TRAVEL / St Columba's summer vocation

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The Independent Culture
THERE are few advantages in breaking an arm just before going on holiday, but if you are staying in the Iona Community, you get out of the chore-teams. One of the beliefs of this modern Christian order, based in a 13th-century Benedictine abbey on the island of Iona in Argyll, is that work and worship go hand in hand.

If you've got two good hands, that is. This, my third visit to the community, was the first time I did no carrot-grating, dish-washing or vacuuming, the sort of tasks every visitor is assigned once a day.

It was also the first time my wife and I had stayed in the abbey with our 20-month-old son, which meant we were rising almost as early as St Columba and those Benedictine monks when they brought Christianity to these shores from Ireland in AD563. In our case, it was not to talk to the Almighty but to the sheep in the fields.

After that, it was off to the refectory for breakfast at 8.15, where the 50 other visitors looked as if they had only just got up.

At nine, everyone troops off to the Abbey Church for the short morning service of prayer, which closes not with a benediction but with the congregation heading seamlessly back to their allotted chores. Work and worship again.

In fact, the tasks are not particularly arduous; they last less than an hour, keep costs down and you do achieve a certain intimacy with fellow pilgrims when you're cleaning out the toilets together.

'Life in this community is much more geared around people's activity,' explains Giles David, prayer circle secretary in the community, which has about 50 resident staff, mainly volunteers. 'We're not about retreating from activity into a monastic house.' There isn't a monk to be seen on the island, and only the occasional stray dog-collar.

Almost everyone who's anyone eventually takes the 10-minute ferry from Mull to Iona: one day last year the abbey guide found himself with the actor John Thaw, the journalist Kate Adie and Labour's new leader John Smith, all in the same group by coincidence.

But day-visitors - more than 7,000 a week in summer - are often disappointed by the fact that the Iona Community is a plainclothes order. It was founded in 1938 by a Church of Scotland minister, George MacLeod, who arrived with a boatful of fellow ministers, unemployed craftsmen and a dream of restoring the ruined abbey.

Other retreats may have more monks per square yard, more silence per hour and even a more otherworldly air; but the Iona Community is refreshingly undaunting for the amateur believer, a kind of half-way house between church and world. For example, it's not really ideal for a toddler, but they were endlessly flexible in making things as practical as possible. But if it's not dauntingly devout, nor is it all mere relaxation.

'This is not a holy huddle,' says the Rev Donald Scott, one of the community's 200 full members, who come from from all over the world.

'We don't encourage people to stay here if they are looking to collapse for a week on a remote Hebridean island. The stimulation is about recreation not relaxation.' The day, which begins with worship, is perforated with opportunities to sing, study, take part in small seminars and pray. It ends, 12 hours later, with another service in the church.

These services are ripe with modern liturgies, and hymns sparkling with cultural ingredients from across the world. Services are almost never led by clerics, often by women, and invariably by people in their twenties and thirties. But community members are eager not to offer guests simple escapism, nor do they pull any punches.

On Monday nights the Peace and Justice Service, bursting with references to the world's most troubled regions, is a ringing reminder that escapism gets you nowhere. It's not exactly Songs of Praise. 'Like those South African songs, everyone sitting round in a circle with candles and the cross on the floor,' laments a vicar from Surrey one morning. 'Still, at least they had an ordained man to administer the elements. I couldn't have had a woman doing the communion.'

On Tuesday nights comes the Healing Service. The title suggests a hyped-up American drama, all weeping and gnashing of teeth. Actually it's unsensational, with dozens of people wandering forward from their pews to kneel in the centre of the nave and have hands laid on them, while the congregation chants a prayer. The vicar from Surrey walked out, looking as if someone had stolen his religion.

If the radical faith of the Iona Community seems modern, the air of peace and tranquillity in the abbey and the beauty of the island itself could hardly be more ancient.

The green island is trimmed with white beaches and translucent turquoise sea, where seals, dolphins and whales are sometimes seen. The fields boast hairy Highland cattle and farmers shearing their sheep by hand; just an hour's boat trip away lies the uninhabited island of Staffa whose sci-fi rock structures and gigantic natural cathedral of Fingal's Cave inspired Mendelssohn's 'The Hebrides' overture.

While the island is spiritual home to the community, most of its members live elsewhere, visiting once or twice a year for a retreat. The abbey takes about 50 visitors a week, and a further 50 can stay in the purpose- built MacLeod Centre, which caters more for families, school groups and people with disabilities.

The accommodation is basic but adequate. The Benedictine monks, still less St Columba who had to live in a mud-hut, didn't have showers, clean duvets and a television in the chapter house. But as compensation for the sparseness of the rooms, you have a breathtaking view of the Sound of Iona. And the food is green, pleasant and plentiful; meat makes only an occasional, slightly coy appearance. Alcohol is not allowed on the premises, and smoking only in the common room.

Far from being regimental, however, the atmosphere is relaxed and bereft of stuffy religiosity. In past centuries, though, it probably had a more traditionally 'sacred' aura, if the punchline of a sign in the refectory is any indication:

If (any pilgrim) have been found gossippy and contumacious in the time of his sojourn as guest, not only be he not joined to the body of the monastery but also it shall be said to him that he depart. If he does not go, let two stout monks, in the name of God, explain the matter to him.

They don't have two stout monks these days, but they still get the odd unwanted guests. 'Five or six times a year people walk off the ferry unannounced and tell us, 'God has sent me,' ' Donald Scott says. 'We say, 'God knows about our booking system.' '

The Iona Community, Iona Abbey, Iona, Argyll, tel: 06817 404.