Iona Pentecost Pilgrimage: An Island Between Heaven and Earth

A set on the stage of "An Island Between Heaven and Earth"

A set on the stage of “An Island Between Heaven and Earth”

The Sacred Island of Iona is riddled with fables, legends and lore.  Around every bend you encounter places that are linked to a history deeper than our own and stories that reverberate with both the whisking wind and the beat of angels wings.  While we came here keenly aware of the mysteries that shroud this island, our time on Iona was strengthened by opportunities to pull apart the veiled sacred sagas and see behind the curtain the very real people and relationships that have curated all that Iona is known for today.  From our geology lecture and field study, to tours of the Abbey and Staffa Island, this intimate isle grew up and out of its misty myths into a very real place.  A place that is governed by the same laws of nature as my residential address: indeed, my feet, under the authority of gravity, stayed on the ground here on Iona in the exact same ways they do at home.  And the people here, they grocery shop and eat too; it isn’t all miraculous maritime mana dotting the countryside perpetually available to the sacred souls musing about.

No, this is a real place.  A harsh, isolated place.  A place where in the winters one could go mad for a spot of sun.  But it has also always been a place for which people have longed.  A place where pious pilgrims prevailed, and where nobles and kings are entombed.  It is a place of heart-aching beauty that has inspired the very real people behind the legends to come here and be about something greater than, and beyond, themselves.

And so it was with George Fielden MacLeod, Baron MacLeod of Fuinary, a Scottish soldier and radical reverend who believed the ruined medieval Abbey stones cried out to him to rebuild their resplendence.  While this man’s eulogy is the stuff from which tales are told, in 1938 he was a young captain emerging from World War I with a profound sense of God and a disillusioned notion of politics.  His awareness for social justice was as real as the grit and grime he saw daily on the faces of the unemployed in Govan.  But what is indeed legendary about this man was that he responded to the visions of a restored Iona Abbey, and a transformed church that would reconcile people and denominations from all over the world, a church that would become the Iona Community.

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Cast (L to R): Keith Hutcheon, Andy Paterson, Adam Tomkins, Corinne Harris, Des O’Gorman, Lisa Moffat, David McBeath

This clarified sense of Rev. MacLeod and the beginning’s of the Iona Community was offered to us by means of theater and a fantastic troupe from Cutting Edge Theatre Productions.  Within the Iona Village Hall, we were given the gift of insight to the conditions that created the context of the rebuilding of the Abbey.  We laughed at the well written jokes and jests between volunteer men, present to this dream despite their social class dichotomies.  We were cut to the quick with the very real stories that occurred on this soil so that we could be afforded the luxury of comfortably lighting a candle in the sacred beauty of the Iona Abbey.

imgres-2Written by Alistair Rutherford, “An Island Between Heaven and Earth” presents the story of George MacLeod’s dream to transform stones into splendor and to reform the Church of Scotland in the doing so.  And, it worked!  His maverick methods caused many to question the social norms of the time and to work towards ecumenism and social justice.  To this day, the Iona Community continues to provide resources and relevant assistance to global issues of inequality and justice, while also providing a place to where people can gather in community, learn together and participate in worship.

This play provided the perfect reminder that when we come upon sacred sites and pilgrimage places, it is because something not only fabled and fanciful occurred, but something very real happened there.  And most likely something very hard-the kind of hard that pushes back on the status quo and demands something different.  The kind of real and the kind of hard that are flanked with reconciliation and transformation.  George MacLeod called Iona a “thin place”, with only “a tissue paper separating heaven and earth.”  I can’t help but believe that this kind of place occurs when the visions for what it means to live on earth come into alignment with what living is like on the other side.  Now, this is the stuff of legends that I want to surround myself!

Bravo, Cutting Edge Theatre Productions, bravo!

An Island Between Heaven and Earth

Cast (L to R): Rev. George MacLeod (Adam Tomkins), Bill Amos (Keith Hutcheon), Archie Dunlop (David McBeath), Bobby McKay (Des O’Gorman), Milorad Petrovitch (Andy Paterson), Dinah Fallon (Corinne Harris)

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Iona Pentecost Pilgrimage: A Mirror of Questions

pilgrims going to the abbey

It is in the spirit of Quest that we walk towards an answer, a hope, an ache, towards healing, while on a pilgrimage. It is the desire to seek and find. While we are walking, while we are looking for the answer, creates a constant state of expectancy, which raises our spirits and lessens much of the “normal” stress or fatigue of everyday life.

The Pilgrim’s Path requires you to look at all exchanges, all events, all emotional reactions with fresh eyes; always looking for the divine to show up, expecting a synchronicity, expecting an answer. We must stay aware. The stranger is often such a deliverer of the divine response. We see this pilgrimage possibility as early as the book of Genesis, in which Abraham and Sarah greet three strangers in the desert, who actually turn out to be angels. But Abraham and Sarah are unaware of this sacred presence; they are simply practicing an ancient law of the desert, honored among the nomadic peoples of the Near East, which required that if a stranger appeared at your tent, you were to welcome them, and share your food, drink and shelter. In the searing heat of the desert, the law of hospitality was a matter of human survival. It is still practiced among the Bedouins today and seen along the Pilgrim’s Path, even here on Iona. It is a way of extending yourself to Other, acknowledging the ever-present possibility of the Divine showing up and the sacramental sharing of a meal or a moment of time.

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As a way of attuning our eyes and ears to the possibility of angels and answers, our group is using the following “mirror of questions” to center in on the God-given value of each day. This is in line with the Jesuit tradition’s of The Examen, which was believed to be a method to seek and find God in all things and to gain the freedom to let God’s will be done on earth. Honing in on the daily experience is a way of discerning the movement of the Spirit in our lives; in this critical accounting, there is revealed answers for authentic expressions and guidance to personal quests and conflicts.

At the End of the Day: A Mirror of Questions

What dreams did I create last night?
Where did my eyes linger today?
Where was I blind?
Where was I hurt without anyone noticing? What did I learn today?
What did I read?
What new thoughts visited me?
What differences did I notice in those closest to me? Whom did I neglect?
Where did I neglect myself?
What did I begin today that might endure?
How were my conversations?
What did I begin today that might endure?
How were my conversations?
What did I do today for the poor and the excluded?
Did I remember the dead today?
Where could I have exposed myself to the risk of something different?
Where did I allow myself to receive love?
With whom today did I feel the most myself?
What reached me today? How deep did it imprint?
Who saw me today?
What visitations had I from the past and from the future?
What did I avoid today?
From the evidence, why was I given this day?

-From John O’Donohue’s Benedictus, A Book of Blessings