Part 1: Traveling across my life to Iona

by Donald Schell

Quite early this morning I boarded the train at Stonehaven (near Aberdeen) crossing Scotland East to West to Glasgow. In Glasgow I’ll catch another train to travel up the coast to Oban. From Oban, I’ll take the ferry to Mull, then board a bus for Fionnphort where the day’s last ferry to Iona will be waiting for us. Tonight it will be dinner, prayers, and sleep in Iona Abbey.

I hope to hear and feel something of how George MacLeod’s creation-centered, Christian humanist vision of community and service claimed and rebuilt the ruined abbey church as a place of renewal for his work with Scotland’s urban poor, a place where he could continue to explore Celtic creation-centered spiritual traditions going back even beyond the great, maligned teacher Pelagius, because, as MacLeod liked to say, “Matter matters.” And I hope to feel and hear how the community and rebuilding the Abbey changed George MacLeod.

I first hoped to visit Iona in 1971. Today my half-remembered reasons that visit did not happen, and whatever else kept Iona on my “someday” wish list so long fly like dry leaves before the train’s forward rush.

I’ve just completed a good visit with my older daughter. Visiting her was the other reason I made this trip to Scotland. Since she came to Britain to do her graduate work, I haven’t seen nearly enough of her. Nearly two decades have passed, she finished her doctorate, did an exciting post-doctoral fellowship, got a good university appointment and now an extraordinary new appointment. She’s nearing mid-career and has accomplished big things. Yes, this is her dad speaking, but it’s all true. Meanwhile though, I notice that my fullest acknowledgment of this adult woman’s accomplishment pushes me to noticing my own impending transition – moving life and work and vocation through retirement to whatever lies beyond. Seeing her confident performance center stage fills me with joy – she belongs there! But, to stick with the acting imagery, I also feel like someone who once played Hamlet and who now is cast as Hamlet’s father’s ghost. The good path of life inevitably leads to grief, loss and death. The commonplace truths we’ve heard lifelong begin to mark real boundaries.

In 1971 – the time before this that I came closest to visiting Iona – my daughter, this person I’m still coming to know as an adult and an accomplished professional, wasn’t yet two years old. She was relishing her newly acquired solid sense of upright balance and demonstrating an inspiring, sometimes amusing post-toddler determination to explore the whole world. Sunday-by-Sunday in England that summer we took this small child with us as we visited English churches for liturgy.

In the seminary community in New York, we’d learned to outfit her for church with soft-soled moccasins and soft toys. She sensed enough of what people were doing in worship to still her voice, rarely speaking and then only softly to us. So in her moccasins and with stuffed toys, to our seminary-formed thinking, she behaved in a dependably age-appropriate way for church. And to protect other worshipers from visual distraction, we’d seat ourselves in the back of the church or stand by the back door where we could see and hear and she would have the freedom she needed to listen, watch, and explore.

We discovered that Church of England congregations in 1971, with a few delightful exceptions, did not appreciate her quiet freedom. The couple of Roman Catholic churches we visited were better. But in Anglican congregations (not so empty as today) predictably someone would turn to raise an eyebrow, toss a scowl toward her and us, or shake a quiet “shushing” “no to sounds quieter than a closing door or carefully lowered kneeler. After service someone would ask us, “Don’t you realize people come here to pray?” or, when they recognized we were American, they might helpfully offer, “Mothers here prefer to stay home with their children until the children are old enough to behave properly in church.”

As a soon-to-be-ordained Episcopal clergy person, what I saw and heard then was how much work we needed to do reshaping and re-visioning the church, and what I’d heard of Iona made it a promising sign that a church renewing itself could bless and change the whole world. In 1971 my personal, joyful hope in 1971 was that I could help us discover what was possible in church life. The Spirit was moving. Something new could happen. Church could be deeper, and richer, more alive, and church could welcome all of us – even two year olds. The questions themselves felt joyful –

How could we renew old ways of being church community?

How could we make ancient traditions and practices live?

How could we frame a fresh welcome to the strong hopes of those outside the church?

– because despite the weekly “shushing” by the elders and watchkeepers of congregations, it felt like we were witnessing a new beginning. Today those surviving middle-aged elders of 1971 are the oldest white-headed seniors in churches. Today my children are grown and one of them, the priest, is giving his heart and soul to hopes for real Good News and genuine, caring, serving community. Meanwhile the white-headed seniors wonder why there are so few children, so few young adults, so few middle-aged people in church.

The little girl in moccasins grew into a historian who traced the footsteps of 19th century explorer naturalists over the Andes, across the world’s driest desert, and even across the choppy seas they charted to visit with Tierra del Fuego penguins. With her language gifts she built relationships in unfamiliar cultures and settings. Librarians and archivists generously directed her to treasures of unpublished correspondence where she heard the voices of emerging 19th scientists as they shared ideas and discoveries and all the news of friendship. In conversations, shared expeditions and lifelong correspondence, these friends invented and developed the disciplines of natural science research.

Last summer along with the momentous news of this daughter’s new job, she shared her joy and relief that her second book was at the publisher with a scheduled release date.

How do we find our way to relationship and community? What does it cost us to reject someone from the community? My daughter’s book tells the story of Darwin and the circle of friends and acquaintances he belonged to, a story of discovery, evolution, and a seismic shift. She’s also telling a story of faith and skepticism. As she documents the creative power of lasting friendship, she also tells of tragic misunderstandings and estrangements. And Darwin and his friends stumbled into questions that we hear so many places and ways today in our public arguments about faith, reason and inquiry.

Fitzroy’s declared opposition to Darwin erupted in 1860 at a gathering of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford. A scheduled debate about Darwin’s theory between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce (Bishop of Oxford) provoked a chaos of voices from the whole audience, and people heard and remembered Fitzroy, in his uniform as a Rear-Admiral, rising to wave his Bible over his head shouting to warn the thousand gathered people not to take the word of a mere human over the Word of God in Genesis. That he’d helped spawn evolutionary theory (and a list of other losses, disappointments and tragedies) pushed Darwin’s old friend to an eventual suicide. And for Darwin himself, his beloved daughter’s death killed his hopes that any wise or loving Presence moved behind evolution. How do listen openly? What does it cost us to stay in conversation?

I’ll be in Iona this evening. A week on the island staying at the Abbey. Philip Newell will be guiding us in his most recent work in Celtic Spirituality, a vision for the wholeness of the earth, and the peace-making witness of George MacLeod.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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