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Iona

As I leave worship today I walk along a stone path believed to be more than 1000 years old. It’s called “The Street of the Dead” because generations of believers have processed along this route between church and cemetery. Humble monks are buried next to kings. The inscription on grave coverings harkens back to bloody battles when the pious men who lived in the Abbey took a stand for the faith that cost them their lives. Their community reverently carried their bodies from sanctuary to graveyard on The Street of the Dead to their final resting places. To be buried on the sacred isle of Iona was regarded as a quicker and more sure entry into heaven. I return to my hotel room and am irritated that I have a lousy wi-fi connection. I can’t even upload pictures to my posts. Honestly! From sacred to sour all in a Sabbath morning! I find it interesting that I can simultaneously treasure the ancient remains of holy sites yet expect my favorite modern conveniences to be available at my beck and call.
I’ve gone as far west as I can with my journey. I’m on the Isle of Iona, part of the Hebrides Islands off the west coast of Scotland. An Irishman sailed across the waters with 12 brothers in Christ to establish a worshiping community here. He became known as Saint Columba and his arrival in AD 563 was the beginning of a spiritual transformation for this small parcel of land. He built a monastery that became known as a center of Christian teaching and artistic trade. He was greatly respected for his wisdom and miracles of healing so pilgrims like me have traveled long distances to tap into the Iona holiness.
St. Columba died at the Abbey and a shrine was erected over his casket. I’ve spent time in prayer in this tiny dwelling (it seats four and one at the kneeler) a couple of times. I learned that none of his mortal remains are, in fact, still on the premises. Ancient churches like to have relics, items of particular holy power because they are attached to a revered saint. (In one of the churches we visited it was the kneecap of their beloved saint! It was tastefully displayed atop some pretty fabric in a glass case. Lovely.) It seems morbid to us modern folks but people were willing to kill to obtain these things. The Vikings started invading the Abbey because they heard there was good stuff to be had. In 795 they rowed one of their long boats up onto the beach of this peace-loving community and exercised force to grab some goods. They came back a second then third time, ransacking with abandon. So the monks packed their few treasures away, including the weary bones of old Columba who got relocated to a monastery in Ireland, his homeland. But the fascination with relics continued to entice the Vikings whose worst attack on the monastery was in 825. The monks were tortured and killed for not revealing to the invaders the new resting place for Columba’s body. My faith seems paltry when I consider the willingness of these men of God to give up their lives rather than the brittle remains of their patron saint. I imagine the burial procession for these courageous souls that perhaps followed the stony path of the Street of the Dead, realizing that the cross I bear for my faith is not nearly as heavy as I sometimes believe. The Iona Abbey is built on martyrs’ blood yet I am able to sit peacefully in their sanctuary on a cool July morning to connect with the same God these monks worshiped when Vikings came bursting through their doors!
There are no signs of such violence now. To the contrary, pilgrims from different countries, old and young, male and female, wander the grounds of the Abbey quietly. I attended a prayer service this evening that gave most of the time for personal prayer. It was guided by a liturgist at its conclusion. The surroundings of the Abbey are pastoral. Two highlander cows caught me off guard tonight as I walked past the Abbey toward the hills beyond. Looming a good two stories over me on an adjacent hill, one made unashamed eye contact with me. I was zoo material for her just as she was for me. We engaged in a stare-down of polite curiosity. The land is “bumpy” with grassy hills that are relatively treeless. Rocks stick out of the earth everywhere. I looked at a large hill in the distance and noticed it was bespeckled with white sheep. They talked to each other as the evening light began to dim. Animals have a good life here. There’s a wind off the water and the air is pure. I think of my ancestors as I take in the beauty around me.
Iona became a destination for me at least 15 years ago when I first discovered their worship resources. Wild Goose Publications is their printing house and I have borrowed from it for years. They have an order of worship for a healing service around which we have shaped our own Sunday service during Lent. I have used their rich liturgies and melodic harmonies by noted musician, John Bell. When I learned that these materials were born out of an intentional faith community on a Scottish island about three miles long and one mile wide, I plugged it in as a future destination. I am soaking in the sacred while here. In addition to the monastery which sits immediately to the north of my hotel, there is a 12th century nunnery just to the south. Many of the walls are gone but the footprint of a once-active convent is excavated with explanatory signs that describe the function of each space. The Chapter House is a room where the nuns met daily to process the days’ events. They confessed their sins and expressed their gratitude in communal prayer. The stone benches upon which faithful women perched in black habits for hundreds of years still line the walls. So I have collapsed the distance between my Scottish sisters and myself by praying there. My Spiritual Director gave me a three day plan for a retreat and I am following that in any number of inspiring settings on the island. I am reflecting on the passage she gave me: the Road to Emmaus. Not coincidentally the words to the refrain of our final hymn in morning worship were: “Singing, we gladly worship the Lord together. Singing, we gladly worship the Lord. Those who are travelling the road of life, sow seeds of peace and love.” (The Living God. Music is a Guatemalan folk melody arranged by John Bell.) Yes, Lord, I am listening!
It will take a long time for me to fully process this chapter of my life that has moved me from Munich to Iona over the course of a month. I’m grateful that I have a Biblical three days on this mystical mound of Scottish soil to rest in God’s presence after a whirlwind journey of Nourishing Roots. The people and places, the sights, sounds and smells along the way have been an even greater blessing than I could have imagined. And I had high expectations as I took off from Gerald R. Ford International Airport a lifetime ago. God has been very much present and even now, as I sit alone in a hotel room and eat my meals by myself in the adjoining restaurant (I have a new insight into how hard that is for those without spouse or family), I know that I am always in good and holy Company.
By the way, I won’t have the internet connection necessary to upload pictures to this post! I’ll have to add them later. But, if this is my greatest hardship today, my heart is filled with gratitude!

By preachinglife

My father was a military chaplain so I moved around quite a bit growing up. I have always gone to church! Even when we traveled we went somewhere to church. I met and married my husband, Garrett, at Chicago Theological Seminary where I earned a Masters of Divinity degree. He and I were ordained together at the First Church of Lombard, United Church of Christ in Lombard, Illinois on June 14, 1987. My first act as an ordained minister at the end of a tremendously hot ordination ceremony was to baptize my daughter, Lisa Marian! We added two sons and a daughter to the mix: James, Joseph and Maria. We have girls on either end and two boys one year apart in the middle. They range in age from 33 to almost 22. I love them!

I have been in the parish ministry for 35 years, serving at three different churches. I have joyfully served the people at the First Congregational Church of Rockford, United Church of Christ in Rockford, Michigan for 24 years.

We live on family land about 3 miles from the church. In random free moments I enjoy cooking good meals, reading, writing, gardening, traveling and spending time with my family. I am blessed!

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