Since returning from Iona, studying my notes from the lectures John Philip Newell gave on the island, and listening to some of his other lectures, perhaps the most meaningful thing to me in his teaching and in the Celtic tradition is the belief that what is deepest in us is of God (rather than what is deepest in us being opposed to God). In other words, more emphasis might be placed upon the first story of creation, in which God makes human beings in God’s image and declares them—and all of creation—“good,” than upon the second story of creation, that of the “fall.” Newell points out that Jewish tradition begins with the sense that what is deepest in us is sacred. The theology of “original sin” came to be deeply imbedded in Western Christian doctrine, but was rejected in Celtic Christian tradition. Once when Newell was teaching in a conference with a rabbi, and they were questioned about the doctrine of “original sin,” the rabbi responded that when asked about this topic, what would come to mind for most Jews would be an original sin (as in a creative sin!).
Newell speaks of looking into the eyes of his newborn children and “seeing the light of God and smelling on their skin the purity and freshness of the One from Whom they came.” He said he finds the theology of “original sin” absurd. Of course, we as humans are capable of enormous wrong and terrible falseness. Still, at the core of our being is the sacred: the pure gift of God. Julian of Norwich says that we are not only made by God; we are also made of God. When Jesus speaks of being born anew, he is not speaking of becoming something other than ourselves, but of the need for what is deepest in us to come forth again—of the need for the sacred at our core to be born afresh in radically new ways again and again and again.
The meaning of the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, is “turning around”—not to become something other than ourselves, but to turn back to our true essence. This points to our need to become robustly repentant people in order that we might become part of a great rebirthing process.
Each morning while we were on Iona we began by waking and taking the short walk from our hotel to the Abbey. There we entered through this door into the mystery of sitting in silence. It is the doorway into Michael Chapel, the small chapel behind the Abbey where the Iona community worships during the long winter months. We began with a scripture reading followed by a twenty-minute centering prayer sit. It was an invitation into the presence of God and after a few days it became a very comfortable place.
Each day we awoke realizing our time on Iona was a gift. We might have plans and agendas about how the day was to proceed but this was an invitation to set all those aside and just be. We sat as a community for twenty minutes of silence and listened to how God is moving in our lives. To be open and hear a voice that may often be drowned out in the noise of our day to day lives here in Atlanta.
It is a still and quiet place. The door might have begun the week looking dark and foreboding and in a few days it changed into a welcoming opening to another place. A place of comfort and safety. A welcoming way to begin the day.
Of all the practices we learned and shared I treasure this the most. A shared community space that was still. Listening, welcoming, and warm. Being held in the hand of God and surrounded by those who were feeling the same way.
I didn’t realize it at first because it was so bright. When we arrived at Iona, the weather was gorgeous. The afternoon light created a soft glow on the Abbey where we spent much time over the next few days as we learned about Iona, its evolution as the seat of Celtic Christianity and its growing influence worldwide. George Macleod, founder of the modern-day Iona Community, described Iona as “A thin place where only tissue paper separates the spiritual from the material.” I think we came to appreciate what he meant as our week progressed. The quiet, the beauty, and our living among the buildings first constructed in the late 6th century gave it a distinctly spiritual feel.
Iona makes it easy to pray in that so many places evoke a closeness to God and an ability to see God’s presence in all things. That’s a foundational characteristic of Celtic spirituality: it’s not just that we were made by God, it’s that we are “of God”; there is the presence of God to be seen in all things. This, for me, was a small but radical shift in the way I approach my relationship with God. I now seek to see God in all things; it’s more work, and sometimes pretty hard, but what a revelation and it leads to new ways to be in relationship to all people and our world. The two images of the Celtic cross seen here illustrate the difference: the first, perhaps conventional image shows the soft light of the late evening (the sun didn’t set until after 11 p.m.). I wondered what it would be like looking from the other direction and received a wonderful surprise as can be seen in the second image. Needless to say, I lingered there for some time to feel God’s presence.
Iona is a special place to be experienced and I hope that our assembled reflections provide you with a strong pull to experience it for yourself. You won’t regret it!
When Ginny and I signed up in 2017 to go on the Pilgrimage to Iona, we really had no idea what a pilgrimage was. We did know we would be going with good friends, both clergy and others from the Cathedral, our church home while we lived in the Atlanta area. We also knew we were going back to Scotland, a place we had visited several times in the past. Finally, Iona is an island and we always like going to islands, especially new ones! What did we find when we got to Iona? While we both experienced the pilgrimage in slightly different ways, we both were very grateful for our week on Iona. Ginny continues to remember that Iona made it clear how noisy a world we all live in and how the silence, of not only our sessions of meditation in the Abbey, but also of quiet walks on the island, were very meaningful. Silence was also an important part of my experience. During some outdoor sessions of meditation, I would be looking over fields where corncrake, a small ground hugging bird, would break the silence by calling loudly looking to attract a mate across the field. Having heard, but not seen a corncrake, I was hoping to see one on this trip. While I never saw one during the week, I came away with the thought maybe that was good. As we learned more about spirituality and our own faith, we know we do not need to “see” with our eyes everything we believe. The trip was very meaningful to us both and we were glad we made that decision in 2017 to go to Iona.
When I reflect on my week on Iona, my first thought is about the people that I shared the week with and the opportunity to do contemplative exercises in a shared environment. I was so impressed with how the pilgrimage was organized from morning quiet time to wonderful breakfasts on to teaching from John Philip to more quiet time. Afternoons were free time to explore the island, have lunch, take a nap. We then gathered again at 5 p.m. for more contemplative exercises, followed by dinner which was always full of hospitality and wonderful sharing. I have picked this picture to share because it is the view from the St. Columba Hotel’s Quiet Garden. It reflects not only the beauty of the Iona, but it was taken during the late morning quiet time when we were invited to go outside with our eyes wide open and listen to our hearts through which God speaks to us and see all of God’s beauty. I also love this photo because in the distance is the Benedictine Abbey which holds the history of Iona. I found my way to this garden during our second quiet time each day. I have brought home with me the quiet that this pilgrimage gave to me. A certain peace that I did not have before and I have been able to hold on to it.
It was 5 p.m. on Iona, time to gather for our last formal meeting, time to hungrily converse, in anticipation of parting, knowing that we might never all be together again—time to circle ‘round in twelfth century Oran Chapel. The bell was rung, the candle was lit, the prayers were prayed--and we sang these words together
Gathered here in the mystery of this hour,
Gathered here in one strong body.
Gathered here in the struggle and the power,
Spirit, draw near.
Our gentle, kindly, even holy, fellow pilgrim (a former pastor and pastoral counselor/therapist) took the small bowl of oil. We stepped forward one by one. As he drew the cross on each forehead with the oil, our leader spoke these words:
In body, mind, and spirit, may you be well this day, and may you be strong for the work of healing in the world.
And . . . the Spirit drew near.
What a gift it has been to have traveled with this intrepid bunch of Cathedral (and other) pilgrims to the western Hebridean island of Iona to spend a week of discernment with John Philip Newell and Ali Newell. I am still unpacking (well, not literally, but figuratively) the lessons and affects from Iona. My reason for traveling a full two days to get there (and then again home) was to deepen my own discernment on my spiritual journey and to listen for guidance inside for how to use my own gifts for this next chapter of my life. I am and have been curious about the work of Celtic Christianity, its focus on the goodness of God and creation in all of us and its emphasis on John and Jesus and the Celts as they absorbed and taught the Christian message and how it fits with our episcopal journey today.
As I reflect on the trip and my life since returning, I realize that the gifts from our journey will continue to develop and grow and be realized for a long time as I continue to mine the experience for its lessons, simple or deep. This experience is now entwined in the fabric of my spirit.
I'll try to share a few of my reflections today.
First, I am grateful for the diversity of spirits that made up our group. This diversity made for such interesting deepening of each sharing or hiking session or meal. We had young and older, wise and seasoned, funny and athletic...all types. Men, women, husbands, wives, singletons. Each of us are at a different stage of our own discernment and journeys and lives and each of our comments or questions added to the enrichment of all of us.
I feel certain that the expertise and leadership in forming the groups added to that special feeling. As did the expertise of our leaders, Ali and John Philip Newell and our Cathedral leaders, Cathy, Carolynne, and Jeannie. The structure of our days included fun and yummy meals; lots of outdoor activity; plenty of silent prayer; and lessons about Celtic Christianity, consciousness, spirituality, and sharing. The teachings included lessons about the goodness of creation and the light in all of us, and the interconnectedness of all of God's creation. Rocks, animals, birds, fish, clouds, men, women. And that our relationships are one way of manifesting that light. The joyous relationships that were nurtured and shared on this 1 x 3 mile-wide and deep island during our week together was evidence of that spirit at work.
Seeing God in nature and creation is an important aspect of Celtic Spirituality and Christianity. And we certainly spent plenty of time out in the glorious nature of Iona. Feeling the warm sun, the soft breezes or listening to the lapping waves on the shore, or the bleating of the lambs as we explored the island, reminded us of this interconnected-ness. Many of our prayers and activities happened outside...gale force winds, rain, sunshine, warm, cold, dry, hot, we experienced it all...and prayed, shared and laughed the whole way. Again, diversity in nature, and seeing the goodness of God in this creation and being a part of it was an ever-present theme. Oh, did I mention that the internet was nearly out most of the time? That certainly helped us dive right into the solitude and thoughtfulness of the place.
Each day John Philip guided us deeper into understanding the spiritual leaders of Celtic Christianity...from Pelagias in the 4th century, to St. Brigid, to Erugiana, up to more modern day thought leaders like George MacDonald and George McLeod. Using the writings and histories of these figures, he helped us gain clearer insights into the grounding of Celtic Christian wisdom. Firmly anchored in the teachings of Jesus, the apostleship of St. John and the pioneers of early Christianity in Britain, Celtic Christianity weaves in lessons of social justice, reverence of nature, and the goodness of man.
I shall carry with me for a long, long, long time the remarkable sense of light and color and luminosity of Iona. They call it a “thin” place, where there is just a thin veil between time and eternity, heaven and earth. You feel it there, inside, way down deep where your intuition tells you what is true. Down where the goodness and light of God lives inside of all of his creatures. The new word we learned is “liminal,” the sense of being on both sides, back and forth of a door ... between here and eternity, intertwined ... you feel it there. “Seek and ye shall find” comes to mind… “knock and it shall be opened unto you”... mmmm? Liminal.
We saw the light of beautiful sunshine in blue skies, the light of stars lit where there is little city light, the light of the moon, the light in each other’s eyes, the light of the laughter as our boat captain told us tall tales of Meghan and Harry’s yacht, the light of the puffins tending their nests on the hillside of Scaffa. The light of a rainbow (long sought by me) on our final night at our celebration dinner. The light. It will remain with me, as will my white marble stone that I picked up on the beach of St. Columba. We were to bring back a stone as a symbol of new beginnings. I tried to find the whitest one I could, to remind me of that white light on Iona and the light inside each of us, that light of God.
When my friends ask me to explain my experience on Iona, the word for me that comes to mind is deepening, a deepening of understanding and connectedness. I am beyond grateful for the chance to experience this remarkable place with these remarkable people. And this opportunity to deepen my understanding. Thanks be to God! (and to the Cathedral!)
Shortly after joining the choir September nearly a year ago, I was excited to hear about this pilgrimage tour. The chance it offered to sing sacred music in two of the most hallowed spaces in England would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I could and would not want to miss.
Returning ten days ago from the solo trek across Northern England that had me staying for another week after the tour ended, and having had some time now for the afterglow to begin to marinate, I can say emphatically that the experience did not disappoint. As my reflections become more cohesive, front and center is all that singing. Just lifting my voice up as part of the gifted ensemble that is our choir was awesome in itself. To do so for a total of fifteen services over the two-week period made for its own spiritual "deep dive"... one that I am sure will continue — if I but remain open to it — to work its magic on me as the residue of the experience jells and becomes more deeply lodged in my psyche and soul.
How to begin to make sense of it all? Many of the pieces we sang were veritable chants or suffused with chant-like qualities. It is the timeless subtlety of their harmonies and the prayerful content to which we gave voice, coupled with a rich sense of those who had come before and similarly raised their voices in these spaces, that spawned the most powerful moments for me. They cultivated a new opening, a new referent point and hunger, to which I will no doubt be returning again and again, as the new spiritual connection that I see taking shape for me continues to evolve.
This, I am coming to understand, is what it means for me to have participated in this pilgrimage. I am so grateful to Dale and the rest of the choir, and to the many in our church congregation who in one way or another supported this undertaking and enabled it to happen. May all who read this — if you have not already — have the good fortune to one day experience something comparable. It is truly a blessed moment to be treasured.
When you walk the Weir River Walk around Durham Cathedral, you will happen upon a carved Cuthbert cross on a wooden bench. It is a wonderful place to sit down, or stretch from a run or walk, and just think. Sun and rain, wind and rainbows, were all seen from this place. Sitting here made me believe that we are all just a little closer to heaven and even a little more filled with God’s spirit.
Prayer of St. Cuthbert
Everliving God, who didst call thy servants Aidan and Cuthbert to proclaim the Gospel in northern England and endued them with loving hearts and gentle spirits: Grant us grace to live as they did, in simplicity, humility and love for the poor; through Jesus Christ, who came among us as one who serves, and who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
There is a breathtaking strength and beauty about Durham Cathedral. Surrounded by the Wier River, the Cathedral has stood for over 900 years. Its strong solid pillars hold fast a stone ceiling that makes you wonder how the people long ago could have put such a structure together. Our time in the Cathedral was a wonderful experience of light, sound and spirit. Each afternoon we ventured into the chapter house, with its stone floors and huge wooden door. We would rehearse for our time before, polish our sound and drinking in the spirit as we reassembled to vest and pray in a space that filled our hearts. We would return in procession, to the chapter house, where we would reassemble and await the clergy, who would enter through a huge ancient wooden door 20 feet high, which they would open wide with a large, clanking key. The sound of the lock brought total silence, greetings and with blessings exchanged, we were sent off to sing.