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23 June 2017

Reconnecting with God on Iona

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As the ferry pulled away from the tiny Hebridean island of Iona I ran a wistful eye along the retreating coastline. There was Martyrs Bay to the south, the Catholic House of Prayer on the hill above it, the ruins of the Augustinian nunnery, 1000-year-old Celtic crosses, the restored thirteenth century Benedictine Abbey, and on the northeast coast the pristine sand of the white strand of the monks. Iona has been a spiritual centre for Scotland since the time of Saint Columba, who founded the first monastic community on the island in 563. Perhaps it is the centuries of prayer in a beautifully rugged landscape – an environment which also seems to honour God with its ancient rocks, sandy beaches, bracing air and glorious sunsets - which draws so many back regularly for spiritual refreshment.

My latest stay was at the Catholic House of Prayer, stunningly situated overlooking the Sound of Iona. Cnoc a’ Chalmain or ‘Hill of the Dove’ was opened 20 years ago, and Sr Jean Lawson, a Sister of the Society of the Sacred Heart, has been running it for the past 15 years. She is soon to move away from Iona and all those visitors over the years wish her well. Eight beds are available to visitors, and priests can stay for free if they celebrate a daily Mass. Behind the altar in the house’s tranquil Oratory sits a Celtic cross made from distinctive Iona green marble and the house is adorned with paintings of Iona by Mary Burn-Murdoch, who spent a decade working towards setting up the house, famously drawing in Frances Shand Kydd as a trustee and fundraiser.

Sr Jean gently led the morning and evening prayer of the Church in the Oratory, where, through the windows, the movement of sea mist was a lovely distraction. The house does not run organised retreats but groups are welcome to run their own programme, with their breakfast and evening meal provided. There are ample opportunities for reconnecting with God in the natural environment of Iona. Walking down to the wonderfully named Bay at the Back of the Ocean and just sitting there for a couple of hours, hearing the waves lap and looking for whales, is one of them. Another is a stroll down to the evening service at the Abbey, which is always lay led and participatory, but bring a torch because the island can be pitch black when you leave. Noticing stars for the first time in several years is wonderful, but it’s nice to be able to find the way home!

My first two visits involved workshops and retreats at Iona Abbey, which is run by the ecumenical and international Iona Community. They were worship-focused, using music from the world church, and led by the famous Wild Goose Resource Group. The group’s name comes from the representation of the Holy Spirit as a wild goose in Celtic tradition. The content reflected the Community’s commitment to link worship with social justice. Course participants helped plan the services, held around sunset after the day visitors had gone. One evening, we celebrated women in scripture and women influential in our own lives and in the contemporary world. Another evening, we experienced a healing service of prayers for healing. On another, there was a service of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, drawing attention to Iona Abbey’s permanent memorial to victims of conflict.

The Community leads a weekly pilgrimage around the island every Tuesday. Nowadays there is a simultaneous easier version, but it is the long one that I have done twice. It takes around five hours and stops at places of historical and religious significance. All ages participate, travelling together, sharing food, jokes, stories, songs, prayers and silence – a chance to help each other over stiles, up and down hills and out of bogs…. Or in my case a shoe out of the bog! As well as watching where you place your feet, there are plenty of glances upwards to see wild geese flying overhead. At the island’s crossroads pilgrims are encouraged to reflect upon their life journeys and chosen paths. There is the stop at Columba’s Bay, where St Columba first landed in the 6th century. Here, pilgrims pick up two stones from the pebbly beach. One is thrown back into the sea as a symbol of something in our lives that we want to leave behind and the other is kept back as a sign of a new commitment made. Martyrs Bay is so named because of the murder of 68 monks there in the ninth century by Vikings, but it is also the site of the island’s war memorial. Yes, there is one even here. An 18 year-old and 19-year-old were among young islanders killed in the 1914-1918 war. We were reminded that, despite the tranquillity of the island, violence has visited it throughout the centuries, and we prayed for peace.

Forthcoming residential events on Iona, listed on the Community’s 2017 Guest Week calendar, include ‘Gathering Space – a time to reflect on, and re-engage with the hope and action at the heart of Christian faith’, ‘Kairos’ – a week looking at what has happened since the Kairos Palestine document on 2009, and ‘Love for the Future: Spiritual Resources for Environmental Justice’. Mid July will see a week ‘Change Without Decay’ with the Wild Goose Resource Group and in August a Youth Festival. Famous names on the programme include John Bell, Alison Adam and Alastair McIntosh. The programme is permeated by the core values of the Iona Community: working for justice, healing and peace in our localities and for the whole of creation.

Bishop’s House is the oldest retreat house on the island, taking up to 23 guests at a time. The Anglican/Episcopalian centre is situated close to Iona Abbey. It is open from March until October for full board guests and can be booked for exclusive use groups. Bishop’s House offers few led retreat programs, but does arrange daily services and meals, There is space for individual reflection as well as smaller group retreats. The library provides theological works and general reading material, and its window seat looks across to Mull. At the heart of the house is a quiet chapel, “with the sound of the sea and its light flowing in”. Each day there is an early morning Anglican Eucharist and a short night prayer, finishing in time to get to the evening service in Iona Abbey. A field path from the house leads into the back of the Abbey, which a visitor has described as “an entrancing walk above the shore, through calling corncrakes in midsummer”. Bishop’s House offers self-catering stays over the winter months.

Finally, Traigh Bhan is the Findhorn Foundation’s retreat house on Iona. The Foundation has no formal doctrine or creed, but says it “practises the timeless and essential values common to all the world’s major religious paths”. The house runs seven day retreats, but prior participation in one of their ‘Essential Findhorn’ programmes is a prerequisite. You can expect outdoor walks, a taste of eco-living – including a vegetarian menu – and a culture of peace-building in human relationships and with the natural world. This summer sees weeks on ‘The Art of Pilgrimage’, ‘Creations in Nature’, and what about, ‘Explore Your Soul Through Mandala Painting’.

Iona may be remote, and at the end of two boat trips and a trek across Mull, but, as I looked back on the lovely island diminishing into the mist, I thanked God for a few days of utter tranquillity. Yes, it was worth the effort to get there, and I will be back.

The poet Kenneth Steven wrote of Iona:
I am not sure whether there is no time here or more time, 
Whether the light is stronger or just easier to see. 
That is why I keep returning, thirsty, to this place
That is older than my understanding,
Younger than my broken spirit.

Catholic House of Prayer:
Iona Community:
Bishop’s House:

By Ellen Teague


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