is best which allows each body to be most themselves while accepting and welcoming all-no matter how different-but not trying to be all things at one time. God is too great, too all-knowing for any one tradition to encompass all of His light. If any body fails to shine the unique light given them in an attempt to achieve a watered-down unity, the faith will be darker by that much.
The antiphonal chants are very beautiful echoing from the restored arches, the bread and wine holy. God is here.
I skip the next service-in the parish church up the road-to attend a discussion of the work of the Iona Community. Work and worship are the two themes of the community. Two hundred thirty-three members of community keep daily rules much like a monastery, but live in the world and vow to gather in community no less than once a year. They are committed to justice and peace and the integrity of creation.
The morning worship is an agapé service designed with the goal that the abbey's open Communion table will not divide the very people it is meant to unite. The Iona Abbey Worship Book says that the ecumenical worship in the abbey "reminds us that our life and services here are no 'hole in the corner' affair. All we are and all we do, our work and our prayer, are part of the ongoing prayer and work of the whole church in heaven and on earth; we are part of the one communionn of saints . . . we are not brought here to be changed into 'religious' people, but rather to be made more fully human."
The book closes with the words of the Germany martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "The Christian is not a religious person, but simply a human being, as Jesus was a human being, profoundly this-worldly, characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection."
That night after Evensong at the Bishop's House we prepare to go out into the storm. Liz from Edinburgh says, "When the locals pull their boats up you know you're in for it." I repeat her words to Fr. Mark as we toil up the dark hill, hail falling on our hats. "Oh, aye," he replies. "When ye see the cows climbing trees, ye know ye're in for a flood."