It is no vacation holiday to spend time on Iona as a volunteer. You will work diligently and purposefully for the privilege of spending an extended period here. Sure you receive room and board but in exchange you will work 7.5 hours 5.5 days a week.. For some, like me, it is an escape from the consistent cerebral demands of academia or as a friend put it “I am so glad for physical labor rather than having to think all the time.” For others, it is their first opportunity to earn their own way. One young man was so excited at the end of his first week, when he received his maintenance allowance that he had his photo taken with the money. He had NEVER earned money previously. So trust me when I say we aren’t sitting in a prayer circle humming all day.
And as fortune would have it, we play harder. you get at least a day and a half to rest, renew and most days you get a couple of hours off. This engenders two things 1) you learn to cram a lot into short periods of time and 2) days off have a military operational precision to them.
Today was my day off and a friend of mine and I decided to visit nearby town about 30 miles away. The reality is you must take a five minute ferry ride and an hour and a half bus ride on a single laned road to achieve this. All this so we could shop in a charity shop (think very small Goodwill), to drink coffee and gaze at the other side of the sea that we normally gaze at. You can also purchase your ferry tickets or souvenirs in the terminal shop or visit the grocery that is only slightly larger than the one you can shop in every day. It roughly takes about 2 hours, if you move slowly and linger over coffee, to accomplish all of these. And then you board a bus and make the return journey. The trip itself will cost almost 20 pounds (35 dollars).
But the fact is that all that is such a refreshing change it does serve as a rejuvenation for the coming week. You can plan simple escapes, and we do simply spend a day off climbing the hills or wandering the beaches on Iona. We forget that this is our day to day. Exhaustion can hit us full on, or creep in slowly. Let us become aware of htis, and embrace a thin place for spirit and body.
Saying farewell to the vollies last week was particularly difficult. These were folks I had spent an entire four weeks with and a few were ones that I had known on journey’s past. I have recounted previously how well we say goodbye here. We realize that it is inevitable. We actually begin saying “so long” about five days ahead. We plan celebrations some elaborate, some routine We say goodbye each week to those we have welcomed in hospitality and goodbye to those whom have shared the load with us. We learn to hold tightly and release quickly; it is no small thing.
And soon — all too soon it will be my turn. My goodbye to Iona and friends old and new lies ahead, approaching more rapidly than imagined. I have learned many new skills, some I hope to never use again. And I have had to rely on old skills that I thought were forgottne.
The thin place becomes having an awareness about the goodbyes you are facing, some you are aware of and others you may not know of. All things culminate in this.
So you come to Iona as a volunteer and you will spend 6, 8, 10 weeks in community with people from all over the world (my current roommates include an Italian, German, Canadian and Finn). Who, you begin to realize, you may never meet again when you wave farewell at the jetty. I am thankful for the variety of social media which allows for communication with these folks. You share a common bond of having served in a very strange and different kind of place.
I have already recounted in this blog how people I met on Iona have taken me in all along this summers journey. How I have even stayed in their homes. A dear treat on this journey has been seeing those I have met in the past come to Iona this summer either as volunteers or simply as a visitor for a few days. We can catch up face to face for an hour or so about how our life’s have continued on in absence of one another. And we share information about what other former volunteers we are in contact with have been doing in the passage of time since we were once together.
Our location in the world and our webs of inter-relationships can become a thin place. Will you let it be so?
I am a definite introvert. My Myers Briggs indicator barely has a blip of extroversion. So how does an introvert live in community? By learning to pick your interactions, and being very aware that you need time apart. At first I felt completely overwhelmed and drained, there was always someone somewhere. I physically felt as if I was suffocating from the constant presence of people. Granted they were people that I really liked, but they were always there. So I had to learn the importance of time apart from others, but more significantly I had to learn where I might could go to be away from people.
First, I don’t always attend our twice daily services. Initally, my goal was to attend all the services, but I found that was a significant contributor to my feeling exhausted and drained. And occasionally it felt like work, as if it were part of my responsibility to create worshipful moments. But at the same time, I loose something when i don’t attend and participate in worship, so i pick carefully when to attend. The morning service is one of the most significant acts of worship as it sends us out into our day. The Tuesday evening service, although one of my all time favorites, is the healing service and it can be very draining. Our Sunday evening service is a quiet service of meditation, and I always skip that because I can do that alone.
Second, I have located and sought out places that I can disappear to where I am working. it may be the dry store cupboard, it may be the drying room, or even just the back stair case (which someone who has been here five times asked There’s a back staircase?). But learning that you need a little seclusion and time alone is important, just as important as locating the spaces to be alone. I also often go on walks along the beaches, but it is difficult to do that alone as others are always invited. What I have done is learn who will go with me, because they are in search of quiet time as well, so we end up on a beach or rocky hill, together, but separate.
I suppose the lesson here is that all of our lives can use a little recharging time, time when we are actually STILL and could listen for the voice of God. The thin place begins at awareness and grows in the space.
Imagine this. You are living on this tiny island. You have no access to television. You have no immediate or continuous access to the Internet. There is no shopping complex or cinema. You must walk or ride a bicycle anywhere you want to go. Are you thinking BORING? NOT. You simply never have enough time to do all the things available.
And what is available are endless beaches, hills, and bays to explore. This week has been beautiful water, sunny skys, light winds and temperatures in the mid 60’s. The young folk, and some of the olders, have been swimming everyday between work hours and even after work. Last Friday afternoon, when all the guests were gone and the work day was complete, several of us, about 10, were in the back yard of the Center making up games to play with building blocks and balls. Because of its far northern location the average length of a summers day here is 12 – 14 hours of daylight. Sunrise is about 430 a.m. and sunset just after 10 p.m..
There is a typical British pub on the island, but the cost is expensive so many of the young people don’t frequent the pub, or save it for special occasions. Tonight a group of the young folks are planning to spend the night camping on Dun I (pronounced Done E) the highest point on the island. It is amazing to me the length we (they) go to entertain ourselves in the absence of things we might typically believe is required for entertainment.
This becomes a thin place when we realize there is more to life than our technology and things, and connect with the people who are in our lives.
Those of you that live in shared housing with a spouse or a child or other family members have to extend courtesies to those you live with. Now you may not even think about it or you may wonder why others don’t extend more courtesies. Living in a home with 14 others, many of whom are younger brings an interesting set of courtesies and educational opportunities.
For example, the women’s bedrooms each have a water closet (toilet and basin). One of the beds in the room backs up to the wall with the water tank in it, so that if you are in that bunk every flush of the toilet is a rude wake up call. So by mutual agreement we don’t flush once someone has gone to bed or it is past 8 a.m. The male quarters are adjacent to our tiny kitchen so if there signs indicate one of them is sleeping we try and keep the noise down. And because you are sharing shower facilities (facility) you try and keep those short and sweet, 6 minutes is considered optimal.
But those aren’t my favorite courtesies. My favorites are actually how all who live here try to include anyone present in their activities. You are always inviting or being invited to be involved in something. Now sometime it is not practical, such as the invitation I received to go climbing on the rock face on the south end of the island looking for the Spouting Cave. Or today when the kids invited me to go swimming — the water is 58 degrees — no thanks. But they always ask, and sometimes we surprise them like agreeing to watch a popular television series someone brought on DVD. And we invite them, but somehow our “reindeer games” don’t entice them to “join in.”
The bottom line is we take each other’s needs into account, young or old, we make an effort to make space in our lives for everyone. That makes this a thin place indeed.
Despite what it may seem I don’t actually come to Iona for a holiday or retreat. This is not hours upon hours of prayer and meditation. I work, WORK, physical labor 5 and a half days a week for up to 7.5 hours a day (it is Scotland, you get a proper tea break). In the past I have provided childcare, worked in the kitchen as a cook and this year I am a housekeeper. I set tables, clean up, do dishes, laundry, toilets and my least favorite, showers. It is physical enough that I tend to take a nap most days. And its not just volunteers, guests are invited (expected) to participate in the life of the community by doing small tasks that they are assigned. Some guests are funny in that they go to extreme lengths to avoid their tasks and others literally take it so seriously that we jokingly tell them they can’t leave.
A larger problem comes in our volunteer living quarters. We share a common living space, and it is not uncommon for the younger folk to simply dash off and leave their plates, cups and debris where they were sitting. If they pick it up, often it only makes it to the countertop next to the sink. Cloths seem to be randomly strewn about all over the place, along with duvets from off their beds. In our hallway they have created a long line of their shoes, which often get damp and smelly. Now the rationale is that they don’t want the smelly shoes in their room, in exchange we have a smelly hallway. Basically, it becomes your worst frat house nightmare. And when you factor in 15 people vying for one working shower (second shower spews only bracingly cold water), things can become very, very nasty. We are supposed to clean as a group on Tuesday evenings, but often we have farewell parties on Tuesdays and cleaning takes a distant second place. A minor miracle occurred this past week in that we had everyone present in the common area at one time so we all pitched in and cleaned.
Part of it is just an awareness on the part of the young people that stuff doesn’t simply take care of itself. i told a young man to be sure and pick up after himself and he questioned why. I responded, “because I already cleaned that.” “But I don’t do that at home.” No, your mother does it, and she doesn’t live here.
There are all kinds of thin places
One of the things that draws me back to volunteer on Iona is the privilege of living and working with so many amazing young people. Granted I teach predominantly young adults, but they are quite different than the young folks I encounter on Iona. First, these are folks who are confident enough or brave enough to make a long, strange journey to this place often without the accompaniment of a supportive other. Many with NO understanding that if you take THIS ferry you will JUST make this bus which connects with the next ferry. That alone makes the journey an act of faith. Secondly, many also come do not have English as a first language and actually come here to hone their language skills. Finally, they are genuinely well educated or are becoming educated. As one of my young friends said “Iona has become the finishing family school for the children in my family.”
All that being said it also means that I will live in dormitory style accommodation for an extended period of time with 14 other people. Four are over 50, most are between 20 and 25 with a couple of 18 and 19 year olds. And sometimes– not often– those ages collide. And we have to learn how to navigate the treacherous waters of living together, eating together, sharing shower rooms and toilets, and playing together.
The last tin we say each day at morning service is “God in community, Holy and one. I thought you might enjoy a peek into how that becomes a thin place.
If you have been following my blog for any length of time you are probably aware of my love/hate relationship with porridge. All that is about to change.
For the unaware, porridge is a Scottish breakfast dish, and although made from oats it bears only a passing relationship to its North American cousin, oatmeal. Porridge tends to be much thicker and lumpier, resembling a bubbling caldron of lava, with a viscosity of cold molasses. It’s purpose is to keep you warm and full until lunch, and it is very good at its job.
And for the majority of my life until present I hated it. Loved the aroma, despised the product. I was forced fed porridge as a child and could only recall it as a tasteless paste. Well, that has changed. Through the course of the past year it has become apparent to me that many of my food dislikes were the result of my mothers inability to cook. When presented with well prepared food, I actually enjoy foods that I previously shunned. Including porridge.
I prepared and ate my own porridge most of the winter and this week ate my first official bowl of Scottish prepared Iona porridge. Yummy. And it did its job. Warm. Not hungry.
Makes me wonder how many of our (my) previous notions are based upon something which no longer holds true. but we are all so entrenched in what we believed to be true that we can’t see or explore the possibliities.
Let’s look for thin places where we thought they could not be.
10. Since the difference between events and movements is that movements involve sacrifice which also connects to the true meaning of religion and what makes for social change– ask yourself what is important enough to give your life to and for.
Talk about in depth and hardcore this sort of cuts to the chase. Let me see if I can bring my thoughts from the past few days together.
A. Certainly the well being and education of children, youth and adults so that they are prepared for careers in which they can earn a living wage.
B. Ensuring that I personally do what i can for the environment and the earth through practices that include reducing waste, recycling when possible and using material goods.
C. Practicing the notion that less is more and to not be possessed by my possesions.
D. Explore the position political leaders in local government and determine if they are aware of these critical areas of concern, and seek out ways to educate them or work towards a common good. E. And ultimately to do all this in the guise of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment; Love God, Love my neighbor, tell Everyone!
This is what I will commit to! What are the things you will commit to? I will promise to update in six months.