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A User’s Guide to Iona, Beta Version

A view of the Iona Abbey from the bay

A view of the Iona Abbey from the bay

Recently a couple of people have asked me for advice on traveling to Iona. I remember feeling a bit lost the first time I went, and couldn’t find a go-to page with information (aside from the Iona website itself, which is good but not exhaustive, especially if you’re traveling from the U.S.).

So here’s a draft guide to traveling to Iona, an expanded version of an email I sent to one of these friends. I know many of you have been there and have even more experience than I do, so please pipe up with items to add, and we’ll make this guide better and better! (Be sure to check out the stuff in bold italic.)

What is Iona?

Iona is an island in the inner Hebrides of Scotland, and is said to be Christianity’s first outpost in Scotland back in the sixth century or so. The Iona Community is an inclusive Christian community that hosts pilgrims on the island throughout the year.

The Iona Community hosts folks in one of two facilities: the Abbey, mainly for adults, and Macleod (pronounced mack-CLOUD) Centre, mainly for families. There’s also Camas, but that’s off-island and for young people—not the focus of this post.

The Iona Community doesn’t bill itself as a conference center or a retreat center, though it has elements of both. It is an experience of living in community. If you stay in Iona Community accommodations, you won’t have a private room (though if you travel with someone you can room with them, and families are kept together in Macleod’s large rooms). Also, bathrooms are down the hall, with sinks in the bedrooms. The accommodations are perfectly serviceable and comfortable but not fancy.

As part of the community, you’ll be divided into work groups and given tasks to do each day. These are minor, like setting tables for meals, sweeping, chopping vegetables, or cleaning bathrooms. Meals are family style and the different task teams serve those. Tasks take 20 minutes each day, tops, and are nice for building community and doing your part.

What is a week at Iona like?

The Iona Community’s week-long program begins with an arrival Saturday afternoon and ends with a Friday morning departure.  Some weeks are programmed, with a speaker who leads things in the morning, with afternoons free. Check Iona Community’s website to see what they have planned each week. I’ve been to a programmed week and an open week and I prefer the latter. That said, the programmed weeks provide plenty of free time, and the open weeks typically have scheduled activities, such as tours of the facilities, hymn sings, and other options. Worship takes place each evening, with different themes each day.

The pilgrimage is the highlight for many people. It’s a multi-hour trek around the island to view the various sacred sites. There’s an off-road version for hardier souls and on-road for people who want a shorter experience. The off-road version is subject to be altered or canceled based on trail conditions, and they are insistent on proper footwear—waterproof shoes, ideally hiking boots with ankle support.

Which pilgrimage should you choose? I highly recommend the off-road version, provided that:
–you’re in good enough shape
–for a 5-hour hike with frequent stops (including almost an hour for lunch)
–on uneven (but not mountainous) terrain.

The pilgrimage is usually on Tuesdays.

There’s also an evening of folk dancing, called a Ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee), in the town hall. It’s fun and intergenerational. Think Celtic line dancing.

If you stay in the Macleod Centre you also have access to their beautiful and amazingly-stocked craft room. Many happy hours can be spent there.

What about island activities?

Here are a few fun things to do beyond the walls of the Iona Community. (Iona is great for wandering, so get yourself a map of the island from one of the shops.)

  • Have a cream tea at one of the inns and hotels and/or book a lunch or dinner.
  • Climb up Dun I (pronounced dun ee), the highest point on the island at a manageable 331 feet.
  • Have a drink and enjoy the view at Martyr’s Bay restaurant.
  • Visit the beaches and wade in the clear but coooooold water.
  • Book a boat trip to nearby Staffa to see Fingal’s cave and, if the timing is right, PUFFINS!
    Note: I have never done this because the boat is small and the seas are rough. Bad combo for me.
  • Browse the shops for souvenirs, folk crafts, wool (aka yarn), or an ice cream sandwich.
  • Stargazing, meandering walks… anything you’d do in a wild rural setting.

Where do I start with logistics?

As of this post, the Iona Community has not yet posted its schedule for next summer. When they do, it should be here. First step is to decide when you want to go and fill out a booking form (also available at that link). Once you are confirmed, you can investigate flights and other travel arrangements (see below).

What if I want to go on my own, not as part of the Community?

I don’t have a lot of logistical information to offer on that. Go to Isle of Iona’s website and poke around for accommodations and information.

If you go on your own, you’re always welcome to worship with the Community in the Abbey Church–services are daily–and the pilgrimage is also open to all, as well as the Ceilidh. Those events are in the early part of the week, so plan accordingly.

What do I need to know about traveling there and back?

If you can manage it, I’d get to the UK a few days before you head to Iona. This allows you to get over your jetlag. And IF heaven forbid you lose your bags, which happened to people in our group the first time, it gives you time to be reunited with your luggage before getting to the island.

Americans: Our family flew into Dublin a few days early and saw the sights there, then flew to Glasgow. Dublin is a great airport because when you return to the U.S., you do all the customs and immigration at the Dublin airport before you leave. So when you get to your home airport you just collect your bags and head home. Highly recommended.

Whatever you decide to do, you need to be in Glasgow by Friday night so you can start the journey to Iona first thing Saturday morning.

There is information on the Iona website about travel from Glasgow and back. It involves a 3 hour train ride, a 45 minute ferry ride, an hourlong bus ride, and a five minute ferry. This sounds very complicated but it’s quite easy, especially in the summer. If you leave Queen St. Station in Glasgow on the 8 a.m. train you pretty much can’t go wrong. They’re set up for pilgrims to come to Iona. Just follow the crowds.

 Breaking down the steps, you need tickets for:

  1. The train from Glasgow to Oban. Buy ahead of time so you’re not rushed that morning. Using the Rail and Sail site to get both train and Oban ferry tickets.
  2. The ferry from Oban to Craignure on the island of Mull. Buy these the day of at the terminal on the dock, or see previous note.
  3. The bus ride across Mull. Buy them the day of. Seriously. They’re lined up right next to the dock. I can’t remember if they accept credit cards or cash only, but it’s £11 round trip, so bring enough cash just in case.
  4. The ferry ride from Fionnphort (pronounced FIN-eh-for, best I can tell) to Iona. Same disclaimer about cash/credit, and I can’t find the price, but it’s less than the bus ride.

How about going with children?

Traveling to Iona with one’s family is obviously a huge expense, but for us it was worth the saving up and the effort. Sadly, some communities welcome children more in theory than in practice, but Iona really takes hospitality seriously, including for little ones. The Macleod Centre is a comfortable, accommodating place for children. (Remember, they’ve got that amazing craft room.)

I was curious to see how our plugged-in, chicken-nugget-eating American kids would do in a remote location with no Internet and unfamiliar food. (Iona serves mainly vegetarian options, and they’re good about accommodating allergies and sensitivities.) I’m sure our kids ate more than their share of bread that week, but they were none the worse for wear. And they really “got” the place, and enjoyed getting to know people from other countries. You know your own children and your budget, but I encourage you to give it a try if you can.

What about packing?

  • Pack light and plan to handwash items in your sink. There is a drying room in the Abbey and Macleod, and while it’s better than nothing, it mainly succeeded at giving our supposedly clean clothes a slight mildewy smell.
  • Layers and good footwear, preferably boots.
  • You do not need any dressy clothing while there. Worship is casual.
  • There are some boots and waterproofs that can be borrowed, but I’d bring your own.
  • Make sure you’ve got one of these outlet adapters if you bring electronics.
  • If you get carsick easily, bring Dramamine for the bus ride across Mull. It’s a single lane road so there’s a lot of pulling over to let other traffic pass.
  • Friends: what else should be added here?

Miscellaneous

  • There is no Internet access in the Iona Community’s centers. You can access WiFi at one of the nearby hotels for a small fee.
  • You can eat at the cafe on the ferry from Oban to Mull, but do yourself a favor and stop at the seafood shack for some prawn sandwiches instead. Get ‘em to go and bring ‘em on board. Nothing fancy, but fresh as can be.
  • Then when you get back to Oban on your return, stop by the George Street Fish and Chips shop for some piping hot takeaway (cash only).

Have you been to Iona? What have I left out?

~

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Post-Vacation Miscellany

We’re back from a very satisfying vacation in Springpatch, Midwestern State. The trip was not without its snafus—Robert and Caroline caught colds, and I hurt my back for a couple of days after doing this weird surfing thing in the pool with James. But the kids were 97% delightful in the car (and without DVDs to boot!) and we got lots of rest at the grandparents’.

Having kids who are old enough not to need constant vigilance/suggestions of things to do = priceless.

Caroline enjoyed playing on a real piano. Our digital piano is wonderful but there’s no beating an actual grand. She is teaching herself this piece. I’m boggling at the motivation in this kid, but it sure made for a nice soundtrack for our trip.

James had a breakthrough in the swimming pool and is now going under water after many months/years of unhappiness at getting his face wet. Tonight he went from bobbing up and down in place to actual locomotion. He was SO proud.

Meanwhile, Margaret can turn a mean cartwheel.

As for me, I have two more days to finish proofing the PDF of my book. It’s very exciting to see it at this stage. July is going to be a tremendous month, with a number of conferences and articles and things on tap.

And school’s out, which means I will be doing the summer shuffle: camps, babysitters, swim team, child care, etc.

Coming tomorrow: a contest/giveaway with a VERY quick turnaround. I need a new epigraph for one of my chapters, something about Sabbath and/or living lightly in time. Put your thinking caps on….more details in the morning.

And now, a few photos. The headwear came from New Salem. That’s Caroline hanging on the monkey bars, and I included the one of me because I think I look relaxed… a rare posture for me :-)

Monday Miscellany

Long-form blogging just ain’t gonna happen this week, so here are some random tidbits as I head into some busyness:

~

On Thursday I leave with Caroline, Margaret and my mother (a Unitarian who doesn’t mind Jesus) for the Wild Goose Festival. I’m excited that the girls’ first camping experience will be a girl-power affair—Robert will have a boys’ weekend with James. They’re thinking about a train museum in Pennsylvania, plus Cars2. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed at the logistics.

I haven’t camped in at least a decade, our equipment is scattered all over our house and in variable states of repair, and whereas *I* would be happy relying solely on food vendors for sustenance, I don’t think that’s going to cut it for our somewhat pickier children. So: campstove and simple meals.

That said, Woo! Wild Goose! Woodstock for Jesus hippies! I can’t wait.

~

Remember when I wrote that Caroline was a dedicated swimmer but not likely to break into the top tier of swimmers? Ahem. She won a blue ribbon at her first-ever “A” meet on Saturday, in breast stroke, which she’d DQ’d  just a week earlier at time trials. She is elated. It was funny the way it happened—she was in the middle of the pack time-wise, but every other girl in her age group DQd. It’s a very hard stroke to get right, apparently. This is SO Caroline, who is not the speediest, but is persistent, and she works hard to make her strokes clean and precise.

Kinda reminds me of her mama, who continues to do C25K yet is still tortoise-like.

~

The commitment to Sabbath continues, though its look and feel have really changed over the months. It’s gotten easier and harder. It’s become more and more essential for my sanity, and there are also more and more things tugging at it, trying to make it not happen. One of my twitter followers was kind enough to tweet this page, which is a listing of all of the Sabbath-related posts I’ve written over the months. I need to get back to that. I’m writing about Sabbath all the time but a lot of it is still rough notes.

My manuscript for The Sabbath Year is due in October, and because of Chalice’s long publishing cycle, it won’t be published until Fall 2012. In the meantime, this blog is the place to be for sneak peeks and updates.

~

We’re starting a new sermon series at church called “Postcards from the Bible.” We will look at different significant places in the Bible—archetypes, such as garden, valley, mountaintop, city, beach—and explore what they represent for us spiritually. This approach appeals to the English major in me: we talk all the time about the plot, characters and themes of Bible stories, why not setting? Besides, it’s a way of traveling without leaving the sanctuary.

In addition to being a fun series, and one that builds on some earlier work I’ve done in print, the series is a way of addressing the travel bug that has invaded my life once again. But the bug is not appeased by this series; I’ve started dreaming of a trip to Cuba in January with members of this presbytery and Iona over the summer with Robert and the kids. We’ll see.

~

Things are busy on the writing front. In addition to writing several articles for the new Feasting on the Gospels series, I’m also writing the liturgy for the Sunday worship services at Montreat Conference Center. It’s been fun to get messages from friends saying, “I was at Montreat this weekend and we used your stuff in worship!” And I’ve got articles coming soon on Religion Dispatches and catapult magazine.

~

I also recorded a video for Bruce Reyes-Chow’s We Are PC(USA) project. I will let you know when that project kicks off. It was fun and frustrating, a stretching experience, to be sure. As a recovering perfectionist, I had an ideal look in my head, and what came out is far from it. But it’s a start. I can now add video to my grab bag of tricks.

~

What’s keeping you busy and hopefully bringing you some joy?

Travelogue Part VII: Barcelona

This month marks 10 years since the big Columbia Seminary Jan Term in Geneva. A couple dozen of us went that year, along with a group of DMin students. It was a spectacular trip and thanks to that experience, I still get the urge to travel each January. Several years ago I wrote some memories of the experience. I’m posting them this week in the hopes that it will inspire some of the other Geneva folks to reminisce as well.

This post begs for pictures, but I don’t have any that are scanned. Use your imagination…

Part VII: Barcelona
We had a free weekend during our stint in Geneva, so a bunch of us decided to take a Friday-night train to Barcelona. Thankfully, the Barcelona train was much nicer than the jalopy we had taken to Florence, so we got a decent night’s sleep.

Remember at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy’s house lands with a bump, but she doesn’t know anything is different until she throws the door open and all that Technicolor floods in? After weeks in misty Munich, Florence and Geneva, we pulled into Barcelona with a bump, and because we went directly from train station to city subway, we didn’t know anything was different either. It was not until we were riding the escalator up to street level at our metro stop that we realized we had arrived in Oz.

Blue sky and a farmer’s market, with endless displays crammed with fruits, vegetables and flowers. That was our first glimpse of Barcelona.

Most of us were running out of money by this point, but I found a couple of rooms near the town center that ran each of us about $15US a night. It cracked us up to be spending so little. We were giddy with the bargain for a week afterwards. Was it safe? Well, it was down a secluded alley, and the locksbasically worked, but we all survived. Was it clean? Let’s just say I wore socks in the shower. Who cared?

Barcelona is an easy place to be a tourist. There are two tour routes with continuous bus service all day, so you can do an entire loop at once and get an overview of the city, or you can hop off some place that interests you and stay at that particular site as long as you want.

To be honest, I can’t remember half the places we visited.

I do remember the Picasso museum. And I remember lots of buildings designed by Antoni Gaudi—they’re interesting. They look like they’re melting. The Sagrada Familia temple is the most famous and enormous example of Gaudi’s work; it has been in various levels of construction since 1882. I guess that’s not unheard of—the old cathedrals were built over decades, even centuries—but there’s something unsettling about this huge monstrosity standing unfinished for 120 years in the heart of a modern city. It’s the architectural equivalent of the 10,000 Year Clock; it violates our sense of time. Shouldn’t it be done by now? Maybe, but it’s not. [Edit: it wasn’t then but it is now!] And someday we will be gone, and construction will continue, and cities will continue, and the world will continue.

The tourist attractions were interesting, but my most vivid memory of Barcelona was the color blue—the blue of a cloudless sky, which I’d been walking around underneath all day, and the blue of the Mediterranean Sea, which knocked me right out. We took a tram up the hillside on the edge of town, and there it was, poured out below us, seeping out into a cloudy white horizon.

In the old Crayola box of 64, there was a color called green blue: blue, with green in it. Blue green was the closest color (green with blue in it), but really there was no comparison. They retired green blue in 1990, the idiots. It was always my favorite color. I spent hours looking at it, drawing with it, but I can’t remember ever seeing anything that color in real life, until a tram in Barcelona gave me a glimpse of the green blue of the Mediterranean.

This sea, which carried a man named Paul on three missionary journeys almost two thousand years ago, this sea is a color that I once held in my stubby little hand and drew fanciful pictures with. I don’t know what that means. Maybe nothing.

Travelogue Part VI: Geneva

This month marks 10 years since the big Columbia Seminary Jan Term in Geneva. A couple dozen of us went that year, along with a group of DMin students. It was a spectacular trip and thanks to that experience, I still get the urge to travel each January. Several years ago I wrote some memories of the experience. I’m posting them this week in the hopes that it will inspire some of the other Geneva folks to reminisce as well.

This post begs for pictures, but I don’t have any that are scanned. Use your imagination…

Part VI: Geneva
After two days here, two days there, Geneva is where we got to unpack and live for a while.

We took a day train from Florence to Geneva, meandering around mountain after spectacular mountain. Geneva finally announced itself in quiet glory; we came around a mountain pass, and suddenly Lake Geneva lay shimmering before us. We had arrived.

We stayed at the Cenacle, a beautifully simple retreat center with single rooms, a huge common area, a cool and quiet chapel, and rustic bread and jam for breakfast, and a unisex bathroom and shower. OK, that made for some funny conversations.

We commuted via bus each morning to the World Council of Churches for classes, then spent the afternoons shopping, sight-seeing, hanging out, and occasionally studying.

Geneva is a wonderful city, no doubt about it. Cosmopolitan, bustling, convenient to get around. The John Calvin sites are sure to please even the nerdiest of Presbyterians. We toured Calvin’s church, stood next to Calvin’s pulpit, and took photographs next to Calvin’s immense statue. The church used to be decorated with ornate frescoes, but in a zealous attempt to root out any idolatry in the church, Calvin and his associates had the walls scrubbed clean. There’s one secluded corner where the frescoes still remain, but are barely visible—little ghosts of pre-Reformation worship, lurking in the shadows.

Geneva has scrumptious food. The fondue was first-rate, and the chocolate! Oh, the chocolate. You know Hershey’s Miniatures? The bag of assorted chocolates—Mr. Goodbar, Special Dark, etc.? Imagine bags like that, available in every shop, and filled with chocolate that doesn’t suck.

The class was interesting, too—an introduction to the work of the World Council of Churches, and an opportunity to research a topic relating to global Christianity. My group researched the role of the worldwide church in advocating for an end to apartheid. How does the church witness for change, while acknowledging its complicity in unjust systems? That is always the question.

Geneva is a city with gravitas. It’s the home of the World Council of Churches, but also the United Nations European office, the World Health Organization, the International Red Cross (and its wonderfully moving and informative museum)… and last but not least, a place I never would have visited if I hadn’t been married to a geek, CERN, “the world’s largest particle physics laboratory” according to its website.

But for me, Geneva was all about the Cenacle’s common room. Most seminaries like to harp on the importance of community. Building community, creating community, an inclusive community, a diverse community. Blah blah blah. I lived off campus in seminary, so I sometimes felt separated from the heart of the community; but for me, the common room was community. In one corner sat huge brown couches—the American kind, big and slothful, the kind of couches that eat paperbacks and loose change. There was always someone sitting there, ready to chew the fat. The rest of the room was filled with mismatched tables, usually packed with people playing hearts or spades. Day and night, the place hopped. And when I didn’t feel like hopping, I could retire to my cozy single room, to read, write, or make plans for my free weekend:

Barcelona!