The monks on Iona used to pray together eight times a day – five ‘offices’ during the day and three times during the night. There’s a special staircase from the dormitories into Iona Abbey to allow these night-time devotions, but I can’t say I ever used them for this purpose. Perhaps others in the group crept down for 3am devotions but I found the main programme already offered me far more structure than usual.
If you include the short grace prayers at meal-times along with the 9am and 9pm services, we did pray five times each day summoned by a bell. There were additional programme sessions looking at ideas of being a pilgrim, prayer and how we use our money. Although these were interesting I was grateful for the permission to opt out of the different activities, since a number of us had come hoping for some quiet time to reflect as well as be in community together. The only compulsory parts were meals and chores.
My team’s chores included setting up and washing up after the main evening meal, and a range of morning cleaning tasks. Each morning we left after the Abbey service to serve others – I had five basins and mirrors to clean each day. The first day it took quite a while as I learnt the ropes and pattern, trying to avoid the others cleaning toilets, floors and replacing towels and bins. Having done a thorough clean the first day, the other days took less effort and as a group we got much more efficient with practice. Helping each other along, sometimes with a new song we’d just learnt at the Abbey, I have to say I enjoyed it much more than cleaning at home. But maybe I’ll put my new basin skills into action- certainly one of the men remarked how he should maybe help cleaning the toilets at home some time. I’m not sure if my craving for fish and chips today was induced by all the vinegar I’d used to clean the mirrors all week.
Being with people all the time adds a number of challenges. I found my room unbearably hot on the first night and was grateful that my more cold-blooded room-mates managed without the heater as the week progressed. I think we were all snoring at times though I may have been the worst offender. A sign downstairs did offer earplugs ‘for the joys of community living’, and other groups reported a veritable symphony of snoring.
I enjoyed the chances to sing together and to hear the musical talents of others as well as sharing a song I had written. The resident musicians were very skilled in a range of accompaniment as well as leading others to participate. At times I had to check my own attitude as I was feeling that my own group sang or pronounced certain songs better or were more inclusive. I tried to find ways of sharing that were generous and positive rather than being critical or boastful. Reflecting on my own thoughts and process reminded me of the crucible of dramatherapy training, and the intense community experience that was.
I was also very conscious of the community I had left behind in Birmingham, still in the aftermath of looting and violence. I felt the privilege of being able to get away from it all to somewhere so beautiful and peaceful- an opportunity out of reach for many local friends due to finances or other commitments. I shared positively about the community in Birmingham coming together to renounce violence and felt pride in my local area. While I was personally most aware of
prayer in the Christian community, others in the Muslim and Sikh communities set great examples of calming tensions and promoting peace.
I also felt positive about the church community I call home. While many I met clearly wished their home churches were more like Iona, I found myself valuing many aspects of my local church. Our recent talk on money gave me ideas to share in this discussion, and the Iona Community principle of accountability for how we use our money is one I have been seeking to implement in my own life. Having agreed my decision to purchase an iPhone with several church friends I now need to watch that it stays a positive thing rather than a negative drain on time and relationships. Over the week I got quite familiar with the Met Office weather app and passed on updates to others in the group. We also found that in the absence of a torch, a page of scripture from the Bible app could literally be a lamp to our feet!
Working together, ceilidhing together, walking and talking together was a great experience. Taking time to reflect on my own responses, attitudes and journey has also been valuable and I have plenty more to Mull over 😉 in the next weeks. I hope I can share some of it here and as I return home – that I might have picked up some good habits as well as some lovely photographs. So much of Iona reflects the glory of God. My challenge is somehow to reflect something of that too.