with John Philip Newell

The following excerpt is from my forthcoming book, God is Nearer than We Think: How a Pastor, Disillusioned with Religion, Rediscovered the Heart of It All.  It describes my recent experience on a pilgrimage with Celtic Christian scholar and teacher, John Philip Newell, on the Isle of Iona, Scotland (September 2014).  Seven years earlier, I’d visited the island, alone and disillusioned with my pastoral vocation, and spent time among the dynamic members of the Iona Community there.  Since then, my first marriage fell apart, my best friend committed suicide, and my congregation found itself in substantial conflict over the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church.  Remarried now to Patty, a psychotherapist, I found myself drawn to the island again.  Patty and I experienced the pilgrimage as a threshold of a w/holy new beginning of our work guiding people and communities toward the kind of flourishing God is birthing in our world today—despite the many challenges around us.

Seven years and a few months later, I found myself once again barreling along the A82 motorway through the Scottish Highlands.  The birches were turning yellow.  A few scattered heather, here and there, still held tenaciously onto their purple blossoms.  It was late September, and I was headed once again to the mystic Isle of Iona.  This time I was not alone.  My wife, Patty, was with me.  We were to join a handful of others for a week on the island, a pilgrimage of new beginnings with John Philip Newell, the Scottish poet, peacemaker, and teacher of Celtic spirituality.

This group of pilgrims was made up of a handful of earnest Christian lay people, a pair of theologians, several nuns, a monk, and me, a pastor.  We all held two things in common: a disillusionment with what has become of Christianity, and deep longing for its rebirth, a hopefulness that it can and will be reborn.  

Iona has a way of gathering women and men like this.  There’s a spiritual magnetism to the island.  For fifteen hundred years Christian pilgrims have found their way to this rocky outcrop on the western edge of Scotland—what some call the “spine of the Atlantic,” because here, geologically speaking, some of the oldest rock on the planet is exposed to the light.  Here, Lewisian gneiss, some two and a half to three billion years old, holds itself, unflinchingly, naked before the elements.  Most of those who come to the island are unaware of this.  I was, until my wife insisted on carrying home a small boulder of this gneiss, grayish-green, with white swirls.  Curious, I inquired about the rock and realized what a treasure is it.  Perhaps three billion years old.  Who can get their mind around that?

I think this Lewisian gneiss is part of the island’s magnetism.  There’s evidence that human beings have been coming here for millennia—the Celts and Druids long before the Christians.  The “spine of the Atlantic” gives those who come here something firm—durable, ancient, almost unchanging—amidst the vicissitudes of our daily lives.  From time beyond all memory, those who, while disillusioned and seeking a way forward, have nevertheless found strong material and spiritual support here upon these ancients rocks that have endured so much change and been so unthreatened by it.  It’s little wonder that in our modern world, pilgrims still seek out this isle of ancient rock and find inspiration here.  Drawn here by their many questions, their discouragements, and their deep longings, we are part of what God is doing to rebirth an expression of life that not only fosters the flourishing of human life, but also the flourishing of the earth itself—a way too often lost among our tired and fractured religious organizations, and among our broken and discouraging political institutions.  

My wife carried a hunk of this Lewisian gneiss home from Iona (actually, I carried it for her).  It's a reminder of our pilgrimage of new beginnings; our shared dream of a Christianity reborn and capable of addressing the realities of our 21st century world. 

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AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman