…Iona

Marc has arrived in Scotland and has sent us two letters and two photos, which are posted here. Please tell others about them, as we look forward to reading and seeing more.

By Rev. Marc Whitehead

Monday, May 7, 2012

I tried hard not to have any expectations of Iona. So many have described Iona as a “thin” place, a place where the veil between heaven and earth, the sacred and the profane seems almost not to exist, a place where it seems easy to feel a deep connection to the divine, that I felt sure that it would be easy to be disappointed did I expect too much.

And yet, this is a special place, a holy place. There is something about the land, the turquoise  sea, the sarum blue sky, the crunch of gravel underfoot, the wind and tide swept sand on the beaches that seems to hearken the advent of God. Superficially at least, Iona is a barren rock. Few trees, rocky crags, sharp drops, but it is not desolate or God-forsaken. Rather, it feels spirit-filled.

After my initial view of the Abbey from the Fionnhport ferry, the first thing I became aware of on Iona was the silence–a silence that wasn’t empty, but full. Oh, to be sure there is bird song, and the sound of footfalls  on gravel, and the gentle baaing of the sheep, and  the occasional muffled voices, but there are almost no traffic noises. Except for those maintained by the locals, vehicles are prohibited on Iona, and what a luxury that is! But the silence isn’t so much about the absence of noise, as it is about the presence of a deep soul calm which I experienced almost immediately, and which I have felt every day since I arrived.

Worship begins and ends in silence and strange as it sounds is there beneath the words of the prayers we say and the hymns we sing. A deepening silence, an opening silence, a reverent silence, a restorative silence. Indeed, the silence here is a silence pregnant with possibility, or like  the comfortable silence between old  lovers or old friends, the easy, natural silence which feels like a gift rather than a chore.

The next thing I noticed about Iona was the air itself which seems somehow clearer, and more clarifying perhaps, fresher, more invigorating than the air in other places I’ve visited.  And then gradually, I became aware of the wind. Sometimes a gentle breeze, sometimes almost a gale, the wind is a persistent presence, like the spirit of God itself. Sometimes it beckons, sometimes it restores, sometimes it pushes, sometimes it pushes back, but it is always there, and always comforting, if not always welcome.

Iona is an inspirational place, but It is not so much the Abbey itself, the ancient monuments, the even more ancient stones which have affected me.  It is something more intangible, something about the spirit of the place itself which has touched me. It is as though the prayers of many pilgrims, and the songs sung over many centuries have worked their way into the essence of this place, and one feels surrounded by this great cloud of many witnesses, whether one is worshipping or wiping down the floors of the loo!

For all this of course, Iona is also a place like any other, with people like any other. And among the many pilgrims who have come here, are Germans and Canadians, and South Africans, and Scots and Brits, and Czechs, and many more. We have come here from many places, and for many reasons. We are young and old, and middle-aged. We are clergy and lay. We are no better or no worse than other people, and like other people we have our quirks and foibles, moments of misunderstanding and (mercifully) laughter.  Some are irksome, and some are gracious. Some are incredibly patient, and some find that virtue somewhat elusive. Some are too quiet. Some talk too much. Some feel burdened. Some seem to  imbued with an incredible lightness of being. But it doesn’t matter. As the song says, we are all pilgrims on a journey, fellow pilgrims on the road. We have come together for a time. We have shared an experience of the holy. And like all pilgrims we will take the memory of that  experience with us, as each of us go home by different roads.

Marc

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