“Too much monkey, not enough cat” was one of the more critical comments made when we gathered in the common room of the Mac for our final evening evaluation session.
The previous morning Joan, the sacristan, had given us a guided tour of the Abbey – a tour deliberately contrasting with what was available through Historic Scotland’s headphones, having more of a devotional than historic or architectural focus.
We stopped at various points in the building, using prayers offered up a particular moments in the weekly pattern of worship, and reflecting on the people and communities including ourselves who have drawn strength and found renewal in this place through the centuries since the abbey’s foundation.
At the east end, above and to the side of the modern Iona marble communion table, two medieval carvings look down from either side of the south facing window. The monkey, we learned, represents activity – the busyness of life that perhaps we were hoping to escape from by coming to Iona. The cat represents quiet contemplation – a model of life that is maybe harder to achieve than we had realised. The Benedictines who built the Abbey, and whose ordered daily lives dominated this place for nearly four centuries, recognised the need to balance these two aspects of living. Two small and discreetly placed carvings sum up the whole of their monastic ideals.
Life with the Iona community today is as ordered as the medieval monks could ever have hoped for. Each morning at the Mac we were roused by a bell. We ate breakfast together, and then hurried down to the Abbey for morning prayers. Deliberately not sitting down at the end of the service but leaving straight away, recognising that what awaited us for the rest of the day was equally worship, we spent half an hour on allotted tasks – whether preparing vegetables in the kitchen, cleaning the loos, or sweeping the floors. Each mealtime one of our three groups set tables and cleared and washed up afterwards. And at the end of the day, we made our way back to the Abbey for the nine o’clock evening service, which usually had a special focus, such as the service of prayers for healing that is a significant part of Iona life every Tuesday.
So there was plenty of monkey – and the critical comment was probably aimed at the programme organisers who had offered us special sessions at the Mac, advertised this week as an open week while a more focused programme was being run at the Abbey. They were stimulating sessions: Sharon’s “Mind the Gap” brought the Iona Community’s focus on justice and peace to contemporary Britain, as, in a different way, did Ali’s morning on money. We had opportunity too to learn about the Iona Community, and about its healing ministries, as well of course as sharing in the pilgrimage and in that tour of the Abbey. And of course there were also the Big Sing on Sunday, and the Little Sing later in the week, not to mention the ceilidh at the village hall and our own fireside ceilidh, with that incredible high wire act to show the rest of the group just what folk from Northern Synod are made of.
For those wanting or needing more cat – yes, there were blocks of free time, allowing a solitary walk perhaps to the sandy beaches of the North End, or time alone in the Abbey or one of the chapels. And of course, as we were reminded, none of the sessions was compulsory – though we can be pretty sure the cleaning and washing up were!
Thursday evening saw us gathered in the Abbey for the final communion service – the long candlelit table speaking of the sense of community we had found together over the previous days. Next morning prayers were earlier and briefer than usual, as we said our goodbyes and then hurried away to catch the 8.50 am ferry for the first leg of our journey back home. Had we found the rest and refreshment we hoped for? And was it all frantic over-activity that we would be facing again? Or is it possible, whether away in Iona or back home in Newcastle or wherever, to live the balanced, ordered and fruitful lives that Columba and Benedict and all the saints might have understood were the consequence of simply resolving to live as disciples of Jesus?