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.
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.
Written 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!