Sunday, May 5, 2013

Gifts from the sea

For all its past historical and religious significance, I doubt that Iona would still be the focus of spiritual pilgrimage today were it not for the Iona Community – a community which conducts daily worship services and regular pilgrimages around the island.

Begun in 1938,  the Iona Community, was founded by the Rev George MacLeod, who had a vision of an ecumenical Christian community of men and women from different countries, walks of life and traditions within the Christian church.

Members of the community live primarily in the UK ( Scotland, England and Wales) but are also found in, Australia, Germany, Malaysia and the United States.
The community has a strong commitment to ecumenism and to peace and justice issues throughout the world.

Members are expected to work within their local communities on these issues but are also encouraged to have a period of service, community life and experience on Iona.
Residency on the island can range between several days/weeks up to 3 years.
The community has its own ecumenical liturgy which perfectly reflects the Community's beliefs that worship is all that we are and all that we do, both inside and outside the church, with no division into the "sacred" and the "secular". The liturgy draws on many traditions, including the Celtic, and aims to help us be fully present to God in our neighbor, in the political and social activity of the world around us and in the very centre and soul of our being.

While on the island, we worshipped several times with the Community in the Abbey.
During the first service, on Saturday night, we were handed a small shell as we entered the sanctuary. We were asked to hold it in our hands as we prayed.

A combination of tiredness from travel, the beginning of letting down my guard, accumulated sadness and the unexpected beauty of the liturgical language reduced me to tears on more than one occasion.
(Ah, the gift of tears – a charism which I confess to having and which I regard as both a blessing and a curse!).

Several tears fell into my overturned shell right as we were being instructed to find someone we hadn’t traveled with yet, and exchange our shells, along with a piece of ourselves and our story.

I had only to turn to my immediate right to meet  Mariska, a tall Presbyterian minister from Sweden in Iona on her first pilgrimage. As I tried to formulate, in words, why I was there, I was completely unable to do it without sobbing; apologetically offering her my sodden shell as well as my sodden self!

We were then instructed to bring our neighbors shell and place it on the altar in thanksgiving for their presence on our journey and as a symbol of being willing to hold them in prayer for the week.
Walking together to the altar, Mariska whispered what a privilege it was to bear some of my sadness and offer it to God, both as a symbol of someone fully alive and in thankfulness for the capacity to feel.

Needless to say, my sadness, in that moment, felt transformed.

Walking on the shore the next day, I found one of the small white stones referred to as "St Columba’s tears".

Legend has it that he missed Ireland so much in the early stages of his exile that he walked along this bay crying, his tears turning to small stones which can be found only on this island.

(I don’t know the geological reality of any of this but you have to hand it to the Scots and the Irish – they can sure spin a lovely tale!)
I brought home 
both the ‘tear’ and a shell 
as a reminder 
to be thankful 
for the capacity
 to feel deeply.

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