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Part 2: Iona, martyrs on the beach and falling in love

Part 2: Iona, martyrs on the beach and falling in love

by Donald Schell

After forty years of asking people to try and reflect on new ways of practicing church, I’m still loving helping our gathered communities discover fresh ways to do this, to be church, to gather openly in Jesus’ presence inviting all in, but this visit to Scotland, seeing how my daughter is making her life without church community, sensing how common that is among her friends and colleagues, seeing Britain’s empty or repurposed churches (a bar, a warehouse, an urban club, subdivided into housing), I sense an inkling of a future of loss; so much that we love and hope to hold on to is dying.

Of course we see a comparable secularity around my home in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle may have the highest proportion of “nones” in the country. Recently one of our San Francisco papers ran an extended story in the Style section on imaginative repurposing of unneeded church buildings. The article celebrated imagination that saved these ‘no longer needed” handsome buildings from demolition.

Here, on this visit to Iona, while I’m delighting in the integrity of this community’s hospitality and clarity of mission, as I’m loving praying twice daily in the Abbey chapel, I also feel a grieving. There are young people here in our gathering of eighty or so people, but they’re few. The faith of fellow pilgrims my age, the majority of our group are people in their 60’s, touches me deeply. Hearing their stories, I hear depth and integrity and generosity. These are people who have taken holy risks. Their questions are alive. They’re here because the Spirit is still grounding them and still making them restless for more.

The Spirit is here and it’s my joy to be present to her. But even here I keep wondering whether our little fragment of North American and European Christians will find a grace to navigate the precipitous losses we’re experiencing. Will we re-find our integrity as communities and people following Jesus? It’s not a new question. Philip Newell (who with his wife Ali is leading this Iona gathering) tells us George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community – – – and a distinguished Church of Scotland minister – – – enjoyed asking people he’d just met, “Are you a Presbyterian or a Christian?” McCleod wasn’t just offering a provocative jest, though he was known for his wicked sense of humor. He was asking a real question from his experience working with the poor of Glasgow, people already outside the margins of the church in the 1930’s. Will you follow you Jesus? Do you know where he leads us?

I wonder what Darwin’s friend Fitzroy would make of Philip Newell asking us to hand round a stone from an Iona beach that he informed us was 2.8 billion years old. The rock came to me last, after eighty of us had held it before. It felt warm from being passed from hand to hand, and knowing how old it was, it felt alive, as though it were speaking to us. Later I talked to a young, open, evangelical earth scientist who explained to me what told us that rock was that old and why we don’t find rocks older than that (though we know how much older the earth is). What would Darwin and Fitzroy make of her and me?

Philip and Ali Newell, our leaders this week were wardens of Iona. Philip has written extensively from that experience looking for connections among Celtic spirituality, eco-awareness, justice, reconciliation, and peacemaking. And from her work as a university chaplain at Edinburgh, Ali is offering body prayer and song and sacred dance in response to Philip’s presentations.

Birthing and dying are in every presentation. Grief and joy.

Darwin, partly from his work but more profoundly in his grief, let faith go, but he has made a clear mark on our theology. As Philip tells it, science and the global environmental crisis are pushing us by our loving, grieving, and hoping toward a new relationship to the earth and to our own Christian tradition, a new relationship that’s also, in part at least, ancient. We’re hearing of Columba founding his community here and of the Celts borrowing inspiration and discovery from the wisdom of their own pre-Christian tradition. We’re hearing loving talk of the church’s death and God’s birthing new kinds of Christian (and other communities). We’re hearing of Pelagius’s vision of church and community, of the courage to see God in every human face. And we’re worshipping in the Abbey Church that George MacLeod rebuilt to welcome such conversations in community.

After yesterday’s plenary session, after Philip’s passionate evocation of the discoveries of Teilhard de Chardin which he put alongside earlier writings and intimations from the Celtic church and other writings and teaching from the church beyond the firm hand of Empire, I offered him the words of Gregory Nazianzen, words inscribed over the door of St. Gregory’s Church in San Francisco, “All that is prays to you,” a fourth century poet theologian’s clarity that the whole universe prays its praise and supplication to God.

At lunch another participant in this gathering who has been working fifty years for Scottish independence offered a button that simply says,“YES.” Beyond specific politics and votes, in the stillness we feel which is actually our continuing rush of forward momentum from the Big Bang, what else is there to say?

Yesterday we walked the long pilgrimage of the island. Seven miles or so. Lots of stops for prayer and reflection. It’s been our one, perfect sunny day. Today, it’s the rain and gusty bluster that Columba and his monks also loved.

Today Philip reminded us that Viking raiders killed 68 of the community’s monks on the beach where last night we enjoyed a performance piece in movement and song. It’s not enough to simply re-assert the old things we’ve heard and said before.

Behind everything I’m hearing and praying here, I’m hearing words of the poet Christian Wiman, writing in his just completed, My Bright Abyss, Meditation of a Modern Believer. He’s written this book in prose, ten year’s of reflections from a young (by my reckoning) husband and father who spent ten years in treatment (and sometimes past his doctors’ offering any hope) as he faced cancer. This was my preparation for hearing Philip’s clear-eyed advocacy for listening to ancient Celtic voices and voices from all humanity to learn a livelier Christian way to embrace the whole of life.

“All talk of heaven seems absurd to me, though I believe we have souls and that they survive our death…I don’t know what it means to say Christ died for our sins (who wants that? Who invented that perverse calculus?), but I do understand – or rather intuit- the notion of a God not above or beyond or immune to human suffering, but in the very midst of it, intimately with us in our sorrow, our sense of abandonment, our hellish astonishment at finding ourselves utterly alone, utterly helpless.”

That’s part of the graced place Christian Wiman found, a place where, he also insists, God is not beyond or immune to our joy. It’s a place where the Celtic love of the earth and the post-modern knowledge that we’re living in a time of ecological disasters and mass extinctions can embrace (like peace and justice in the Psalter). A place of renewed wholeness, knowing we are not alone and that death and extinction have always been part of this glory.

What held Christian Wiman through the raw, sometimes terrifying decade of praying and reflection he recounts, what changed his life before that and propelled him to begin praying was that –

“…I fell in love. It was that sudden, the rift in my life and mind that stark. Perhaps I’d never met the right person, as they say, and at thirty-seven years old finally got lucky. Perhaps the interior clarity and candor that one needs to find real love had, in my case, always been clouded by the need to create, life deflected by art…whatever the case, when I met Danielle, not only was that gray veil between me and the world ripped aside, colors aching back into things, but all the particulars of the world suddenly seemed in excess of themselves and thus more truly themselves. We, too, were part of this enlargement: it was as if our love demanded some expression beyond the blissful intensity our two lives made…the great paradox of love, and not just romantic love, is that a closer focus may go hand in hand with broadened scope. ‘To turn from everything to one face,’ writes Elizabeth Bowen, ‘is to find oneself face to face with everything.’”

Falling in love, Wiman writes, was what pushed him and Danielle to begin praying when neither was believing or practicing any faith. Falling in love is part of the story of Darwin and the world he discovered and ached to understand in Chile and perhaps what put prayer beyond his reach, but there’s still grace in Darwin’s falling in love. We hear falling in love too in St. Columba’s embrace of this island and of mission from it, and in the way George MacLeod felt Jesus’ embrace of the poor of Glasgow that moved him to a vision of rebuilding this Abbey with their hands and hopes.

Day after tomorrow, I’ll take the ferry from Iona and begin my journey home, arriving two days after our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary. My wife visited this island the summer before we were married. I’ve found her a token from the island that feels like a suitable, joyful marker of our years together and a grateful acknowledgment of the falling in love that began us. I’m eager to bring home my stories and photos from Iona. I hope to return here with her.

And I hope and pray to invite us all to trust the falling in love of our lives and the hints we hear of the heartbeat of God because, despite us and because of us, in our falling in love we’re “face to face with everything.”

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.


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Tracy Haughton

Dear Donald:

Thank you for another evocative and provocative piece about Iona and so much more.

I grieve for the end of a new expression of the Episcopal Church that I was part of for 5 years and that, ultimately, failed to launch. Yet that experience remains rich with discovery and possibility even in what seems outwardly like a failure. Grief and joy. On a big scale, the whole Episcopal/Anglican Church is coping with what our little group of pioneers experienced. It is agonizing to witness an organization that was the object of one’s youthful fervor wither and fade. But also invigorating to let it die , and to discover what remains in the wreckage–so rich and pure.

I’m watching Spike Lee’s 4 part “requiem” for New Orleans, After The Levees Broke and finding some of the same themes there. Despair and outrage in the midst of destruction is where I am now at the end of Part 2. Wondering what people will discover in the recovery and rebuilding.

I was captivated by this quote from your Iona leader Philip Newell: “God not above or beyond or immune to human suffering, but in the very midst of it, intimately with us in our sorrow, our sense of abandonment, our hellish astonishment at finding ourselves utterly alone, utterly helpless.” It brought to mind a time in my personal life where I experienced cataclysmic destruction of what seemed fixed and important. In the midst of my greatest suffering I felt the most profound sense of God’s presence like I’ve never felt before or since. In a perverse way, I miss that terrible time of my life for the sureness I felt of God’s daily presence. Grief, Loss, Destruction, what seems like The End–all hold gifts we can’t imagine when we are comfortable — I think of the solid English church buildings and the rigid parishioners you described that inhabited them in Part 1.

What small, pure flame will kindle fresh falling in love for our Episcopal brethren as we pass through this time of withering and fading?

Tracy Haughton

Ann Fontaine

Could be Donald. Another thing islanders showed us was the Sheela Na Gig. Here is my photo of it. Lots of intertwining of traditions.

Donald Schell


I meant to add this useful little summary on Celtic monasticism:

Donald Schell

Ann, I wonder what the boatsman knew and didn’t know. There’s a Greek/ Eastern Church connection and inspiration that persists in the history of the Celtic church, so we might wonder about the (but much later than this?) example and possible influence of Athos which attempted to banish females of any species from the “Holy Mountain,” BUT

the Romanizing administrator/missionaries seem to have been troubled at ordinary Celtic organization of monasteries where monks and nuns were praying together and the boundaries between monastery and surrounding (literally) village were vague. My first hunch is that the boatsman’s data was wrong. The other story we heard on the island was that (much, much later than Columba) the Benedictine nuns’ community was moved off the island and further island because of the ongoing Viking raids, so that the convent chapel and cloister were already in ruins at the time of the Reformation.

Ann Fontaine

I loved going to Iona – did not do much church stuff – just hiked around (even to the golf course) and took a boat trip to Staffa (site of Fingal’s Cave of Mendelssohn music fame). The boatsman told us that Columba made all the women move to another island to protect his monks from them. Sort of put me off Columba.

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