By Liz Lynn
In September 2017 my friend Betty and I arrived travel-worn and weary on the island of Iona after 4 trains, 2 ferries and a bus – and that was just from Huddersfield! A smiling young man standing beside a van at the top of the causeway and holding a sign up saying ‘Iona Abbey’ was a very welcome sight especially as he gave us a lift up to the Abbey where we were amongst the last arrivals.
We had both wanted to visit Iona for years but only really looked into the possibility when we discovered that it was on both our bucket lists. We had signed up for a week living in the Abbey, sharing in the life of the community and receiving input from the resident team about environmental matters which are such an important focus for this interdenominational Christian group.
We knew that sharing in the life of the community could involve peeling potatoes or washing up and this was expanded closer to our arrival date as including cleaning duties, potentially even cleaning toilets! It was with some relief that we found ourselves allocated to the team that laid the breakfast tables, washed up and peeled and chopped the veg.! It was important that we worked together to build up our sense of belonging to the community, a sense which was inadvertently augmented by suffering together; namely the wet and windy cloisters and the cold, wooden seats in the beautiful thirteenth century abbey church! Needs must, Betty and I quickly located the warmer cushioned seats in the choir of the church and, like good Christians, got down there early for the twice daily services so as to bag them before anyone else could! The mattresses with the springs coming through took a little longer but a folded duvet eventually sorted that out too and the hot water bottles were a nice touch.
Now for the positive stuff! Iona is a very beautiful, pristine island in the Hebridean sea. It feels as though there are only two roads and six cars on the whole island and that, in itself, is heavenly. Add to that the white sandy beaches and the turquoise sea and you begin to get a picture of the peace of the place. The small farming community is dominated by the Abbey and the visitors that flock to visit this pilgrimage place where St. Columbus and a group of companions founded a monastery in 563 AD as a base for missions to the mainland.
In the sixth century they would have lived in small beehive shaped huts, farming the land to support themselves. In the ninth century they were finally driven away by marauding Vikings to Kells in Ireland where it is generally agreed that they completed the beautifully illustrated gospels, the ‘Book of Kells’, now kept on display in Dublin. In the thirteenth century the Benedictines returned to this holy isle to build an abbey which was destroyed by Henry VIII and restored in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
There were about 35 guests from many different countries and numerous young volunteers as well as the permanent staff who maintain the worshipping community in Iona. The music and liturgy were wonderful as anyone familiar with Wild Goose Publications will be very much aware of. To many people, John Bell who speaks regularly on ‘Thought for the day’ on Radio 4, is the most well-known ‘spokesman’ for the community as well as the author and composer of many of the songs.
Often the services highlighted some of the environmental issues that confront the world today. At one service the sound system played shrieking, gale force winds as we reflected on the unusually fierce hurricanes which have been terrorising the Caribbean islands as a result of global warming. Another time, a suitcase full of clothes was used to highlight issues such as how our responsible buying can affect the environment and how overuse of washing machines wears out clothes prematurely; all part of our Christian duty to walk gently on the earth for the sake of generations to come.
All the food was delicious and mostly vegetarian so as to cut back on meat and make a contribution to saving the planet gastronomically! We also had a session in the Chapter House where we learned about the way plastics are clogging up our seas and killing our wild life: apparently 40% of the seas are covered in floating plastic and 40,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed every year by plastic waste.
If all this sounds deeply depressing, we were encouraged by the work being done to offset this damage, for instance the ocean cleaning array which is being developed, and actions we ourselves can take like using as little plastic as possible. I am trying not to use those handy plastic bags available on vegetable counters in shops! It was suggested that we could even return to stores all the excess packaging used to market goods! A website called plastic-pollution.org gives a lot more information if you are interested.
We left Iona, sad to say goodbye to all the new friends we had made, challenged by all we had learnt but refreshed by the peacefulness and spirituality of a place which is claimed to be one of the ‘thinnest’ places on earth, where heaven and earth feel very close. I would recommend it to anyone especially if they are committed to live, work and pray for the future of our beautiful planet.