The choir and north and south transcepts

Facing east, with the lectern to the left and marble altar.

Listening to and reflecting on God’s word is an indispensable part of training in Christlikeness. Extensive research by the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago has revealed that this discipline is the most potent catalyst in moving a Christ Follower forward in their spiritual journey.  The apostle Paul reminds his young friend Timothy how ‘from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in right living, so that the person of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ (2 Timothy 3; 15-17) In other words, the Bible can act as a coaching manual for the life God wants you to live.

The sacrament of Holy Communion is a means through which God’s grace is offered, grace that builds up our spiritual muscles and inspires us to follow Christ’s example of love without limit. At Iona it was so moving to see the children with their parents sharing the bread and wine with a peaceful simplicity that was so fitting for the Family of God gathered there. Indeed, some of the older children offered the bread and wine to the adults. Some of Jesus’ words were never far from my mind: “Unless you change and become like a little children you shall not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18; 3)

To the south side of the Choir is an area set aside for private prayer where anyone can come at anytime and just sit in solitude and silence. These two practices have always been seen as fundamental to spiritual growth. Dallas Willard writes: ‘Nothing but solitude can allow the development of a freedom from ingrained behaviours and patterns of feeling, thought and action that are geared into a world set against God.’  In a chillingly relevant experiment it was found that it takes twenty times more amphetamines to kill individual mice than it takes to kill them in groups. And, a mouse given no drug but placed in a group of mice on the drug will be dead in 10 minutes. We can draw our own conclusions!

However, solitude and silence come with a warning. In that place we confront our inner being with conflicts which escape our attention when busily on the go every day. Yet with a desire to learn the art of stilling and perseverance to practice, it can become a primary place of strength for any Christian as it was for Christ himself – in the wilderness and in Gethsemane for example. Solitude was the ‘Furnace of Transformation’ for the Desert Fathers – the place where the old self is burned up and the new self is forged.

I noticed too in this quiet space, slips of paper and pencils. The invitation was to write a prayer for someone else, fold it up and either place it on the cross or put it in a wooden box so that it could be included in the prayers for healing that are the focus for the Thursday Evening Service. There were candles to be lit as an ongoing intercession by someone I didn’t know for someone I didn’t know either. This is all part of another discipline that has huge potential to transform, that of secrecy. Jesus taught extensively about this in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew Chapters 5 – 7)  – not letting your right hand know what your left hand is doing, going into your closet to pray, looking bright and fresh when you are fasting etc. The reason Jesus used these colourful illustrations was so that his hearers would get the point that we are called to live for an audience of One. Doing stuff that will make us look good in the eyes of others is not what life is about. It will only boost our pride, the root of all that threatens a healthy relationship with God. We are, in the memorable phrase of John Ortberg, to ‘resign from impression management.’ He makes the point that one of the deadliest diseases of our time is Approval Addiction which describes a condition where the sufferer in effect ‘belongs more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits and a little success excites me … often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves.’ Ring any bells??! But there’s more – Approval Addiction not only involves trying to attract attention, but also leads to avoiding saying what we truly think if we believe that speaking up could draw disapproval. It has massive implications for our lifestyle and is a huge blockage in God’s well of salvation.

The cause of this disease lies primarily with our capacity to confuse personhood with performance, who we are with what we do, and is directly related to what Henri Nouwen describes in his writing about being the Beloved of God. The alternative is “living freely with our critics” (L. Smeads) which comes as a result of growing in our capacity to live first to please God before people. The practice of secrecy is the key to this kind of growth, that is, doing good things that nobody knows you have done, except God.

On the opposite side of the Choir space is very different. It has musical instruments lying around, posters, pottery and a stained glass window of St Columba.

It was a taste of the way that the Iona community uses the creative arts and play to help pilgrims journey into God, something that was clearly demonstrated in the MacLeod Centre where visitors to the island stay as guests and share in the life of the Abbey.

Possible practices

1. Take a word for a walk. Walking involves repetition – the placing one foot in front of the other, many times. It can form the perfect activity for the repetition of a few words from scripture that can become ingrained into the memory and form a treasure chest of wisdom for living. On my walks along the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path I took with me a verse I had read that had spoken to me more than others. I wrote it on a slip of paper, put it in my pocket, and read it out loud as I tramped along. By the end of the walk it had moved from my pocket to my head, there to be brought out and reflected upon or spoken out whenever the time was right. I shall always be thankful that I knew enough of the words of Psalm 121 to be able to recite them at the bedside of my mother as she took her last breath.

It may be you can find creative ways of memorising parts of the Bible eg making a collage from magazines to illustrate a story from Old Testament or one of Jesus’ parables. This would be great to do as a family activity.

2. Next time you receive Holy Communion allow yourself time to become more fully present to those around you who are sharing the same bread and the same cup as you. Can you feel the grace God has shown to you welling up in you and overflowing to them?

Ponder on the truth that is proclaimed in the liturgy: “We are the body of Christ.”

3. Plan to do one good thing that only God knows about in the coming week, and do everything possible to keep it a secret for the rest of your life!