A Pilgrimage to Iona, Part 2

"...for we have been at worship all day long."

Worship transcends when each individual word is chosen and spoken and/or sung with intention in a gathered community. In Iona, amongst centuries of history, a community meets up to three times a day to share in the signs and words that orients the gathered to the work of God in the world and leads them to worship. Every morning (except for Sunday) worship begins with responses that acknowledge God’s divine possession of creation, celebrate the beauty and goodness of creation, the unity of Christian practices with the work of justice in the world, the power of the witness of Christ in the world, and finally a call for God’s grace to “Open our lips, O God, and our mouths shall proclaim your praise.” As a Methodist, I especially appreciated the final response that began worship, because that response is the same one that we also proclaim in our own observance of morning prayer in the United Methodist Hymnal, and is shared ecumenically across many traditions as a quotation from Psalm 51.

The worship practice of Iona is unique and refreshing in a few ways: worship almost universally is led only by women. Even cooler is the fact that MEN led in the singing, which is an interesting and edifying role reversal in light of many church contexts here in the US. There is also a beautiful balance between preaching and sacramental activity in worship at the Abbey where neither act is seen as more important than the other. 

To describe Iona’s worship is to go beyond words that are said in worship and also celebrate the rich tradition of singing that exists in that community. We sang abundantly in worship. The songs were rich not only in beauty, but also in themes of justice. For instance, the words written by Jacqueline G Jones © 2008 of her song “Have you heard God’s voice,” is a substantial example of what I am talking about. In her third verse we sang: 

“In your city streets will you be God’s heart?
Will you listen to the voiceless?
Will you stop and eat, and when friendships start,
will you share your faith with the faithless?”

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It isn’t often that you get to sing a song to God that sings back to you. Iona’s attitude to worship, and the rationale behind their practice of morning prayer is best summed up in the introduction to their worship book (which I highly recommend) 

Concerning Worship 
(found on page 11 of the Iona Abbey Worship Book)

“So, on Iona, we are committed to the belief that worship is everything we do…in the morning service we do not end with a benediction, but simply with responses that prepare us to go straight out to the life of the world, there to continue worship in the context of our work. In the evening we come together again…but we do not begin the service with a call to worship, for we have been at worship all day long.”
(emphasis mine)

What does life look like when it is seen as a sustained act of worshipping God?

Also a significant weekly occurence in the summer on the Isle of Iona is the pilgrimage, a roughly 12 mile hike across the many landmarks of the Island. It has a liturgical structure to it, and was definitely a walking church experience. We walked, were in fellowship, and when we stopped and rested at landmarks we often sung, and prayed. Stories were told, and simply walking about being in creation became a vivid act of worship. My strongest memory was a portion of the pilgrimage that led from a geographic high point of the island to a place called “The Hermits Cell.” According to the folk tradition of the island, the hermits cell has long been a place of solitude. The walk to it was around 20 minutes of walking (more like squishing, for the soil is very peaty and spongy with the incessant moisture derived from Scottish weather) was profound in its human silence. It’s difficult to put into words what it meant to me, but I found myself in silent awe of the timelessness of the place where I have been walking, and the deep, deep history in which I was participating. The silence leading to the hermit’s cell was, of course, completed with song. 

Next week, I will write about what United Methodist Christians can learn from a place like Iona, and how the broader implications that a deep tradition of hospitality and harmony with creation can shape our actions and perspective in the U.S.


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