Of Spirit and Soul... (Iona)

May 11, 2007

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I have been reading books about it for years. I have attended conferences, workshops and retreats. And yet, ask me what it is and I would not be able to tell you. I am talking about spirituality. The concept of spirituality is so spoken about, and yet, it is in essence unspeakable; it is the topic of great lectures and the result of much silence; it is the gift of very few and the call of many.

Some weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel to the island of Iona. I had read about its history and sung music from Iona. I even met some of the members of this ancient and new community. The Iona spirituality, rooted in true Celtic Spirituality always intrigued me, but never grabbed me. I thought it trendy and on the verge of New Age.

And yet, here I was, running to catch my plane from Brussels to Edinburgh. It was a disastrous day. The train conductors were striking. The airport rules have become very restrictive. The people were annoyed and annoying. I was so on edge that the flight attendant asked me if I was having a bad day. She asked me what I was up to in Scotland. I was almost embarrassed to tell her I was in search of a deeper understanding of spirituality. She must have thought that I could use some of that.

As I drove into Edinburgh I went over the list of places I needed to see before my travel companions arrived. Scurrying from place to place I was able to check off most of the items on my list before meeting for dinner. I found Edinburgh interesting, but where was that Celtic Spirituality.

The next day we met with a teacher of Celtic Spirituality and learned a lot. Still, I remained unsatisfied and skeptical. Finally, we began our journey to Iona. This involved many hours in the car and two ferries. At about 2:00 p.m. on the third day of our stay, we stepped onto the second ferry taking us to Iona. We left our car before getting on the ferry. Although we had beautiful weather the previous days, that day it was foggy and cold. Something one almost expects in Scotland. Holding our coats tights and carrying our suitcase we climbed up to the Iona hotel where we settled in for just a minute. Our souls were too restless even to pause for tea. Out we went to visit the monastic buildings and experience the landscape.

As we left our luggage behind and started to walk the island, it was as if the words were flushed from my mind and the gates of my soul were opened to the movement of the spirit. Spirituality was taking hold of me. Not the kind of spirituality that is taught and learned. Not the kind of spirituality that is imposed.  But rather, a spirituality that rises from the soil and is whispered through the trees and seeps through the decaying walls of ruinous chapels.  A spirituality which was entrusted to creation as the Spirit swept over the water and life was breathed into all beings.  A spirituality which lingers in all of us, waiting to be recovered and recognized.  A spirituality which is rooted in the deepest realms of our being.

Prayer that night in the restored abbey church was not according to the great norms of the church and surely not up to the standards of an accomplished liturgist. It was both too much and too little, yet it was just right. As we sat on the cold stones, feeling the crevices of the ages we sang hymns, old and new and prayer for the needs of the world which seemed for far and so near.

I was almost unwilling to leave the building, even when the hundreds of candles had been extinguished. I walked to my room through the dark, dark night. I opened my window to the sound of the waves and the smells of the sea and rested my soul in the hands of our creator God as I had never been able to do before.

Johan van Parys is Artistic Director for EnVisionChurch.  He lives and works in Minneapolis, MN.

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