At this time a year ago, I was on a sabbatical graciously funded by the Lilly Endowment. Dave and I were able to spend a month of that sabbatical time with communities of prayer and hospitality in the United Kingdom. Our three planned visits were 1) St. Botolph Aldgate Church in London, a congregation that continues a ministry of spiritual nurture and hospitality at the “old gate (aldgate)” of the city, 2) The Julian Lectureship in Norwich where Julian of Norwich lived in prayer and counseled people through her cell window during the Black Plague and the Peasant’s Revolt, and 3) the Iona Community on the sacred Island of Iona, where Christianity first came to Scotland through St. Columba, and where Columba’s monks went out to welcome the stranger and were slaughtered at Martyr’s Bay, where now a community committed to worship and justice welcomes the stranger, the pilgrim.
We, of course, had many grace and wonder-filled encounters along the way … between the planned places. God’s met us and led us in ways we could never have imagined. It was truly a sacred journey.
The list of these places seems so stark, but the memory is so very alive and breathing — as present as the Spirit. There has not been a day since that pilgrimage that I have not thought of, felt, and heard the places and people along our way. They are not in the past for me; they are a part of me in a way I never expected. Particularly Iona. I ache to be there. I still feel the tears that came to my eyes when I saw it and the tears that soaked my face when I left it. In my heart I am walking there, eating with the community, working in the kitchen — chopping vegetables, drying dishes, setting tables, watching the sheep pass by the window of our room in the Abbey, worshiping in the Abbey Church, praying and singing in St. Oran’s Chapel, sharing faith in the Chapter House, drinking hot tea to warm my body when coming in from the cold wind blowing across the island, sitting in a sunny place in the open air of the Nunnery, touching St. Martin’s cross, walking the pilgrimage in the cold rain, falling in the bog (as surely many have done before me), standing on the rounded stones where Columba landed, standing amidst the ancient, ancient rock of the quarry, drinking tea and eating flapjack on the Machair, ringing the bell to call the community to worship in the Abbey Church, walking the Street of the Dead, and feeling my life connected with those who have gone before me.
Indeed, Iona is a “thin place” as George Macleod called it; a place where we come close to God. What I realize, however, is that Iona is not a place for us to stay physically; it is a place for the pilgrim to touch the holy in that sacred ground, within ourselves, and within the community of faith. Then we come home to the places of our work, our ministry and we learn anew to live, worship, and serve in prayer and hospitality. I am still integrating this experience of the Holy, and I pray I will be on that journey for a long time.
A couple of weeks ago, I found a new gift in my process. The book is titled
Urban Iona:Celtic Hospitality in the City by Kurt Neilson, Morehouse Publishing, 2007.
I highly recommend it.