A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to spend a week in the Iona Abbey. It was a deeply moving week and the moments I spent in prayer, in song, in worship, and in theological reflection shall remain with me forever. It is a special place. It seems that each word is weighed when it is included in liturgy. Each song seems to exemplify the adage of Francis that "when we sing we pray twice." The week of living in community was a great experience. The daily tasks were a reminder of how important working for and with each other is. Living in community and sharing the tasks of daily living reinforced the idea that we are reliant on each other. As we live as a Christian community in our parishes and our churches we also rely on each other. We often forget that. It leaves me asking how we can better foster that sense of community and the work of the whole Body of Christ in our churches. The whole week was life changing and an important part of my spiritual journey. I will no doubt be referring to my time on Iona for a long time.
One of the more profound experiences of the week was visiting an Island called Staffa, also in the Scottish Hebrides. Uninhabited, Staffa is a small Island about a 10 km journey by boat from Iona. It is the home to thousands of sea birds including the common shag, the kittiwake, and the star of the program…the puffin. Given the fact that the puffin is the provincial bird of Newfoundland and Labrador, I was excited to get out there to see the birds. It was in many ways like being home. I had no idea that we would have such a great look at these tremndous birds. We sat on the grass a couple of hundred feet from the ocean and these colourful creatures flittered and played for us at our feet. It was magnificent. One could not stand there in the wind and behold these birds without becoming keenly aware of the magnitude of creation and what God has done in making this world.
If the puffins were not enough to inspire awe, Fingal’s Cave would certainly do it. As we walked along the basalt formation of the island, it is hard to imagine that this island was formed by volcanic activity. The multitude of hexagonal stones all joined gave the impression of being formed by skilled tradesmen with concrete. The beauty of the stone, its shape and colour make the trip to Staffa worthwhile. But just a few minutes from where the boat landed we found ourselves at the mouth of Fingal’s Cave. It was a harrowing walk as we were walking a narrow path with the sea lapping at the rocks about 30 feet below. Reaching the mouth of the cave we were taken by the majesty of the grotto. Over 200 feet deep and over 70 feet high, this natural cathedral is a ‘thin place.’ For Celtic Christians the ‘thin place’ was a place where there was no more than a thin veil that separates one from the Sacred, the Divine, the Kingdom of God. Listening to the music of the sea at the back of Fingal’s Cave, I was deeply conscious of the ‘thin place.’ It was not hard to imagine Mendelssohn being inspired in 1829 to compose Opus 26 (Fingal’s Cave) of his Hebrides Overture. The acoustics in the cave are tremendous. When Wordsworth visited the cave he penned this poem.
"Thanks for the lessons of this spot….
The pillard vestibule,
Expanding yet precise, the roof embowed,
Might seem designed to humble man, when proud
Of his best workmanship by plan and tool.
Down-bearing with his whole Atlantic weight
Of tide and tempest on the structure’s base,
And flashing to that structure’s topmost height,
Ocean has proved its strength, and of its grace
In calm is conscious, finding for its freight
Of softest music some responsive place."
William Wordsworth, 1833
I love the sentiment of the cave seemingly designed to humble humanity. Our best workmanship and our grandest technology pale in comparison to this wonderful work of God in nature. Having spent those thin moments in Fingal’s cave, I too came away giving ‘thanks for the lessons of this spot.’ God is in all places, and being in such a remote and austere location made me very aware of how very present God is. The psalmist writes in psalm 139, Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night," even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you."
The trip back to Iona was also wonderful. The wind was up and we we soaked in sea water upon our return. It was reminiscent of being in Newfoundland in many ways, most especially while on the water that day. John F. Kennedy once said, "We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch – we are going back from whence we came." I very much felt by mid week as we rolled across the waves back to Iona that I had indeed gone back from whence I came. It was marvellous day in the middle of a week that I am glad I had opportunity to experience. God is good!