I arrived at the Iona Community three weeks ago Sunday and by now I’m already immersed in an entirely different orientation than I’m used to. On Sundays through Fridays, minutes are posted near the volunteer housing area with a list of news headlines (which murderers are being pursed around Britain or which UN sanction is being trifled over). But other than that, it’s our own world here.
Iona is many things to many different people. Visitors in search of celtic crosses or a breezy walk pass through on historic tours or with their feet in the sand. The weather is at times golden, at times green, and often gray. Guests of the Iona Community, the ecumenical organization I’m volunteering with, propel themselves into community life for one week after groggy flights from around the world. They stay at the Benedictine abbey where I eat or the 1960s-era MacLeod Center, where I sleep. They wash dishes, clean toilets, worship, and learn alongside volunteers and resident staff members. For those staying on the island for longer – volunteers who come for six weeks to six months and resident staff who stay for up to three years – Iona is the product of the regular and rich patterns of our days. There is a morning service, lunch, dinner, an evening service, work, walks and seven cups of tea in between. The guests come Saturday, there’s a ceilidh on Monday, a pilgrimage on Tuesday, football on Friday.
My pattern has been a mix of wonder, pain and growing in my three weeks here. I have missed loved ones from home dearly, but have felt very welcomed into the ever-changing permuation of volunteers. I have struggled with my reaction to being in a homogenously Christian environment, but have begun to make connections between religious life and the secular world I’m used to at home and at school. I have been challenged by the task of designing a children’s program without the resources of a whole school or summer camp in hand, but have found joy in learning by way of the successes and failures that happen along the way.
For me, all these moments have found their apex in the experience of the island itself. When I am walking up the path worrying about a children’s activity gone wrong, I’ll encounter a sheep whose baah is hilarious and I’ll forget my anxiety. Flinging my coat on my back coming out of the MacLeod Center, late for dinner at the abbey, the sun will be considering its descent over the nearby island of Mull. It will coat the sky with perplexing purple and yellow shadows over the sea and I’ll feel amazed. During my first week, while jet-lagged and still a little confused about where I was and why I was there, I climbed the tallest peak on the island in the early morning. After sitting for a while, curled up against the morning wind, I was prepared for the climb back to ground and for the nine weeks to come. I hope to take home with me these eyes to see the physical world around me and the ears to hear what it’s saying.
The island’s sweet variety of stones, wildflowers, and colorful sky is a lot to wrap your head around not because it’s grandiose but because it is subtle. Yesterday I picked up one of many books lying around about the history of the island, published in 1920. I found the author’s description of what it’s like to be here frighteningly apt. He writes:
“On a clear summer day, and particularly when the wind is in the north the beauty is idyllic. Soft cirrous clouds veil the blue vault of heaven. Over the wide, white sands the sea glistens green as an emerald; farther out it is of vivid blue, barred with purple. The granite cliffs of Mull glow rosy across the Sound, and the great mountains beyond cast their deep-blue shadow on the still waters. There is a wealth of colour, not gorgeous, but exquisite, appealing less to the senses than to the spirit, and creating a sense of peace that is balm to the world-weary. The pilgrim, the antiquarian, the artist: Iona casts her spell on all.” (Iona: A History of the Island with Descriptive Notes by F.M. McNeill)
The wind that pushes people to and from Iona is as strong as the gales that hit the old glass windows of the abbey during lunch. I meet new guests each week and volunteers arrive and depart every Wednesday. Such constant leaving and coming, community building and dispersing is perhaps what took me so long to get oriented at Iona and to know exactly what to write on this blog. Time, light, and life here all are different from in my other world. When I first arrived, soon after the summer equinox, the sun never fully set. You could see it even in the wee hours of the morning as a blue glow in the western corner of the island. The sheep were stone still, chewing and breathing impercepibly, sprinkled across the grass. I feel grateful that I’m learning from them, and from the pattern of days in the community, how to be still.