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Fifty-five years ago, I spent a memorable week on the tiny island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, the site to which St. Columba came from Ireland in A.D. 563, to inaugurate the Christian mission to northern Britain.
In 1938, amid the Great Depression, George MacLeod, a Scottish minister from an industrial section of Glasgow, brought together on the island a half dozen craftsmen and six or so young ministers. They labored with their hands during that summer and subsequent ones to reconstruct the ancient medieval cathedral buildings which had fallen into ruin. Their objective was to establish a common life and discipline of worship and work, of stewardship of time and money, renewing their covenant in Christ in order to return to the cities and factories of the mainland with an expanded vision of their Christian witness, where they continued the discipline.
From that rather inconspicuous beginning there emerged a global fellowship of laity and clergy who have come to be known as the Iona Community. Their pilgrimages to the island today are for the same purposes as their predecessors, and groups of them meet in other lands.
My memory of Iona has stuck with me through the years, even though I am not an official member of the community. I recall my own pilgrimage for its daily morning and evening trek over heath and fence to the beautiful greystone Abbey of St. Columba. The churchyard is graced with the thousand-year-old Cross of St. Martin and tombstones commemorating pilgrimages of saints and sinners from earlier times, including the renowned Duncan and Macbeth. Jokingly, one of our group referred to Iona as the paradise where God takes sabbaticals.
The worship that week was among the most compelling I have ever encountered. The liturgies were a blend of a timeless living tradition and a deep sensitivity to the contemporary human condition. Memory preserves even now the simple echoes of sacred sound reverberating from the balcony piano . . . hushed silences beneath the vaulted ceiling between vesper biddings . . . the liturgist’s reading of inspired words from an “ambassador in chains” to the Ephesians, with the prayer that the gospel be boldly proclaimed . . . the flux of worshippers presenting bodies and souls for consecration at the midweek service of healing . . . and the solemn thanksgiving processional of bread and wine to the holy table on the Lord’s Day.
These were not all. The koinonia of several hundred sojourners had congregated from faraway lands and diverse Christian traditions. Faces were not the same nor accents familiar. It was incumbent upon all to build bridges.
My final recollection consists of the serious nature of theological conversation, in itself a form of prayer, as George MacLeod sat in our midst to speak with us for an hour each morning. Never did the chatter of voices drift from the complex individual, social, economic, and political realities that comprise the framework of every person’s spiritual existence. There lay before us the real issues of life and death, of discipleship and spiritual formation. Iona was not for escape.
That was the summer of rioting in Watts, war in Vietnam, strife in Northern Ireland, and starvation in the Orient. All of those realities were mixed in.
Iona is a spiritual center in a whirling vortex. Geographically removed, it is planted at the heart of a groaning creation, a “thin place” in the eye of the tempest. Steady offshore gusts are reminders.
So, what was gained? Very simply, one thing. An image of the church at the crossroads: worship the centripetal event, mission the centrifugal event. Both are one service, “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested.”
When visitors to Iona take holy communion, they proceed directly afterward to the cloister for tea and conversation. The concluding rubric of the liturgy states that each worshiper will be given “small bannocks of bread to flake and share” while mingling with strangers. “Thus is communion brought into the ordinary ways of life.”
It is powerful imagery. Saints, as forgiven sinners, are “bannocks of bread,” the loaves of the Christ at the crossroads of a hungry world.
© 2020, Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved
An earlier version of this essay appeared in Christian Education Shared Approaches, Spring 1981
Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the editor of George Buttrick’s Guide to Preaching the Gospel (Abingdon Press) and the author of Bone, Dead and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books).