by Richard Groves
“Iona of my heart, Iona my love.
Instead of monks’ voices, there shall be lowing of cattle.
But ‘ere the world comes to an end, Iona shall be as it was.”
I have been back at work for about a month now after returning from a three month sabbatical. So many good friends and acquaintances have asked, How was your time off? I still don’t have a very good elevator speech! I wonder how to communicate with integrity about an intimate and sacred time — without ‘giving away the gold’ too quickly—a reference to the Grimm’s Fairy Tale where the seeker is warned to be circumspect when telling others about his treasure, lest the deeper meaning be lost in the process. But when there is time and space [at least an hour or so], I have appreciated the chance to share and re-live with others some of the experiences that I suspect will continue to shape my soul forever. Here are a few reflections on those months. I share them especially for those of you who helped make my sabbatical possible. In the meantime, if you and I are lucky to have the time during the weeks and months ahead, I would be honored to offer more specific stories in detail. Please just ask! Like anything that is good, joy is doubled in the sharing.
THE GIFT OF TIME
As a child of my culture, I often catch myself saying, or at least feeling that there is never enough time or that time is running out. Time is money, we say. In this perspective TIME, or the lack of it, is a big problem, even the enemy. In fact, when our life is dominated and pushed by limited perspectives on time, the soul, which naturally perceives in terms of infinity, is silenced. An entire month retreat on the Isle of Iona [in the Scottish Hebrides] was like inhabiting a parallel universe of time. Being on a small island [just 3 miles long X 1.5 miles wide] and unplugged from internet, cell phone and life’s usual demands created a spaciousness where the soul could settle into its natural state. I sensed a new found ability to engage in a slow dance with time… where the quality of presence in each moment reminded me who I really am underneath the busyness and poor attempts to control my environment. Time also slows down when we are closer to the natural world. Lao Tzu’s advice to return often to nature came to mind. ‘How will I know when I am ready to return?’ the prince asked, ‘When you speak with the bugs, the grasses and the wind and they speak back to you.’
Iona still speaks an ancient Celtic language. It is as if the island itself is an anam cara for the pilgrim. It is a ‘thin place’ not just because of geography and history, but because for fifteen centuries pilgrims have sensed that it is an out-of-the-way place with little to distract us outwards, hence there is a power to draw us inwards. My anam cara mentor told me that in such a place, even a leaf on the bottom of your boot can carry a message. The threshold times of sunrise and sunsets… the untamed elemental presence of sea, wind and rain are the primal language of our Mother Earth who is in constant communion with Father Spirit. In this time zone, a perspective slowly emerged that I had forgotten since childhood. Time is neither the enemy nor a problem. True, time does not stand still. But at any moment we are all capable of standing in the flow of time and change while sensing a profound connection with Something/Someone that is unchangeable and eternal.
As I was returning to Europe’s mainland from Iona, I wondered whether perhaps at my age, this would be the last TIME for such an extended retreat experience. But while my soul’s voice could still be heard with crystal clarity, I realized what a loss it would be to condemn myself to the consensus reality of time. Our culture feels guilty about taking time for space, healing, listening and breathing. We often don’t think twice about spending significant amounts of money on entertainment, vacations or our physical environment. None of these are wrong, of course, but we also need models and mentors who encourage us to find the space just TO BE. Even if we can’t manage or afford an extended retreat, we can become more intentional about creating opportunities to unplug and listen deeply to soul. The location is less important than the intention. In the words of Rumi, ‘Allow yourself to be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you truly love.’ My post sabbatical advice is that, because life tends to be so over stimulated, it can take considerable time to decompress before our still, small voice within can be heard again. The typical weekend break is not long enough and even our travel styles can keep us distracted rather than inwardly focused. I am writing these reflections, not because I have done a great job pacing and balancing my life, but because I see a little more clearly now how much I deprive myself and others if there is not periodic, intentional space for grace in my life.
THE GIFT OF DIRECTION
The soul is a compass for healthy living. It offers a deep, innate sense about life’s direction, purpose and meaning. It may run on autopilot, using today’s jargon, but our direction can be thwarted by another ‘self’ which tends to subtly pull us off course over the years. We can tell when this small self is disconnected from soul because chronic symptoms appear like stress, exhaustion — even emotional and physical illness. I found that on Iona, there was a chance for recalibrating to True North. My retreat felt something like a 60,000 mile ‘check up,’ for my 60-something body. It took me some time, almost two weeks, to even know that I had been running on near empty for a while [the metaphors betray my upbringing in Detroit, the Motor City]. Since Mary’s death four years ago, I was drawing from reserves and a personality style [#3 on the Enneagram] that allowed me to stay busy and engaged. In some ways thes was a gift not a curse. It allowed me time and space to hold my grief in tension as I learned new ways to be in the world without a spouse and workmate at my side. But now I needed something more.
The first day I arrived on Iona for retreat, I saw an old weathered sign above one of the few public buildings on the island, “This island is set apart. It is a motherland of many dreams which yields its secrets only as you listen to the sweet songs heard by St. Columba and an endless stream of pilgrims over many centuries. To reach the heart of Iona is to find something eternal… fresh vision and new courage for every place where love or pain may call us.” I could not get these words out of my mind and heart. Iona had called me. I was being given permission to listen to her ancient wisdom. But I was not quite sure how I would listen with the ears of my soul.
The Celtic thirty day retreat is more like a vision quest than a structured program. The prime directive was to spend as much time out of doors, regardless of the sometimes wild weather. Out of the house and even the church, all the domestic protections we normally surround ourselves with exposed me to what is REAL. There is a kind of guidance available in the natural world that is primal and unmistakably wise. I never heard voices or saw visions, but in the words of Iona’s 5th c. sage, St. Columba, “Angels nor saints have I seen but I have heard the roar of the western sea and the isle of my heart in the midst of it.”
I guess I should not have been so surprised that after two weeks of prolonged exposure to water, wind, earth and fire, another kind of guidance showed up in the form of dreams. In our course work at Sacred Art of Living Center, paying attention to dreams is one of the classical ways to listen to soul. Since 2006 I have been faithfully recording my dreams almost nightly. But I was not prepared for the kind of wild and mind blowing ride that my Iona dreams started presenting to me. Is this what happens when a body is fully rested? Is the dream the intersection where body, mind and spirit converge to clarify the soul’s compass? There was nothing scary about my Iona dreams but they did reveal special insights that will give me courage and direction for the rest of my life. It was a clear confirmation that if I did not continue to do what I was born to do, something essential inside me would die. But it was time to do it in a new way. Indeed Iona was revealing fresh vision and courage ‘for every place where love or pain may call.’
THE GIFT OF BELOVED
The only scary part of returning to Iona was that I had spent so many special times there over the years with my wife, Mary. It is a bittersweet thing to return to a place so laden with love and memories. Ten years earlier, a different kind of vision was offered to both of us during a retreat on Iona that took the form of the Anamcara Project. I can remember like it was yesterday the excitement and possibility of reincarnating the Anamcara vision with which John O’Donahue had set our souls on fire – IN OUR TIME.) But that was THEN… what would it be like to be on Iona now, ALONE?
I had chosen the month of October for my retreat because it was an especially ‘thin’ time of the year in the Celtic Tradition. The end of the month marked Samain or New Year’s Eve for the ancient Celts. And the dates of November 1 and 2, the days of All Saints and All Souls, celebrate the anniversary of the Ars Moriendi, the Sacred Arts of Living and Dying. These are the high holy days of our Tradition and I couldn’t imagine a better place on the planet to be.
I don’t know why I should be so surprised that they all ‘showed up’ towards the end of my retreat– John O’Donohue, Columba and of course Mary. It was more than wishful thinking or an overactive imagination. It was like the world of dreams and the Other World were so perceptible that even the rocks, the sky and the ocean were starting to speak. Don’t get me wrong, I still did not hear voices. But I did experience a profound transformation of grief and loss into love and joy in a way that I never would have expected. The gift of Iona is a kind of deep knowing that I will never be alone again. I have had an experience of another dimension not in my head, but in my heart and soul.
The final days on Iona were like a grand reunion and send off. I spent the last night camping under the full All Hallow’s Eve moon. And then there was a final lucid dream where Mary said, ‘I knew you would come back again.’ I replied, ‘But I’ve been waiting for you.’ ‘You’ve been very busy,’ she smiled. ‘But that’s ok, I have all the time in the world now.’ ‘So what’s next?’ I asked. Mary replied, ‘Well, this could be the start of a brand new adventure.’ Her last words were full of anticipation, ‘Are you ready to discover what a soul marriage could mean for us?’
So I return to ‘normal life’ with only one new expectation and resolution: to keep learning more about the Larger Beloved Some One/Some Thing that forever holds all of us together with such love.