working out what a life of discipleship is all about

Posts tagged ‘Iona Abbey’

Itineraries and Expectations OR “what I should have told my students before we left”

What do you do when things don’t go as planned? For most of us, it’s easy to take it in stride when a new recipe turns out less than delicious, or when the weather doesn’t cooperate with our outdoor activities. But what if you’ve just traveled thousands of miles, arriving at a Christian community that specializes in stirring worship services and inspiring action for justice and peace on a holy island known for its breathtaking views and spiritual experiences – and you’re not moved at all?

Going on a pilgrimage is an ancient spiritual discipline that many of us are undertaking in new ways. Traveling to Iona Abbey on my own 5 years ago, I learned first hand what it means to be a pilgrim. Making the long journey to a special place, and then living in intentional community for a week with strangers, taught me a great deal about myself and my faith and my sense of call. I was transformed by the land, by the people, by the worship. I was so moved that I returned the following year with a small group from my congregation. Sharing the pilgrimage with others deepened my experience, as we formed our own little community as we traveled, and made room for each other along the way.


Carol and Marty at the William Wallace memorial

After completing my first year as campus pastor at TLU, I imagined the impact on students of a pilgrimage to Iona. I waded through piles of paperwork and mounds of requirements to put together a study abroad trip that would give young adults the opportunity to travel as pilgrims and open themselves to the transformation I had experienced. I shared with potential students my stories of meaningful relationships, beautiful music, and solitary walks along the rocks at the beach. I told them that the Isle of Iona has been considered a “thin place” for centuries – a place where the earth and the heavens meet and the holy is within arm’s reach. I encouraged them to apply if they were looking for a place to contemplate their life’s meaning, the bigger questions of faith and call and purpose.

After meeting every other week throughout spring term, talking about what to expect, what to bring, and what was required, we set off from the airport, ready for our spiritual adventure. The journey was long. And the jet lag was harsh. With just 7 hours of “night” on the plane ride across the Atlantic, we hit the ground in Scotland at a brisk stroll. Navigating the bus into the city and construction at the train station, we found the right track, and traveled several more hours to our overnight stop, where there was still much walking to do. The next day held two ferry rides and one harrowing bus ride with a very impatient driver, plus another long walk. By the time we were settled into our rooms at Iona, our group was exhausted.


Iona Pilgrimage Study Abroad class, one ferry away from Iona!

And so the spiritual experience began. We were meeting new people: our roommates, our housework group-mates, and the volunteer staff who were there to support us. We were going to chapel two times a day, getting up early for the first, and staying up late for the second. We were hearing about the Iona Community’s work for justice and peace, and were encouraged to find ways to make a difference back home. We were exploring the island, finding paths that cut through fields of sheep, leading to sandy shores and craggy hills.


rocky, mossy beach on Iona at sunset

As an experienced pilgrim, I could see that the place and the people were doing their work: planting seeds, offering new perspectives, blowing through with unexpected insights. But my group of new pilgrims, some of whom were first-time travelers, were frustrated by the end of the second day.

“I’m not feeling anything.” “I’m not meeting any new people.” “I don’t see the point of going back to worship today. I already went once.” “I came here to have this powerful experience of God and nothing’s happening – something’s wrong with me.”

What do you do when things don’t go as planned? Even as pilgrims, maybe especially as pilgrims, we experience disappointment. When you decide to set off on a pilgrimage, you have big expectations. You’re going to meet God in every flower and sunrise. Your whole approach to faith and life and spirituality is going to be transformed. Every day will be filled with happiness and light. Every conversation will be uplifting.

But then reality hits: pilgrimage is like real life. Sometimes you wake up tired and miss the sunrise. Some days you’re just going through the motions. And occasionally you encounter people you can’t connect with. Some days are just dark, even in a holy place.

What enables a pilgrimage to be transforming is letting go of expectations and allowing reality to do its work. What turns a dark day into something meaningful is allowing it to be dark, and gently examining where the darkness got its start. What turns a challenging conversation into an enlightening encounter is holding up a mirror to see the traits you despise in others staring right back at you. What changes a crappy travel day into a transformative pilgrimage day is attention: taking the time to pay attention to what’s right in front of you and what’s deep within you. We go on pilgrimage to give ourselves the time and space to pay attention to life – life that’s all around us. Expectations just get in the way.

As the experienced pilgrim, I was able to have some good conversations that week. I helped students name their expectations of what was supposed to happen so they could set them aside and focus on what was actually happening. I tried to point out the places where I saw God at work, in little and big ways. And I encouraged them to follow their hearts, take care of themselves, and recognize that transformation is deeply personal, physically draining work.

And in the midst of guiding them, I relearned some things myself. My expectations of myself as a perfect leader get in the way of opportunities to be an authentic leader. My need to follow an itinerary can be stifling to the winds of the Spirit, who blows me in new directions when I finally let go. And my job as pilgrim leader is not to remake everyone’s experience in the image of my own. My job as pilgrim leader is to stand beside and walk with other pilgrims and enjoy the wild diversity of my companions. Who knows where the Holy One will lead us next? I have no expectations. Only hope.



All I need

Last summer I spent 5 weeks living in St.Augustine, FL at Discovery Yoga’s teacher training program. I packed my Subaru Forrester to the hilt with bags of clothes, boxes of books, and a crate of dishes so I could make my own meals. I had my bike on the back of the car and my kayak crammed IN my car (less noisy than driving 2 days on I-10 with a kayak on top.) I lived in a small room on the bottom floor of the facility, with a bathroom and kitchenette around the corner. I had a full life that summer, studying yoga but also riding my bike downtown and kayaking the Intercostal Waterways. I didn’t read all the books I brought and I didn’t wear all the clothes I brought and I surprised myself with how little I needed. Just me and the Subaru, filled to overflowing.

This summer I spent 5 weeks in Europe, leading a group of students to Scotland for the first two weeks, and then traveling solo to England and then France for the final weeks. I gave my students the ultimatum that we would all travel with just a carry-on suitcase and a backpack, knowing that traveling light = traveling happy. So I faced packing for 5 weeks and 2 climate zones with a little trepidation. Scotland was sure to be cold and rainy, so the waterproof boots, jacket, and pants had to be included. Southern France (Taizé!) was forecast to have temps in the upper 80’s. So capri pants and sleeveless shirts had to come, too. I was required to bring my own towel for Iona Abbey in Scotland, and my own sheets for the Taizé Community. Plus, this was the first time I’d traveled overseas with a gluten-free diet restriction, so I anxiously added about 25 protein bars to my suitcase.

My carry-on was bursting at the seams as I lugged it on and off buses, trains, and ferries. I heaved it up stairs and down, and cursed those protein bars every time the luggage racks only had space available at the top. My backpack was competing for 2nd place in the cursing department. It was crammed full of too many books (again with the books!) and my iPad, as well as all the electrical converters I would need, snacks for the day’s travel and a refillable water bottle that was always full (water is heavy!)

Each time I arrived at my destination, I discovered that living out of a carry-on was actually quite simple. Getting dressed was a breeze. The question wasn’t, “What classy outfit can I put together today?” The question was, “What clothes are clean today?” I didn’t have to think about what shoes to wear, either. If it was cold, the boots came out. If it was warm, the running shoes won. Every third day was laundry day – washing clothes in the sink actually works! And somehow air-drying in the French countryside added a fresh scent even to my much-worn socks! I didn’t do too much reading, but I did a lot of writing in my journal, processing all of the amazing experiences of my trip. Living out of a carry-on suitcase for 5 weeks, I had a simple life. I had a simple routine. I had what I needed. And yes, I had just enough protein bars!

Now that I’m home, I’m finding the choices overwhelming. The first time I opened my closet door, I got dizzy. And those who know me understand that my closet is neat and tidy, organized by category and by the color spectrum (ROY G BIV!) But all the organization in the world couldn’t soothe my spirit that day. I’m back in my own kitchen, full of gluten-free options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But I’m mystified at how to put all the ingredients together to make a meal. I’ve been eating black beans and salsa for way too many meals now. And don’t get me started with all the projects facing me at work. I knew that I had a tendency to say “Yes!” to every interesting idea. But returning to my office to find 12 clipboards full of notes about upcoming ministries was more than a wake-up call. My life is more overstuffed than my carry-on was.

So it’s time to get back to the essentials. What do I really need? Can I get rid of some of these clothes? And can I simplify my pantry? But more than anything, can I let go of some of my interests and projects at work? Along my journey, I let go of some things. A bag of gluten-free rolls that molded. A shirt that was uncomfortable got donated. Pamphlets from historical sites I’d visited had to be recycled.

The one thing I was able to add along the way, without weighing down that carry-on, was relationships. A clergy couple and their teenagers from San Francisco, whose 5-week itinerary almost matched mine. A delightful Iona volunteer from Indiana, in the midst of discerning a call to the ministry. A spirited clergywoman from England, supervising the center at Iona and leading with compassion and class. A fellow pastor who, in the midst of planning a move from Scotland to the US, made time to join us for an evening of traditional Scottish dancing (a ceilidh!) An old friend from Iona, who welcomed me and nursed me back to health in Cambridge.


my dear friend from Iona, Judy

A roommate at Taizé from Barcelona who bravely shared her story of loss and enabled me to recognize my own healing.


one of my roommates at Taizé, Marta

A fellow college chaplain from the Netherlands who shared not only great ideas for connecting with students but also a listening ear. All of these relationships enriched my experience and strengthened my spirit as I journeyed.

Looking back, I see how I hauled too much baggage across Europe. On that journey, and in everyday life, there are some things not worth carrying. One thing I’m learning: all I need, I carry in my heart.



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