praying with the right side of your brain: a meditation for ash wednesday

It was the 25th Anniversary of the ordination of the first Lutheran woman and we had been invited to the Lutheran Seminary in Germantown to help them mark the occasion. Back then, I was singing with the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir — a choir of 50 diverse women united in their belief that music could be a vehicle for social change.

At the time, our son Samuel was three-and-a half-years old and, being three-and-a -half years old, he did not usually join me at concerts. But this particular night was different, and Sam took the opportunity to give me a lesson in life and theology.

On the way home from the concert, journeying through the silence and the dark night together, Sam asked me a question from his car seat in the back:

“Mommy, did somebody die?”

I quickly scanned my mental files, trying to recall any thread, any piece of information that Sam might have received that night which would trigger such a question. And then I remembered the introduction to a piece we sang called, “Living in Wartime.” It was a song written by the composer Michael Callen. The song is about AIDS – and Michael had died of AIDS several years before after living with the disease for over ten years.

I answered my son, “Do you mean the person who wrote the song?”

“Yes,” was Sam’s answer. “Why did he die, Mommy?”

“Because he had a disease that, if you get it, it means you’ll die.”

And then there was a long and thoughtful pause.

“Is Daddy going to die?”

“Yes. But hopefully not for a long, long time.”

“When I’m a Daddy, will Daddy die?”

“After you’re a Daddy, and Daddy becomes a Grandpa, and a long time after that.”

“Are you going to die Mommy?”


“Am I going to die Mommy?”

“Yes, Sam-man. But not for a very long time; not until after you grow all the way up and become a Daddy and grow to be a Grandpa, and grow way older than Grandpa is now.”

There was another long and thoughtful pause from the back seat.

“Hmmm. This is serious” Sam said.

“Mommy, I don’t know how to die.”

And after another pause.

“Huh. I guess I’m going to have to learn how to die.”

And Mommy said, trying to navigate through the veil of darkness and wonder that surrounded us, “That’s something that we all need to learn how to do, hun-bun.”

Maybe it’s because our Lenten Art Project is guaranteed to bring out the child in all of us. Or maybe it’s because we are entering a season that invites us to ask all the hardest questions. Or maybe it’s because I’m getting older and I am thinking more and more about the past. Whatever the reason, my son’s words from his car seat in the dark of night came back to me as I pondered what I could possibly say to you on this solemn and peculiar occasion we call Ash Wednesday.  Sam was right: this is serious. He was also right that dying is something that needs to be learned.

So what are we doing here tonight? What’s the whole point of this Ash Wednesday thing anyway? Well, the truth is – we’re doing the very thing that Sam said we needed to do. We’re cozying up to death – our own death – like it or not, ready or not. On Ash Wednesday, we are reminding ourselves – in a very public and symbolic way – that we are mortal; that this mortal body will perish.

We have George Klein to thank for the ashes. These are the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday – gathered up, set on fire, and burnt until they’re nothing but a black, gritty dust. That’s the Church’s tradition all over the world. Then, the pastors smear those cinders on the hands and foreheads of the faithful in the shape of a black cross, saying: “Remember: you are dust and to dust you shall return.”[1] It’s an interesting practice, don’t you think? It’s an interesting ritual: to take the palms and burn them and use them to remind us of our mortality.

My husband once told me that he doesn’t really know what to say when he comes forward for the ashes and hears, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  Being the polite man that he is, most of the time he says “thank you.” But, the truth is, he’s not really feeling “thank you.” It’s hard to be reminded that we are dust; it’s hard to be reminded that we will die. Sam was right: this is serious. He was also right: dying is something that needs to be learned.

Ritual is a powerful thing. Ritual makes visible something that is invisible. Ritual makes physical what is in fact a spiritual process. Ritual is the soul’s way of beginning the process of transformation.[2]

Tonight we gather to share in a very peculiar ritual: to have ashes smeared on our foreheads; to remember that we are dust; to come to terms that this body which we inhabit will not last forever; that we are mortal. It’s serious; and it’s something we all need to learn.

Why do we do it? We do it because it works. We do it because it speaks to a part of our soul that words alone cannot. We do it because it moves us to a place in our spirit that logic alone cannot address. We do it because we are lonely and broken and deeply flawed creatures and that is what Ash Wednesday is all about. It’s about standing at the foot of the cross, smeared in dirt, remembering that we are – every one of us – in desperate need of a Savior.

Sam was right: this is serious. Beloved in Christ, it’s time to get busy.

[1] Debbie Blue, “Food for Worms,” Sensual Orthodoxy, (St. Paul: Cathedral Hill Press, 2004) 89.

[2] Alan Lew, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2003), 15.

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repairer of broken walls

“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” 
(Isaiah 58:12, NIV)

The restoration of the old mill had been a success, but MacLeod believed a new undertaking was needed.  He continued to wrestle with the Church’s irrelevance in the lives of his struggling parishioners, and he wanted to try something new.  He wanted to undertake an experiment in Christian community; to live out the faith in intentional community.  Familiar with the island of Iona, he knew of its ancient buildings.  The abbey church had been rebuilt at the turn of the 20th century, but the monastic quarters and outbuildings were still in ruins.  So MacLeod gathered a team of ministers in training and skilled craftsmen and set about the task of rebuilding the monastery of Iona.  MacLeod recruited the ministers; Bill Amos, a master mason, recruited the craftsmen.  Once the whole team had been assembled, a regular rhythm of work and worship was established.

“Initially, it was a scheme to train young ministers through worship, work and sharing the whole of life, and to enable working men to realize that they had a vital part to play, and were needed by, and in, the Church.”[1]

 The ministers in training spent part of their day in Bible study and theological reflection.  The remainder was devoted to working alongside the craftsmen as unskilled labor – helping in whatever ways they were able and “learning a little about how the workers of the world saw themselves.”[2]   The men of the early Iona Community (and they were only men) lived together, ate together, worked together, worshiped together, played football in their free time, and engaged in rigorous discussions about the role of the Church in society.

Ministers in training who participated in the early Iona community agreed to a two year apprenticeship.  Their summers would be spent on the island; the rest of the year they would serve parishes willing to accept them – often in areas of social deprivation.  But not all parishes were willing to accept an “Iona man.”  Some of these ministers couldn’t get jobs.  They had stepped out of the normal path of ministry and found themselves identified by the mainstream Church as “a slightly dodgy, heterodox, rabble-rousing group…”[3]

The craftsmen who participated in the Iona community made their own sacrifices.  While MacLeod’s original vision included putting the unemployed back to work, none of the craftsmen who worked on the abbey were drawn from the unemployed.  Rather, the men who labored to restore the 13th century monastery gave up their jobs in the city in June, knowing that they would be out of work when they returned in September.

One of the principles of the Iona Community – at its founding and still today – is that, ‘work is worship: labor is holy.’  The Benedictines, who believe the same thing, had another way of putting it 1500 years ago: Ora et labora (pray and work).

[1] From an interview with Uist Macdonald, Outside the Safe Place: An oral history of the early years of the Iona Community, by Anne Muir, (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2011), 15.

[2] From an interview with Douglas Trotter, Outside the Safe Place: An oral history of the early years of the Iona Community, by Anne Muir, (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2011), 27-28.

[3] From an interview with Richard Holloway, Outside the Safe Place: An oral history of the early years of the Iona Community, by Anne Muir, (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2011), 26.

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the iona community

The Iona Community was founded in 1938 by the Rev. George MacLeod, his vision growing out of his ministry in Govan Old, a congregation in an important shipbuilding area on the banks of the River Clyde.  MacLeod was called to be the minister of Govan Old Parish Church from 1930 to 1938.  At the time, half of the population was out of work.  In addition to his experience in the trenches during the First World War, serving this congregation in desperate economic times radicalized him.  He left a large and more prosperous congregation in Edinburgh to serve this large but defeated congregation in Govan and it was a decision that changed the course of his life.

“This is what hit him in Govan – how little the Church spoke to the ordinary lives of people, certainly to the working class.  He was in the middle of the shipyards where life was pretty rough.  Govan parish was only about a square mile, but teeming with folk.  And George was on the doorstep, known to them all, and terribly aware of how little the Church touched their lives and meant to them.”[1]

Though many things contributed to MacLeod’s passion for social justice, it may have been the experience of visiting a man in hospital who was dying of malnutrition that galvanized his conviction.  The man and his family were receiving the minimum amount from the “burroo.”[2]  In order that his family have enough to survive, the man had given over two-thirds of it to them.  Ian Fraser, one of the founding members of the Iona Community said this:

“That must have been very decisive for George.  You’re a great preacher, you’ve got everything before you, you’ve got all the adulation, you have people entranced by you, but here’s a bloke who gave away two-thirds of an absolute pittance, and died of malnutrition.  That’s what you’d to face.”[3]

MacLeod was a charismatic preacher and personality; a man on fire for justice and righting the inequities that were so prevalent in Scotland at that time.  He drew large crowds and packed the church in Govan.  But when he looked out at the congregation he realized that none of the members of his own church were actually sitting in the pews.  Instead, middle-class people attracted to his message and his personality filled the church.

It was a stark truth: a successful church was not necessarily a relevant church.  Charismatic preaching did not actually change the lot of the poor.  Clearly, MacLeod would have to discover a new way of being Church, if he was going to serve the people of Govan.[4]

And so he began a ministry to address the practical needs of his parishioners: the hungry were fed, a community garden established, the men had a workroom where they could repair their children’s boots and shoes, the women had a washroom where they could do their own washing on their days off, and there were social activities to encourage wholesome fellowship.  Appalled by the waste of human talent, MacLeod persuaded unemployed men from Govan to use their skills to restore an old mill into a place where families from the parish could go for a break from city life.  This, as it turned out, would be a test run for the future rebuilding of the Abbey and the founding of the Iona Community.

[1] From an interview with Douglas Trotter, Outside the Safe Place: An oral history of the early years of the Iona Community, by Anne Muir, (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2011), 11-12.

[2] The “burroo” is the Scots name for unemployment.

[3] From an interview with Ian Fraser, Outside the Safe Place: An oral history of the early years of the Iona Community, by Anne Muir, (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2011), 12.

[4] Anne Muir, Outside the Safe Place: An oral history of the early years of the Iona Community, Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2011), 12.

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dove of the church

The Abbey at Iona was founded by an Irish abbot and missionary named Columba. Columba was born in County Donegal in the year 521. Born of the Irish clan of Niall, he came from a race of kings who had ruled in Ireland and Western Scotland for six centuries. He studied under St. Finnian of Moville and St. Finnian of Clonard. As a student, his friends gave him the name “Columcille,” meaning “Dove of the Church,” because he liked to spend so much of his time in the Church with the Blessed Sacrament.

Columba crossed the Irish Sea to Iona in the year 563 A.D, sailing with twelve companions. On the Holy Island of Iona, he founded his most famous monastery which would become the center of Celtic Christianity in the world. The first monastery on the island was constructed from logs. It included a church, a guest house, the abbot’s quarters, and a granary.  While he frequently visited the mainland — either to found yet another monastery, or on pastoral business — Columba spent most of his life on Iona, supervising and training his monks for the missionary work that lay ahead.  Saint Columba, the “Dove of the Church,” died in the year 597 A.D.

In 794 A.D., the monastery at Iona was raided by Vikings.  After several devastating attacks – and the martyrdom of 68 monks in the year 804 A.D. – the monastery was abandoned and Columba’s monks dispersed into Ireland and Scotland.  The famous illuminated manuscript known as the Book of Kells was probably begun on Iona and completed at Kells after the Viking raids.

None of the original buildings of Saint Columba’s monastery remain on Iona – they were burned to the ground during one of the many Viking raids of the 9th century.  The oldest building on the island is Saint Oran’s Chapel, dating from the 11th century.  (Saint Oran was one of Saint Columba’s followers.)  The chapel sits in the graveyard adjacent to the Abbey – a burial ground in use since Saint Columba’s time.  The buildings we see today were originally raised in the 13th century by the Benedictines, who established a new monastery on the site of Columba’s original church.  A nunnery of the Augustinian Order was established south of the Abbey buildings.

The Protestant Reformation brought an end to monastic life on Iona.  It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the abbey re-emerged and the buildings began to be restored.  Today the restored abbey church and cloister are in daily and lively use.

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a wild beauty

looking towards the Isle of Mull

iona beach

west side cove

more iona beauty

rocks on the north-side beach

the best hostel location in the world

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Twenty-five years ago, Rob and I got as close to Iona as the port city of Oban.  We were poor graduate students at the time, traveling on a shoestring budget.  As a young seminarian, I had a vague knowledge of the island – but not enough to know that spending the time and money to get from Oban to Iona was really important.  I have regretted that decision ever since.

The journey from Oban to Iona is part of what makes it a pilgrimage.  The Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry departs Oban every two hours.  The journey by boat to Craignure on the Isle of Mull takes about 40 minutes.  From there, you catch a bus from Craignure to Fionnphort – a journey of about an hour through extraordinary landscape on a single-lane road with occasional pull-over spots for passing vehicles.  At Fionnphort, another ferry makes the ten-minute journey across the Sound of Iona where you will be deposited at the end of the pier in the village of Iona.

Three miles long and a mile and a half across, the rocky island of Iona lies off the west coast of Scotland, part of an archipelago called the Inner Hebrides.  Much of the island is made up of ancient pink and grey rocks, which give off a warm, rosy glow – especially at sunset.  The Abbey is built of these same rocks, as are many of the houses scattered across the island.

As the ferry made its across the Sound, it veered and slowed and — inasmuch as a ferry can stop, it stopped.  There — gliding just beside the boat — was a huge Basking Shark, sieving its way through the primordial waters.

This a magical place — ancient and wild.

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the fringe

The final leg of my sabbatical journey began as we arrived in Scotland.  After two days in Glasgow to sightsee and recover from jetlag we traveled by train to Edinburgh.  We are here to see our son, Sam, perform in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with Out of the Blue, an a capella men’s choir from Oxford University.

This portion of the journey wasn’t part of the original sabbatical vision.  Originally, I was to visit just four communities – all from North America: The Simple Way in Philadelphia, St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, the Bay View Association in Michigan, and Uplands Village in TennesseeBut Sam’s involvement with Out of the Blue changed all that.  As a member of the group, he would necessarily remain at Oxford for the entire school year (instead of the one semester originally planned), and he would also commit himself to performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the entire month of August, as has been the group’s tradition over the past eight years.  His travels, and extended absence from us, led us to see if a trip to Scotland could be woven into our summer plans.

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the largest arts festival in the world.  It takes place every year in the month of August in the ancient and beautiful city of Edinburgh.  This year, the Fringe spans 25 days, showcasing over 2,695 shows from 47 countries in 279 venues.  It’s a smorgasborg of creativity featuring music, theater, comedy, dance, the spoken word, opera, burlesque, art exhibits, workshops, as well as a children’s program.

Out of the Blue gave a rockin’ good performance yesterday afternoon!  (Those boys are performing every day for the entire festival, with one day off.)  We’ll soak up a few days watching our boy and taking in as many shows as our middle-aged souls can handle, and then it is north to Iona!

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