The Isle of Iona has been a Christian pilgrimage site for almost 1500 years. Columba, an Irish priest, sailed north in a longboat with 12 disciples to establish a monastery that would bring Jesus into this western edge of Scotland.
Adjoining the Iona Abbey that was built hundreds of years after his life is a shrine in his name. It is reputed to hold his remains although that is highly unlikely. Nonetheless this small chapel sits to the right of the main entrance to the abbey and invites the faithful wayfarers to step in for a time of reflection.
I was on my own for this part of my summer trip—intentionally. It was at the end of a month in Europe tracing my roots so I embraced the opportunity to have quiet time to begin to put the myriad pieces of my travels into place. I found myself, like others on the island, sitting and kneeling in lots of different places to pray. In New York City this kind of prayer posture could get you loaded on the back of a paddy wagon with health care officials awaiting your arrival. But on Iona folks are squatting for a prayer all over the place! I happily joined them.
So one afternoon I set my sights on the St. Columba’s Shrine as my prayer destination. You actually have to duck down to enter the sacred space. Once inside the ceiling stretches high with impressive beams that are rough-hewn and ancient. There are benches near a low altar that has a cross on it. With the purest of intentions I sat down to come into God’s presence. Before closing my eyes I looked around at this sacred space. It was windowless and made of stone. I considered how many pilgrims had sat in this same place and brought their lives into high resolution before God. I looked up at the roof structure and wondered who had put those beams together and how long ago. As I pondered these deep questions while looking heavenward, a bird swooped in through the tiny doorway and flew up to her nest on a beam just above my head.
“&@#+!”, I exclaimed out loud.
So much for holy conversation.
“Great!”, I thought to myself. I crawl into this prayer cave, following in the footsteps of so many ancestors in the faith, only to profane the space with my startled reaction to a barn swallow. Her babies greeted her arrival with excited chirps and satisfied gulps of masticated insects. I greeted her…in another language. Mea culpa.
Prayer is challenging. Distractions are a given. The world cries out for our attention. We are list-lovers. We have continual to-do registers with individual items ranked as “Urgent”, “Today” and “At my leisure.” With the best of intentions we turn to our God only to find that we pull out a pen to cross something off our list triumphantly. “Oh yeah, I got that done today!” we cry. “Oh, sorry God.”
The designated prayer space in my home is deep in my closet. A foot stool that we use to reach the upper shelves of our ample wardrobes serves as my support. I sit on the floor and my elbows rest on the stool. On one of the lower shelves in front of me hangs a small metallic cross. Decades ago a young mom pressed this cross into my hand after worship. Her life was difficult. She and her husband had a combined four children—a “yours, mine and ours” family. They lived in a mobile home with perhaps 1300 square feet to shelter them from the Michigan winters. They both had a divorce behind them and worked at jobs with stubby career ladders. Their little red-headed girl, the “ours” of the family, came forward for the children’s message each Sunday and enthusiastically answered questions I asked as if only she and I were having a conversation. There was marital strain at some point and they disappeared from the church. But not before she pressed this cross into my hand as an unexpected and sacrificial gift from someone who had to watch every penny she spent.
So I think of her and her family when I sit in my prayer chapel. It gets me in touch with the challenges that so many people face and how blessed I am with my life circumstances. Even in this space, I get distracted. “Did I just hear my cell phone buzz?” I ask myself as I stumble for the words to address my God. The prospect of a human conversation seems so much easier than connecting with the God who parted the waters for Moses, knocked Paul off his high horse and sent St. Columba across the waters to establish a monastery in the land of my MacDougall ancestors. Each time I set out to pray with intentionality the tangible world I live in seems to cry out for my attention. It draws me away from the One who is always ready—yearning, in fact–to connect with me.
The best place for me to pray is in the car. I pray out loud. I cry. I sing. I push myself to think of who needs prayers and lift them up: name by name, circumstance by circumstance, household by household. And sometimes my mobile praying is interrupted by some goon who cuts in front of me with no blinker.
“Jerk!” I say out loud.
“Not you, God. Him! You saw what he did!”