I’ve neglected to post many photos of my trip to Iceland until now. I’ll leave these mostly without comment, but I have tried to caption them for you below.
When my friend Teri was telling me about the trip she was planning for her church members to Scotland and Iona that I eventually joined in on, she repeatedly used the word “pilgrimage.” Now I think she was partly just trying to dispel the myth that this was some sort of vacation with a church twist, but as I start to reflect on this journey, I think she was actually using the best possible word.
Pilgrimage is not a word people use much these days, but it has a long history in religious and spiritual life. To this day, faithful Muslims are obligated to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once. Buddhists and Hindus make the journey to holy places in their traditions as well. In an earlier era, Christians were pilgrimage people, too, with people making their way to the churches of saints and visiting relics housed in special locations, but nowadays pilgrimages seem to be far less formal and certainly less important. Today, Christians, especially Protestants, might make a trip to an important holy site, but it would be unusual to consider a particular place a required spot of pilgrimage as was common in a different era.
Even so, as I look back on my journey to Scotland and Iceland, it was a time of pilgrimage for me. Along the way, I actually made my way to several places that were once major pilgrimage spots. Both St. Andrews and Iona once housed important relics of saints and were among the important places that faithful people would visit before the Reformation to be encouraged in their faith. Many of the other churches we visited that predated the Reformation also were sites of pilgrimage at one point or another. Even the natural wonders I visited on my own as part of a bus tour in Iceland felt a bit like moments of pilgrimage.
For my own walk of faith, the places I visited were at once both very important and relatively nonessential. While I was grateful to visit sites that have loomed large in my cultural and spiritual formation like Iona, I think I found the journey itself far more informative for my walk of faith. The time I spent with others, with myself, and with God along the way was revelatory to me than any experience even in the most holy of places.
I saw this most clearly on Tuesday of my week on Iona as I joined about 100 others on a pilgrimage around the island. Three resident staff and volunteers of the Iona Community led this group up and down rocky passages, through boggy grassland, along the waters of the sea, and even across the Iona Golf Course that is shared with sheep and cows! I was a bit hesitant to make the journey out of fear that I wasn’t in the best shape to make the trip or that the weather just wouldn’t hold, but in the end, I was grateful that I did. Along this little pilgrimage covering seven miles around a small Hebridean island off the west coast of Scotland, I saw a microcosm of so many other journeys of my life. The trip had challenging moments (though far fewer than I expected), breathtaking vistas, rocky places, wonderful conversations, strangely quiet moments, plenty of ups and downs, and even a good bit of ordinariness.
The pilgrimage around Iona was notable for all these things and more, but I will remember it for a lifetime for two reasons. First of all, I was surrounded by others along the way. I knew some of my fellow travelers pretty well, and others I barely knew at all. Still others I got to know along the way. All of us, though, shared something special along this way as we enjoyed a beautiful day and explored an incredible place together, whether for the first or fifth of fifteenth time.
I will also remember the pilgrimage because of the intentional moments we shared along the way. Eleven or twelve times along the way, we paused to hear a reflection, scripture, or poem. These were often meaningful and special – think of hearing about the transfiguration of Jesus at one of the highest points on the journey as we did. However, the most important part of it all was that when we began to move again, we usually started out with a song. There is likely another blog post coming on the importance of music on this trip for me, but the songs that we shared along the way set the tone for the rest of our travels together. We each had our own part to contribute to our common journey, but in the end we needed everyone to join in the song in one way or another as we continued the pilgrimage together.
Most of all, all the pilgrimages of this journey – around Iona, around Scotland, and generally “across the pond” – reminded me that this life is not a journey that I take alone. Those who have read along on this blog, commented here or on Facebook or Twitter, or have actually journeyed with me a bit have been an important part of this pilgrimage. Even in the times when I felt like I was making this journey alone, I was grateful for the little signs that I am not alone on this walk of life, for I cannot do it by myself.
At some level this post feels like a good place to end, but I know that there is more reflection and sabbatical time ahead, so look for more here in the coming weeks. I am looking forward to three more weeks of downtime before I return to my pastoral work, and I still have another trip ahead to visit family and friends in Mississippi and Alabama in just a couple weeks. Thanks for being a part of this journey with me, and I look forward to sharing the days, weeks, months, and years ahead as we journey together on this strange pilgrimage we call life.
I spent much of the last week on the Isle of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, living and working and worshiping at Iona Abbey. When my friend Teri invited me last fall to join the trip she was planning with a group from the church she serves, I almost immediately decided to go along. I have heard about Iona from numerous friends, and we have used the resources produced by the Iona Community and the Wild Goose Resource Group numerous times at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, so this trip was a long-awaited opportunity to experience this legendary place that has been an important part of my spiritual journey even before I actually journeyed there.
The trip and the place did not leave me wanting. The particular week we attended is known as “Wild Goose Week” because it is the time when members of the Wild Goose Resource Group attend and lead worship and other events. These special events were certainly a big draw for me, but in the end, the overall experience of living in community in this place was actually more formative.
Iona Abbey has a long history as a place of Christian faith and practice. Legend holds that Saint Columba arrived on Iona in 563, establishing a center of Christianity on the island that was used as a base for evangelism throughout Scotland. It is thought to be the place where the historic Book of Kells originated. After the Reformation era, the Abbey was abandoned, but it was reconstructed over the last 100 years and today serves as the spiritual home of the Iona Community, an ecumenical group devoted to justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.
As a guest at the Abbey, I was expected to participate in the full life of the community there, joining in twice-daily worship services and assisting in various tasks necessary to provide for the daily life of guests and staff. I found this to be surprisingly fulfilling, with the worship services providing much-needed spiritual nourishment for my time on the island and beyond. The work was even enjoyable, as I made some new friends in our shared daily tasks of preparing toast for breakfast!
The programs were also very helpful and enjoyable, with the highlight of most days being a “Wee Sing” with the inimitable John Bell. I learned a lot about making space for worship and did a good bit of thinking about how to revitalize and reinvigorate worship. Members of the Wild Goose Resource Group also led most of the worship during the week, and they brought their deep well of creativity and interest to the gathering.
One day also meant a full seven-mile pilgrimage around the island. Over 100 people made their way around the island, stopping at important and beautiful spots to pray and reflect on the journey. This was one of the most meaningful parts of the week, and I expect that I will reflect further on it in a future blog post.
My time on Iona was truly a wonderful one. I did not find the immediate and deep spiritual connection I expected, but over the week I developed a better link to the spirituality of this place. The long history of nearly 1500 years of Christianity in the very place where I lived and worked could not escape me, and over the week I felt this connection deepen all the more. It was a joy to join the countless saints who have gathered in this place over the centuries to worship and work for God’s deeper presence in the world, and I look forward to going back sooner rather than later!
You can browse through some of the many photos from this part of my journey in the gallery below.
I’ve always been a fan of new things. I’m often accused by family and friends of a preference to throw things out and replace them rather than getting them repaired, and their accusations are based in a good deal of truth.
All around Scotland, though, I’ve seen countless examples that might just change my mind. The old things that have survived here have an incredible beauty and usefulness that is noticeable and wonderful. Old castles and churches still stand after hundreds of years. Some foundations that date back well over one thousand years are still being used to support more recent construction.
The sense of history and place that results from this is incredible. Yesterday I worshiped in a church building that has stood in one way or another in this place for well over twelve hundred years. As we received bread and wine at communion, I felt strangely and wonderfully connected to countless saints of the centuries who have shared this feast so many times before in this very place.
However, what is even more amazing to me is the ways in which so many of the wonderful old places I have visited in Scotland have been adapted to fit changing needs and times. During the Reformation era, many of these churches were cleaned of their “popish” tendencies, with stained glass and icons removed and the buildings made far simpler. In more recent times, many of these buildings have been adapted once again to fit the changing needs and context of the church. In St. Giles’ Cathedral (the High Kirk of Edinburgh), the four “wings” of the church that once housed separate chapels now face the central area of the building where the communion table and pulpit are now housed. In the Abbey Church on Iona, the ruins of an ancient abbey have been reconstructed to house a modern transient monastic community that encourages an engaged spirituality with a center on this small, remote island and yet with a strong sense of presence in the everyday life of elsewhere. Even in the old castles at Edinburgh and Stirling, we saw evidence of how the castles changed over the centuries, first with changing tastes of individuals and generations and later with their repurposing as more modern military compounds.
I think I’ll leave my second visit to Scotland with a better sense of how space can be adapted and adjusted to meet these kinds of changing needs. I don’t think I’ll change my attitude toward the old substantially, as I suspect I’ll still prefer new things to the old. Still, maybe I can be less inclined to replace what can be repaired, out of a heightened awareness of the past and an attention to the limited resources that we have for the future. I think our culture can benefit from a bit more of this – a better sense of the importance of place, a stronger hope for repairing rather than replacing what is broken, and an attention for the future that builds on the best of where we have been and seeks only to make it stronger.
I spent the past three days exploring the Highlands of Scotland with my friends Donald and Sheena of Portmahomack, Scotland. Their home was a wonderful base for several explorations of better-known places like Loch Ness and lesser-known places like Cromarty and Dornoch Firths.
Words really can’t describe all that we saw over the past few days. We saw several places of human-made beauty like Dunrobin Castle, a couple of places that make beautiful and wonderful things like Glenmorangie Distillery, and some towns like Cromarty and Inverness that are just wonderful examples of Scottish life at various points in the past and present.
However, the most breathtaking things of the past few days have been the beautiful natural scenes that have surrounded us every step of the way. Even the photos just don’t do them all justice – but I’ll share them here nonetheless in hopes that you can get a sense of what I’ve been seeing and doing.
As I mentioned earlier, I spent the first week of my sabbatical at the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was a strange and wonderful way to begin this time away. Somehow, immersing myself in the depths of being Presbyterian actually was the right way to begin my time away from my work in the church!
I have a long history with General Assembly. In college, I served as a volunteer in the assembly newsroom, helping to get information out to the world via the web, and spent one assembly as a Youth Advisory Delegate. Even today, several of my closest friends are among those I met at a General Assembly. Even though I hadn’t been to an assembly since 2002, I still followed the event every time through live-streaming and Twitter and whatever else I could, helping me to maintain my status as a “GA Junkie.”
This year, my goals at the assembly were twofold. First, I wanted to reconnect with friends and colleagues. On this goal, my success was beyond measure. I got to spend time with dozens of people from so many different and varied quarters of my life and world, everyone from the music director at the church where I was baptized who has known me since before I was born to friends from Twitter I know well but had never met in real life. I even made a couple new friends along the way!
Over the course of the week, I felt more fulfilled and happy than I have felt in a long time. This is particularly interesting and unusual because I am not usually one to enjoy large crowds and busy times. I tend to appreciate my own space and dislike hanging out in large groups. Somehow, though, the interactions at GA were not this for me. I had lots of time for one-on-one conversations with friends – time to catch up on old stories, mutual friends, and life in general. These things feed my soul, and I was very full by the time I returned home!
My second major goal at GA this year was to spend time in worship. I did this pretty well, too. The week began with a major worship service at the convention center with over 4,000 Presbyterians in attendance, where the moderator of the last General Assembly preached. Sunday, attendees made their way to congregations across Pittsburgh, and I worshiped in the beautiful Neo-Gothic glory of East Liberty Presbyterian Church. And on most other days of the week, I worshiped in other assembly worship services at the Convention Center. I will admit that none of these services were the most wonderful I had ever attended, but I nonetheless found the week grounded and centered in the gift of this time set apart for worship.
On the whole, I’m really glad I went to General Assembly this year. Even amidst the disappointments of business that did not turn out as I hoped, I felt a bit of what Church should be like amidst the joy of time with friends and even amidst the strange movement (or in the case of this year, stalling) of the Holy Spirit. I hope and pray that the spirit in me that prevailed last week will only continue over the remainder of my sabbatical!
I’m a big fan (and longtime member) of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. I visited the newly-renovated galleries of the American Wing and Islamic Art and found some incredible photo opportunities.
Photos of the sanctuary setup for Advent Taizé services at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone.