Iona: Small as a Mustard Seed

Iona Abbey August 2014
Iona Abbey to the left, St Oran’s Chapel to the right (photo: Jim Forest, August 2014)

from the May 1980 Sojourners

by Jim Forest

Iona: If you have a good map of Scotland you will find it among the Inner Hebrides off the southwest tip of Mull, a comma of land separated by a strait the width of an exclamation point.

If you enjoy discovering the mysteries old tales held in the silence of stone, then you may already know of Iona because, tiny though it is, its bulk is formed of some of the oldest exposed rock on earth. The imposing volcanic heights of Mull belong to a land just barely out of diapers: a mere 70 million years old. Iona is 35 times older: just under three billion years, give or take the tick of a grandfather clock.

If you like wandering in the mysteries and tales of history, then Iona may already have a niche in your memory as one of the principal centers of Celtic Christianity.

Or if you take a special joy in the work of artists in earlier times, then you will almost certainly know Iona as the likely birthplace of the greatest masterpiece of Celtic art, the illuminated Gospel text known as the Book of Kells.

Visitors are still drawn to this remote outpost on the western edge of the Scottish highlands; but perhaps the most important reason they come is not academic, geologic, or aesthetic, but religious. Iona has again become a center of deep and contagious Christian faith. This faith brought to birth the Iona Community, which has actively opposed racism, injustice, and war. Iona’s seeming distance from places of tangible crisis exists only on maps.

None of the island’s buildings, least of all those of the old abbey which serves as the Iona Community’s spiritual home, appear at first glance to have heard that there has been a 20th century at large in the world. The weathered wooden buildings of the small village gathered near the pier look as timeless as seagulls. At a monkish distance to the north, amid wide fields grazed by the island’s sheep, the monastery looks as it must have looked when the Benedictines finished the premises early in the 13th century: The plain square tower of St. Mary’s Cathedral and the austere rectangular masses of the adjoining buildings are all of enduring gray stone with deep-cut windows under steep slated roofs.

So solid does the monastery appear that it is hard to picture the ruined state it was in four centuries after the Scottish Parliament outlawed the monastic life in 1561. Had that Act of Suppression come two years later, it would have been a full thousand years since the first monks landed on Iona and began spreading the Christian faith in Scotland and beyonf.

It was in May, 563, that Columba and twelve fellow monks arrived from the north of Ireland. Columba was to Christianity in Scotland what Patrick had been two generations earlier to the Irish. Both were men of absolute faith in the power of Gad and of the revelation of God in Christ. Each taught, healed, did wonders, and spread his faith among primitive, battling peoples.

Out of such leadership a special kind of religious way, appropriate to the region, took root — Celtic Christianity. Missionaries went out from Iona to share the faith, to found schools and communities, and to win in the process such a reputation for holiness that, even in the sixth century, pilgrims came to the island base from as far away as Rome.

Columba’s monastic rule, eventually used by many similar communities, required that the monks own nothing but bare necessities, live in a place with but one door, center conversation on God and God’s Testament, refuse idle words and the spreading of rumor and evil reports, and submit to every rule that governs devotion. They were to prepare always for death and suffering, offer forgiveness from the heart to everyone, pray constantly for anyone who has been a trouble, put almsgiving before all other duties, not eat unless hungry or sleep unless tired, pray until tears came and labor to the point of tears as well, or if tears “are not free, until thy perspiration come often.”

It was in 1935, during the Great Depression, that latter-day Columba, George MacLeod, a minister of the Church of Scotland working in Glasgow, began to lay the foundation of what became the Iona Community. Glasgow is Scotland’s main industrial city and one of the world’s ugliest urban mazes. Its famous shipyards on the Clyde were largely shut in those years, and life was grueling for the poor and unemployed.

George MacLeod, turning 40, had a parish in Govan, one of the hardest hit districts in Glasgow. While many clergy began enjoying a degree of public respect at that age, MacLeod was moving in the opposite direction. How could he look at what thousands of families were suffering, how could he encourage them in hope and faith, without being furious with a social order that could cause such waste of life and ability? At the same time, how could the church dare read the Bible aloud without speaking out against the injustice so many were suffering?

The untroubled conscience of the church troubled him as much as the poverty and unemployment. It became clear to him that it was time for a new Christian reformation and that such a reformation must include a commitment to building a new, more just social order. “No one,” he said, “can suspend his Christianity in the evil hour, and then use it again when the sun shines.”

Like Gandhi, MacLeod was far less interested in protest — “mere protest,” he would say — than in a constructive program. A nearby ruined mill inspired an idea. Could not unemployed people bring their skills together, rebuild it, and make it useful again? The idea could hardly have been simpler: Let the jobless employ themselves, and let their ministers join in the labor and earn some callouses. It worked beautifully in practice as well as theory. The mill was rebuilt and became a community center.

The experience enlarged MacLeod’s vision. The Iona ruins of the first home of Christianity in Scotland were not far away. Could these not be rebuilt? And in the process, the conscience of the church, a still worse ruin, be rebuilt as well?

In 563 AD Columba arrived on Iona with his 12; in 1938 MacLeod arrived with another band of twelve, half craftsmen without jobs, half students for the ministry. They built a wooden shed to live in by the fallen monastery and began the work of rebuilding.

MacLeod recounts that the group needed money with which to get its project started: “I wrote the richest man I knew. He replied that I should go see a psychiatrist at once. Then I asked — me a pacifist, mind you — Sir James Lithgos, a builder of warships at his Govan shipyard. He was interested, but asked if I would give up my pacifism if he gave me the 5,000 pounds. I said, ‘Not on your life.’ ‘Then,’ he said, ‘I will give you your 5,000 pounds.’ ”

Materials were hard to obtain: “The war was on and the government commandeered all timber. But a ship coming from Canada struck a storm and jettisoned its cargo of lumber in the North Bea. The timber floated 80 miles, finally landed on Mull, opposite Iona — and all the right length! It roofs the Iona library today.”

As the group worked, they began to reinvent a contemporary monastic life, a mixture of prayer, hard labor, and study. Not everyone in the vicinity took kindly to the project. There was a kind of Berlin Wall between Protestant and Catholic, and the rebuilding of an old Catholic abbey by Protestants struck other Protestants as a sign of creeping papism. The long shed in which the community was housed was known locally for years as “the Rome Express.”

The work began each summer and carried through to the fall. Youth camps were started. An Iona house was founded in Glasgow to serve as a center for response to Glasgow’s problems of housing and unemployment and to bring people together for meetings as well as meals and celebrations.

It was clear from the start that the work should lead to community. The joining of work and prayer during the summer months on Iona was again and again a turning point in life for those who came. A commitment to a new church and to social justice took shape with the buildings’ restoration.

Those who had been brought together began to think in terms of a lifelong covenant. Although the idea made anti-Catholics nervous — it was one thing to rebuild a monastery, another to rebuild the way of life it had housed — gradually a rule of life for the Iona Community took form.

The rule was simple, adapted for a kind of community that would be even more widely scattered across the world than the Iona missionaries of a thousand years before. The obligations were in four areas.

* Common life: Members would begin with several months of experience at the abbey and seek to return for at least a week together each year.

* Common discipline: Members would read the Bible and pray for at least a half hour each day at set times each morning and evening. A discipline in the use of time for the rest of the day was also required, though the form of it was left for the individual or family to work out.

A discipline in the use of money was required. MacLeod had hoped all members of the community, wherever they lived, would be provided with their keep plus 60 pounds a year for pocket money, putting whatever else they earned in the care of the community. But as the community involved a growing number of families and widely different understandings of personal and family needs, the original idea was abandoned. In its place a plan has developed through which members are committed to give away at least 10 per cent of their income. That part which comes to the Iona Community is used for Third World development, peace work, and other community concerns. It is, as one community member puts it, a “very untidy discipline,” but with the vital purpose of challenging the members to live more simply and to give the needs of others an ever greater priority.

“The word ‘love’ has been only a form of mouthwash for many Christians,” says MacLeod. “We need to learn to put it into practice. This includes what we do with our money.”

* Participation in meetings: There are frequent regional meetings wherever there are a few members in reach of each other, in addition to annual meetings at Iona itself. The meetings provide, among other things, a context for working out the times of crisis within the Iona Community. One of these crises arose over an aspect of George MacLeod’s original vision: He had intended the community to be entirely of men, as it had been in Columba’s day. The community became convinced that its membership should include women, and when that view prevailed, the Iona Community was fundamentally altered.

* Commitment to peace: MacLeod brought to Iona his pacifism, a rare conviction to find in Scotland even today, but far rarer 40 years ago. It was his hope that those who became members of the Iona Community would come to share his refusal of violence and help the church find its way back to its pre-Constantine pacifism.

As World War II was breaking at the time the community was founded, the issue became more than academic debate. Some in the community became conscientious objectors, others fought in the war. But the community held together, and the discussion continued when the war ended, finally leading to a community commitment to peace which drew members to work for reconciliation between races and nations, to support the United Nations, to work to close the gap between the rich and the poor, and to promote international contact across lines of conflict.

* Healing: Although healing isn’t part of the rule, it is a major part of the community’s life. There is a healing service in the abbey church one evening each week. Often visitors, who are troubled by what seems at first glance to be so odd an event, sit and watch as others go forward, gathering near the altar of green-veined Iona marble while the warden of the community and all present join in the laying on of hands for those who seek the healing prayers of the others.

Healing is only another word for peacemaking, and one that is less abstract. Healing is restoring the harmony in things, whether in one’s body or in a family, a community, a nation, or the world.

Decades have past since the first group arrived at Iona and camped out in the abbey’s ruins. The community’s members are on every continent, and a few live year-round at the abbey. There are several hundred associate members as well — those who cannot stay long periods at the abbey or take part in regular meetings but who have committed themselves to the other aspects of the community’s rule.

Increasingly Iona has taken on an ecumenical character. What began entirely within the Church of Scotland now includes those of other Christian traditions, both Protestant and Catholic.

Thousands each year visit the abbey. A great many stay for a week or more, taking part in the various conferences and work weeks held between March and October. Dozens come as volunteers for a month or a summer or longer.

The youth camp has continued to flourish on the hillside above a coffee and cake shop which Iona has established. One group in the camp last summer was the first youth club in Glasgow to have both Protestant and Catholic together. It is this kind of reconciliation which, however slowly, has begun to happen in Scotland because of Iona.

Iona has its offshoots, including Kirkridge, in Bangor, Pennsylvania. Its founder, John Oliver Nelson, once spent a summer laying slate tiles on the roof of the Iona abbey refectory. “This place was the start of my life,” he says of Iona. “This is home.”

It is home for many. Still, Iona Community remains small, as big in the eye of the world as is the island itself on a world map. Small as a mustard seed, you might say. Small but potent and marvelous.

St. Columba must be glad with the sight of it, but little surprised. He had a gift for seeing the future and knew one day there would be nothing left of his foundation, but he saw beyond that time to its restoration. Poet as well as prophet, he left his prophecy as poem:

Iona of my heart.
Iona of my love,
Instead of monk’s voices,
Shall be lowing of cattle,
But ere the world comes to an end
Iona shall be as it was.

* * *
a set of photos taken on Iona in August 2014: