A Pilgrimage to Iona, Part I

“People come to Iona seeking Peace and Quiet. 
People leave Iona seeking Peace and Justice.”

I had the incredible opportunity recently to spend five days on the island of Iona in western Scotland. This is a place I have only had the pleasure of knowing at a distance, a place with a religious community whose songs have been what I have cut my teeth on as I have learned to become a worship enlivener in the church. Iona is a place with a rich history that began before the printed bible, the separation of the Western and Eastern Christian Church, and only one hundred years after unanimous adoption of the Christian Canon. The Abbey in Iona can trace its origins back to St. Columba, a venerated saint who established the island as a holy place in 563 after being exiled from Ireland. Iona can be considered a bastion of Celtic Christianity in Scotland, and many of the thousands of pilgrims who are hospitably welcomed there deem it a “thin” place.

This was one of the views we had at when eating lunch.

Thinness is an appropriate metaphor that refers to the thin separation a place like Iona has from a palpable presence of God. The veil between even the most mundane of things, like grass or rocks, is translucent; making the brilliance of God’s presence very plain and obvious to see and feel there.

The thinness was in the abundance of life and beauty of creation, it was in the sheer depth of time, the rhythm of worship that has continued from centuries of tradition, and in the embedded radical hospitality that the entire island practices weekly when pilgrims and other visitors alight on the island from the Fionnphort ferry. The abbey itself, steeped in a rich history that meets with the 21st century with surprising ease and beauty, is a thin place.

Photo taken by my wife, Rev. Becky David Hensley, of the choir stalls, chancel and altar. The altar is fashioned from the green-veined granite that is native to the island. Some of the most ancient rock on our planet is present in the geography of Iona.

I was able to embark on this journey thanks to the generosity of our Annual Conference’s Center for Leadership Development, who hosted this trip as a capstone experience for students participating the new SIM (Summer Interns in Ministry) program which was inaugurated this summer. This program places young, discerning college aged students into church internships where they can experience first hand the work of the church, while also having ample opportunity to reflect and respond to their experiences.(Click here for more information on the SIM program in the North Texas Annual Conference) A pilgrimage to Iona served as a fertile place for the seeds cast in their hearts this summer to take root.

Seeds have certainly taken root in my heart. My wife put it best when she said to me, “It’s like the Kingdom of God is already here.” It certainly was, and in a profound way. The Kingdom of God is enacted in Iona not only in the abundance of life and beauty that is everywhere, but also in how the people who live there and the people who serve at the abbey represent the kind of hospitality that is reflective of the justice that this world so desperately needs. The kingdom of God was certainly in the words and means with which they worshipped. The rhythm of their prayer life, morning and evening, was never rote or lifeless—even in the hardest of mornings with the sleepiest of leadership, every moment of worship was intentionally hospitable and intentionally prophetic.

Next week, I will share the richness of the worship experience at the Abbey and some of my thoughts on the difference of life between that part of the world and mine. I welcome any comments or questions below and thank you for reading!


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