A Pilgrimage to Iona, Part 3

The Fallen Christ statue found outside the Macleod Centre. A sign, nearby, reads:

Sculptor Ronald Rae
His shoulders ache with the weariness of others,
his brow lacerated by their twisted expectations."


“A time on Iona often changes people…”
-Iona Abbey Worship Book

Iona begs for multiple visits. Not only because of the abundant beauty, hospitality, and life there; but also because Iona has lessons to teach us that can’t all be provided in a single, five day visit.

Iona, and in a broader but less pointed sense, Europe, demonstrates a kind of relationship humanity can have with its environment that is foreign to us Americans. The best way to describe this is in the dichotomy between a culture that integrates versus a culture that excavates. This dichotomy has implications in architecture, food systems, and how humans treat each other. There is something about the land, and the abundance of life on Iona that makes it easy for me to understand why people find Iona to be thin. It makes me feel spoiled and somewhat awkward when I think of the kinds of contrived abundances we have in the U.S. A manufactured abundance that exploits more than it stewards leads to silly things like "farm-to-market" cuisine being a marketable phrase rather than a fact inherent in all we eat. In Scotland, the people, its systems, and even its architecture seems integrated into the earth in which it inhabits. In the U.S., our systems, abundance, prosperity all seem to be excavated out of a contrived abundance we over engineer and manipulate in the name of profit, ignorance, and convenience. Christianity can be either integrating or excavating, too. I think some of the best examples of Christianity have occurred when faith integrates holistically into the culture in which it resides. Coincidentally, the Celtic tradition of Christianity, embedded deep into the DNA and very rocks of Iona, is a fantastic example of this. The poetry, music, traditions, all blend into the movement of the Holy Spirit. It is a long lasting and deeply rooted thing that is incredible to witness. Christianity, conversely, can be excavating when it becomes a force of politics and conquest. Christendom has made Christianity into an excavating ideology that has exploited, both spiritually and physically, many cultures throughout history. And today it is withering because of it. Because Christianity tries to sit on top of culture instead of being absorbed into culture like the “yeast” of the Kingdom of God in Matthew 13:33, the once dominant form of Christendom in the U.S. has faded into irrelevance. Christianity nowadays, having excavated and exploited for so long and now entranced with capitalistic notions of institutional growth and the profitable market of Christian music and addictive relationship of power found with unhealthy integration into national politics, has lost much of its deeprootedness and withers.

Iona also demonstrates how a confluence of small, and simple acts that point towards justice on a small scale can lead to a larger reality of a just system. Social justice minded folk, Christian or otherwise, in America have an easy job being overwhelmed by the systemic realities of racism, homophobia, and the overall systemic normalization of certain human realities at the marginalization, and sometimes demonization, of others. When we think of social justice, we want to strike at the root of suffering and can forget (or outright dismiss) the important task of alleviating suffering that goes a long with it. The community that lives on Iona demonstrates how day to day acts of being right with one’s neighbors (my personal definition of righteousness), and treating them fairly and generously with kindness develops into an overall expectation and reality of justice. I found it very telling that the isle of Iona needs no police/constabulary presence.

I also think that Iona reveals a depth to Christian spirituality, devoid of pretension and loftiness, which is desperately needed and thirsted for by Christians in America. The presence of the Holy Spirit on Iona is evident in both the ordinary and extraordinary. The mundane and the transcendent experience on Iona are side-by-side: one washes dishes or shears sheep in full view of pristine blue-turquoise waters that scintillate like emeralds and sapphires in direct sunlight.

This is the view from the hostel, where we ate, washed dishes, sat boredly, or played cards.
One prays in one of the most ancient houses of worship to be found on Earth wearing hiking boots and traveling pants, often stained or caked with the mud one collects while travelling to and fro on the island. One spends an evening dancing with strangers and friends in the community caleigh, only to walk home surrounded by the mystery and silence of the island at dusk. Spending time on Iona teaches us that the rich experience of the Holy Spirit defies human expectations. The Spirit is everywhere and an active awareness of Her is God’s gift to us.

Iona is a gift to us, a place where thinness renews one’s life, spirit, and purpose. I look forward to more journeys to Iona, and how those journeys and the other spiritual pilgrimages of my life will shape me as a child of God. Thanks be to the artist, God, who designed Iona and bothered to design me—whose creativity is unimaginably vast, unexpectedly simple, and unmistakably eternal.


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