Thoughts from Iona
This week, our Lay Reader shared some of her thoughts reflecting on her time spent on the Island of Iona.
I decided not to go along with the Lectionary theme this week and I do hope nobody is dreadfully upset by this. Instead I would like to share with you a little of my time on the island of Iona, which is where I, and about thirty others from churches around Milton Keynes, spent a week in 1999. It still lingers on in my mind as a “thin” place, a place where God is close.
I’m not planning on giving you a travelogue, extolling the beauties of the island, although it is extremely beautiful. I’m not going to tell you in exhaustive detail what we did during the week, although I can do that after the service if you wish!
What I am hoping to do is to share with you something I re-learned, a truth that is so very simple, but is a basic tenet of our faith, something so simple that it seems almost ridiculous to have to remind oneself of it. But as I was on Iona it came to me that it was something I no longer lived by, something I had, if not forgotten, at least pushed to the back of my mind. And I thought, if I had forgotten this then perhaps others have too. So today, I’m sharing this with you, hoping that it will bring back to your minds a simple, but basic truth.
From the moment I saw Iona I think there was a feeling of somewhere different, a sense of place, if you like. Even though the channel between the island of Mull, and the island of Iona is no more than a mile wide, there is a difference between the two. Maybe I wanted there to be something different, but I’m pretty sure it was there, most people said so, but to begin with I couldn’t work out what it was.
It wasn’t until the Warden of the Abbey was talking to us about Celtic spirituality that I worked out what the specialness was. Quite simply, it was, to me at least, a sense of God. There, on the island, I felt surrounded by God. He was there, both in everything, and almost contradictorily, encircling everything, And that, Brian the Warden said, was in a way what Celtic spirituality was: a sense of God in everything and at every time.
In fact, Brian emphasised, if we’re being truthful, there is no such thing as Celtic spirituality, because that phrase implies a spiritual bit, and a secular bit. What is at the heart of the Iona community, and also, we think, the centre of early Celtic life, is that the whole of life is the spiritual bit, for God is there in every part of life. It is impossible to draw a line and say, “Here, this is my spiritual life, and there, that is my secular life”
That is why, in many books of Celtic prayer there are prayers to be said when brushing the hearth, or when milking the cow, or when undertaking any of life’s mundane tasks. I used to think that these were a bit twee, and dismissed them as fairly meaningless; but if you believe that every thing is a task done for the glory of God, then praying as you churn butter, or make the beds ~ or even log on to your computer, or begin your shift work at the factory ~ does not seem so silly. In fact, it is eminently sensible, because in doing this, you acknowledge that God is there, in the very centre of littleness of our lives, in the stuff of everyday living ~ and we should praise him for this.
Another thing that Brian pointed out was that many of these tasks, seen by us today as idyllic, country pursuits, were carried out in the harshest of conditions. The cows needed to be milked at five in the morning, whether the rain was lashing down or not, whether the milk froze almost as soon as it hit the bucket, whether you could feel your numbed fingers; the butter needed churning and the bread baking however you felt, for if it wasn’t then there would be nothing to eat that day. And if you could pray, and praise God in those conditions, then he truly was in the centre of your life, in every thing that you did.
Do you see God as there in everything you do, in everything you are?
Not too long before I went to Iona, I was feeling thoroughly disheartened and discontented with my job situation. I didn't like what I'm doing, but I didn’t know what else I could do. Things weren’t quite right between my husband and I, I was fed up at church. In general, I wasn’t happy. One day I started thinking and praying about this, and it struck me that I could liken myself to a wheel, for when the axle goes straight and true through the centre of the wheel, then the wheel turns smoothly. But when the axle is off-centre, then the journey is not so steady, the vehicle above the wheel jerks and bounces, and the wheel is not smooth. At that time, God was not in the centre of my life. That’s not to say that I had turned my back on him, or that I had had a crisis of faith. Nothing so dramatic. Simply, I had drifted, only slightly, but enough to mean that the axle that should have been straight and true through the heart of my life, was off centre. And just as it only takes the axle of a wheel to be a few centimetres off centre to make the journey jerky and uncomfortable, so my whole life felt uncomfortable and not-quite-right because my true axle, God, was no longer there, at the centre of my life. And so everything I did ~ my job, my relationships, my whole life, ~ was not running smoothly, as it was designed to.
Of course, this is not to say that we will not meet bumps in the road; we all know that life is full of pot-holes, and sudden corners, but if the axle is as it should be ~ directly through the centre ~ then the wheels can cope with the difficulties.
Feeling as I did, that God was not in the centre of my life, it meant that nothing in my life quite seemed as it should be. Without sounding, I hope, as though I am boasting, I now feel as though the axle is at least closer to the centre than it was! And somehow, I learned to look at life in a different way, and things didn’t seem so bad. I still wasn’t particularly happy in my job, but I began to learn to rest in God and to trust him to lead me the right way. My relationship with Andrew picked up, and more importantly, I began talking to God again!
Now I know that having described God as being the axle of a circle, and being in the centre, it almost seems like a mixed metaphor to talk about him surrounding us also ~ but that’s one of the beauties about God. You can’t pin him down and say that he is this, so he’s not that.
In Psalm 121 the Psalmist affirms the belief that God surrounds us with loving care, in the words “The Lord will watch over your life, he will watch over your coming and going, both now and for evermore”. As Christians we too should be aware of the presence of God in every part of our life ~ and not just his presence, but his love, and his watchfulness. He truly cares about us. He will not let your foot slip, and he who watches over you will not slumber.
And this is the other part of what I learned: that in everything we do, and live, and are, God surrounds us with his loving care. On Iona I felt encircled by the love of God, which made me complete, and whole. All around me on the island there were reminders of this. There were the circles of the Celtic crosses, with their interwoven patterns, representing all of life entwined together; there were the circling prayers that we spoke at the morning service, where work flowed directly from worship; there were the hugs and affirming words spoken by people to one another that made you feel whole and complete; there was the sun, shining almost every day; and the delicate whorled shells, and the smooth and rounded pebbles. Over and over there were reminders of the encircling, affirming love of God.
Throughout everything was this strong symbolism of God’s love as a never ending circle; it has no beginning, it has no end. We do not have to deserve it, for he pours love out to us, surrounding us, and encircling us. What we have to do is to be open to seeing this, and to recognise that in being surrounded by God we are surrounded by love. Whoever lives in love lives in God.
So what I re-learned in the end was that God is there, at the centre of everything I do, and that I am there, at the centre of all God is. I am made whole by his love for me, which surrounds me in everything I am and everything I do.
It is these truths that I had forgotten, I had pushed to the back of my mind ~ not on purpose, you understand, but because… Well, I’m not sure why! But no longer was I aware of God in everything, or of his loving care enfolding me. Perhaps, you too have pushed this to the back of your mind, then pull it forward, remind yourself of the truth, for it can change the way you look at things, the way you look at yourself, and what you do, for once more God is there, in everything. If you like, you are re-connected to God.
I’d like to finish with a poem I wrote while there on the island, not because it’s particularly good, but because it says what I’ve tried to say here this morning ~ but in a lot fewer words!
Woven through the cycle of the world
The endless circle of birth and death,
Of creation and destruction,
Of laughter and tears,
Of love and hate.
Surrounding it all remains God,
Bringing perfect completeness as,
all is brought into infinite re-creation
And we weep no more.