Sunday, January 31, 2010

An Ionan Sojourn

- Ailsa Tudhope -

Some years ago I came across the Iona books of Christian prayers, daily readings and meditations, whose origins lay in the Iona Community. This ecumenical Christian movement was founded during the depression in 1938 by George MacLeod, then a parish minister in the poorest area of Glasgow. Young ministers in training and unemployed men worked from the 1930s to the 1960s to rebuild the Benedictine Abbey on Iona, and in doing so discovered a common life together.

There has been a Christian presence on Iona since 563 AD, Saint Columba established a monastery which was destroyed by Viking raiders in the 9th century. By the 12th century Benedictine monks had built an Abbey there but the Scottish Reformation of 1560 put an end to their presence. Yet the island retained its identity as a sacred place and the 20th century rebuilding has resulted in it once more becoming a site for pilgrims and seekers after spiritual values. Current visitors to the Abbey and the MacLeod Centre on Iona range from 9 to 90 year olds from all over the world. Each week about a hundred arrive to experience a week living, worshiping and working as members in community.

The permanent staff of 23 and up to 30 volunteers clean and maintain the buildings, cook meals, provide music and arrange and conduct services, run the shop, craft room and administration and welcome their guests who share these tasks, go on a pilgrimage round the island, attend a Ceilidh, sail to Staffa (inspiration for Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Overture), attend “Big Sings” and workshops, and share in the twice daily services in the Abbey.

As I planned a trip to England to visit my daughter I hoped to spend a week on Iona but discovered that I might volunteer to work there and with the encouragement of Andrew, the Albert College family and the congregation at St John’s I sent in an application and was accepted to work in the Iona Community office for seven weeks.

Iona is a remote island. I travelled by train from Glasgow to Oban, meeting seven other volunteers en route. We took the ferry to Craignure on Mull, boarded a bus for the drive along the single lane track to Ffinnaphort (highland cattle, sheep and pedestrians have right of way but motorists need to be aware that the bus does not recognise them!) and then boarded a ferry for Iona, which we could see, just across the Sound.

The Volunteer Co-ordinator was there to meet us and took us on a whistle-stop tour of the Abbey, Welcome Centre and MacLeod Centre, leaving us with an hour to unpack in our dormitories before joining the staff and current guests at supper. I shared a five bed dorm with an Argentinean teenager, an American and an English girl who had both just graduated and a retired school teacher. Two other dorms, a common room, kitchenette and two bathrooms made up the “vollies’” accommodation. Meals were shared around tables for eight, in the MacLeod Common Room with 45 guests and 10 permanent staff members, the others being based at the Abbey which accommodates another 50 guests.

At 9.00pm we attended our first evening service in the Abbey, each evening brings an opportunity for embracing the space God gives us in the created world. The services blend the familiar and the innovate, encouraging participation, using every day language and experience and drawing on the music and prayers of the world Church and the folk traditions of Scotland. So we travelled through a weekly cycle of Gathering Space, Quiet Space, World Space, Healing Space, Creative Space, Table Space (Holy Communion) and Inner Space.
The following morning saw us in church again for the daily Morning Service which ends with everyone going out to their places of work. Mine was the reception in the Welcome Centre and Bookshop. Four days after I arrived, Catherine, the permanent staff member in reception, went on two weeks leave; it’s a good job I’m a fast learner! I found the work most rewarding, I met just about everyone who came to the island, got to know some of the islanders and was involved in general administration, preparing material for services and handling queries.

The Iona Abbey Community works alongside the Iona Island Community, which is made up of 130 people, mostly crofters (farmers) and guest house owners. During my visit the two communities gathered every week for a Ceilidh with Scottish dancing and storytelling; for a wonderful bonfire and firework display on a beach on Guy Fawkes Night; for tea at one of the hotels before it closed for the season and some of us joined the islanders to remove the village hall ceiling in preparation for installing a new one. The islanders worship at the local Presbyterian Church, joining the Abbey congregation for special events such as Harvest Festival, when the eight young school children performed a play and dressed the altar with lobster creels, nets, fleeces and vegetables, reflecting the variety of the local harvest.

It is possible to see the whole beautiful island from Dun I, the hill behind the Abbey. Sandy bays, pebble beaches, marshes, high cliffs, rugged rock faces and the common grazing land called the Machair provide wonderful contrasts for walkers. There are few cars on the island, a couple of golf carts and only one road. One of my favourite walks was to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean with its pebble strewn beach. The peace was palpable and I found it strange to have travelled so far just to discover tranquillity akin to that of Prince Albert.

The extremes of weather were magnificent. I experienced sunny, balmy days when the sea looked like a turquoise lake, raging gales which prevented the ferry from leaving port, quick squalls with their inevitable rainbows and ice cold nights as November arrived.

The hospitality was all-encompassing, we became part of the community and were able to share our faith, work and lives with people from many traditions: Presbyterian, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Quaker and Anglican from the UK, Canada, the USA, Malawi, Argentina, Slovakia, New Zealand, Australia and yes, even a lady from Potchefstroom via Canada – what a surprise it was for us to find ourselves speaking Afrikaans on Iona.

It is a tradition, come rain or shine, for the entire staff and volunteer group to accompany guests directly from a Leaving Service to the ferry to send them off with a Mexican wave as they head across the Sound to Mull.

As I took that voyage away from the island I looked back with my “vollie” friends on the assembled staff seeing us off. I don’t know if I will ever return to Iona but my time there has enhanced my spiritual life and I have brought ideas and resources home which I hope will be a blessing to St John’s and Prince Albert. Living in community isn’t always easy; I found it both a challenging and enriching experience. I shall continue to revisit my memories, turning them over in my mind, like the colourful pebbles I brought home from that distant beach at the back of the ocean, which lie, cool and smooth, in my hand.

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