There and Back Again: A Pastor’s Reformation Sabbatical Adventure #12

Iona: Part 2

Ora et Labora – Pray and Work – is a basic part of the practice of Benedictine spirituality that was practiced in the second incarnation of the Iona Abbey religious community from 1200 to the mid-1500’s. It was also key to the efforts of George MacLeod to build community between the rich and poor of Glasgow as they worked to rebuild the Iona Abbey. So, it’s no surprise that “ora et labora” – prayer and work – is the foundation for the building of community in the third incarnation of the Iona Abbey today that began with George MacLeod.
Beginning with a late evening welcoming worship service on the Saturday evening you arrive and a service of Holy Communion on Sunday morning the next day; the week then settles into a rhythm of two chief worship services each day – one after breakfast and one after dinner; with another briefer prayer offered at 2pm each day. The services are for those staying at the Abbey but also open to Iona residents or anyone else visiting the island, and usually the Abbey church was filled by a mixture of all three.
The Iona Community is known for the words and music of its worship life. They have a large hymnal filled with songs produced by the Iona Community but that also includes many familiar (and unfamiliar) hymns and songs from other traditions. The music is good but the words for the spoken parts of the liturgy were the most striking to me. It’s written in everyday language that is down to earth, simple and understandable but also quite profound and affecting. In a Prayer of Confession we used most mornings first the leader and then the congregation confess:

“Before God
with the people of God
I confess to turning away from God
in the ways I wound my life
the lives of others
and the life of the world.”

And then each in turn respond
“May God forgive you, Christ renew you, and the spirit enable you to grow in love.”

In a “Response of Faith” a little later in the same service we would daily say:
“We affirm
God’s goodness at the heart of humanity
planted more deeply than all that is wrong. “

The most powerful service of the week for me was a service of healing on Tuesday evening. For the healing rite at the center of the service they set up a circle of kneelers in the middle of the worship space. Those who wanted to receive the laying on of hands for healing were invited to come and kneel there while three of the resident staff moved within the circle doing the laying on of hands. Others were invited to stand behind those kneeling and add their affirmation by placing their hands on the shoulders or back of those kneeling. And everyone was invited to repeat the prayer of healing as it was said over each person:

“Spirit of the living God
present with us now
heal you in body, mind and spirit
and free you from all that harms you
in Jesus name.

Simple words – but as I went from standing outside the circle with my hands on the shoulders of others; to kneeling as hands were laid on me; hearing and repeating those words over and over was most definitely an experience of God’s healing presence in and for and through my life. And it didn’t hurt that because of the time of day the sun was streaming in through the Abbey Church windows so that as you stood or knelt in and around the circle you were enveloped in beams of bright shining sunlight.

The other less obvious but I think equally important – as far as forming us into a community – part was the “labora” of our daily routine. We were divided into three groups – Seals, Puffins and Otters (I was a Seal). Each group was responsible for serving and cleaning up from one of the meals (the Seals had dinner each day). In addition everyone was assigned cleaning responsibilities to be done after morning worship. I was staying in the Abbots House – which neighbors but is separate from the main Abbey House and so my three roommates and I were responsible for cleaning the floors and bathrooms of that building – I was in charge of the showers. It was interesting how much conversation, laughter, bonding and camaraderie developed as I washed and dried silverware and cleaned bathrooms with my fellow pilgrims.

There were about 40 or so of us altogether. A mixture of nationalities and denominations but with a lot of North Americans (from the US and Canada (including a group of 11 from a Presbyterian church north of San Francisco whose pastor had come to Iona while on sabbatical last year and then brought a group from her church back with her again this year (hint hint)) and residents of Great Britain with a few Germans and Swiss thrown in for good measure. Other than some of the Germans (which included two Lutheran pastors) and me there weren’t a lot of Lutherans there. The majority were either Anglican or branches of the Reformed tradition ranging from Presbyterians to Reformed Church in America to the United Church of Canada (which is a union of several denominations in Canada including Presbyterians and Methodists). There were also (I think somewhat unusually) a lot of clergy in the group including a number like me who were there on sabbatical.

In addition to the regular routines of “ora et labora” Iona is a beautiful place with lots of places to walk and hike and there were special programs and activities offered each day that one could participate in or not. I attended a very striking and disturbing session called “When Mermaids Cry” about the ways in which we are filling and poisoning our world and ourselves with plastic (the tiny balls of plastic that all the plastic eventually disintegrate into are called “mermaid’s tears”). On Monday evening we had a “Ceilidh” – an evening of Scottish dancing – in the village hall. (I got to play the fiddle for it in a small live band made up of some of the other guests and staff!). Tuesday afternoon I went on a “pilgrimage” around the island led by the staff that included reflections, prayers and songs at various stops. And Thursday we had a boat trip to island of Staffa which in addition to being a striking geologic example (and includes a huge cave with water pouring in and out that makes a musical sound that inspired one of Mendelsohn’s symphonies) is a nesting place for puffins! Puffins it turns out really like humans because we scare away the seagulls (who like to kill the little puffins). So when you sit quietly as a group at the edge of the two hundred foot cliff bunches of them fly over and waddle around you on their little webbed feet – quite the afternoon of holy delight!

The other big event was the Scottish porridge that was offered every day and which my British friends told me was a must have. I did have it every day and it was good – but it reminded me a lot of oatmeal (which I think it actually is). There was also one bar in the village just below the Abbey with beautiful views of the water where we frequently ended the day – which also was helpful with the community building ?

“Am fear a theid a dh’l, theid e tri uairean ann.”
Gaelic saying about Iona meaning those who come to Iona will come, not once, but three times.