Where heaven and earth collide

Iona: As the tiny Scottish island celebrates another hallowed date in its sacred calendar, is it at risk of becoming a spiritual theme park for middle-class seekers of sanctuary?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
EFFORT is the missing co-efficient in most equations about modern travelling. A few weeks ago, I overheard a chap in a travel agent booking a last-minute holiday. The options set out before him were Crete, Minorca or the Amalfi coast. They were three very different countries and yet the holiday offered in each was essentially the same package.

More than that, the journey to each - Gatwick, a two-hour flight, a 40-minute drive to the apartment allocated on arrival - was identical. I thought of him last week as I travelled to the Hebridean island of Iona. The journey there - involving two trains, a ferry, a bus, another ferry, with the last stage on foot - was, by contrast, a defining process in itself.

I had boarded the sleeper amid Euston's metropolitan midnight bustle and woken in Scotland. Over breakfast, the human geography of the Clyde slipped by the window, with its factories, houses, and high-rises set out across the estuary.

Next, the train rocked through woods in which dusty carpets of bluebells lay between the birches. It halted at small stations with long names, which required no pronunciation since no one alighted and few climbed aboard.

The ferry crossing from Oban, and then the bus across the wide moorlands of Mull served only to heighten the gradual sense of estrangement from the world of the everyday. So that by the time the boat lurched across the swift-running tides of the Sound of Iona, I was receptive to the idea that I was arriving at a place on the edge - a place where, as George MacLeod put it, the veil between heaven and earth was particularly thin.

George MacLeod, or Lord MacLeod of Fuinary as he later became, was the man who in 1938 founded the Iona Community, which next week celebrates its 60th anniversary. It was not, of course, this which gave the place its reputation as one of the most sacred places in the British Isles.

That began in 563AD when a princely Irish monk named Columba landed on Iona and founded the monastery from which Christianity spread throughout Britain long before Augustine made serious inroads out of Canterbury.

In the intervening centuries, the windswept island has been hallowed by the burial of the medieval kings of Norway, Ireland and Scotland. Then, in the 12th century, Reginald, Lord of the Isles, invited the Benedictines to establish the abbey whose strong walls gave refuge to the poor and the broken for centuries.

It was their ruined buildings which MacLeod and his fellows rebuilt as a place of quiet in which to reinvigorate themselves for the struggles of life in inner-city Glasgow.

Today, there is a deep irony about this tiny island, barely three miles long, with untamed moorland around which its population of 92 work at their crofts. For, this sanctuary at the end of the long journey into silence now receives visitors in huge numbers, who by their very presence jeopardise what it is they have come to seek. Most days outside winter, the road between the only jetty and the abbey is packed with a steady stream of day-trippers.

Last year, 200,000 people visited it, either for the 1400th anniversary of St Columba's death or to see the grave of John Smith, the former Labour leader who lies buried only feet from the spot where Macbeth and Duncan are said to be interred.

The flow of visitors was such that his widow recently agreed to the swivelling of the massive granite stone - which bears Burns's words "an honest man's the noblest work of God" - because the graves of recently buried local people were being badly trampled by visitors trying to read the epitaph.

"We don't really understand what brings them all," said the Abbey's warden, Peter Millar, a Church of Scotland minister. "Is it the search for roots, expressed in the sacred? Is it a revolt against the ease and comfort of modern life? We know so many people don't want to live destructively and yet feel trapped within a system which gives them little choices beyond 12 kinds of breakfast cereal at Sainsbury's.

"Yet you'd be amazed at the number of people who get off that ferry and say: `I feel, at last, I am at home.' What on earth do they mean? Many of them aren't even Scottish! You see people actually hugging the stones."

It even affects many who do not come. "They write a letter just addressed to Iona Abbey, Scotland," he added, "filled with all the pain of their lives and just expect that someone will open it and somehow deal with it. "So, why are people flooding to Iona at a time when the mainstream churches are experiencing a crisis of decline?

Cynics dismiss it as merely spiritual tourism for the middle-class seeker after personal fulfilment. And, certainly, there is a lot of romantic tosh talked and written about the vogue for Celtic spirituality. But the world of Columba did seem to embody an attitude to life whose loss the modern world is beginning to lament.

It was a religion of myth and poetry rather than theology. Its vision was communal rather than hierarchical. It believed in the wholeness and goodness of the world, in contrast to the idea that the world of matter was something to be rejected in preference to the spiritual. All of which chimes in with the ecological concerns of today and our growing sense that science and rationalism cannot provide all the answers.

Above all, the boundary between the sacred and the secular was dissolved - something George MacLeod re-learned six decades back. In Govan, in the depressed 1930s, he concluded that priests would never understand their parishioners until their way of training was changed.

The rebuilding of the Benedictine Abbey began when he brought together a team of half a dozen unemployed craftsmen and six trainee ministers whom he forced to act as labourers to the workers. It was a modern attempt to recreate the Columban unity of worship and work, church and industry, spiritual and material.

You can, however, go too far in connecting God with Mammon. As did the pilgrim who arrived last month in this place of penitence and humility in that ultimate symbol of privilege and power, a helicopter.

"If it was an hour from Birmingham probably no one would come," said Peter Millar, whose speech patterns are as wild as his hair. "The Celtic world was charged with energy but it was a hard world. Yet, the poor of Glasgow can't even afford the train fare here. And we're not here to provide a spirituality to make people more comfortable in Knightsbridge."

But the greatest irony of Iona is that when the visitors arrive at the Abbey to stay as week-long guests, they discover that the Iona Community does not live there at all. It is not a monastic community but rather a dispersed one.

Its 220 members and 1,600 associates are bound together by a five-fold rule of daily prayer and mutual accountability on how they spend their time and income. But they live throughout Britain, and throughout the world, working largely in disadvantaged inner-city communities, visiting Iona only for retreats. Only a few live in the abbey to head a staff of long-term volunteers who maintain the rhythm of prayer and work in which the visitors join.

"The challenge," said the community's leader, Norman Shanks, pondering the 60th anniversary, "is to respond to the expansion [in numbers] without losing integrity." To avoid the danger of Iona becoming a theme park of privatised, middle-class spirituality, the community must cling to MacLeod's vision that it will only succeed if it energises its visitors to go back to the everyday world to bring about change.

"Iona needs to become more prophetic and more radical," according to Millar. And that, of course, may put the helicopters off altogether. Or make their occupants come the hard way. And linger longer.

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