Last week Katie and I were at Iona Abbey, on the small, western Scottish isle of Iona. Amid the mighty howl of Hebridean wind arose a strangely gentle calm. Outside the walls of the Abbey the silence came in knowing the wind was the only thing creating noise, the clean air, and the sense of relentless freedom. Inside the walls, the calm was felt in the steadiness of hewn rock, standing strongly against the constancy of Scottish weather.
The week in itself was much different than my expectations. I had pictured time of meditation and prayer making up most of each day. No doubt, these happened – but not as much as I imagined. And when they did, it was hard not to focus on the strangeness of the silence. In Meiganga, Cameroon, it seemed there was rarely silence. Kids climbing the mango trees, calls to prayer, thunderstorms, roosters, dogs, cars, car horns, bells, cows, sheep, people, birds – at all hours of the day and night. It was hard not to focus on the cold, too, at Iona. The days were long as well – when 9pm worship ended a half hour or so later, it was still light for another two hours. There are times I think I actually needed a week to prepare for the week at the Abbey. The differences between Cameroonian and Ionan lifestyles was striking – and the roar of life the past few months kept returning, taking many days to calm down.
There are so many things I could, and some I hope to, write a little about from Iona: drolleries, our pilgrimage, the Abbey community, Glaswegian accents, the food, the ferry strike that forced us to leave early – but there was one experience that right now comes to the top.
The moment that gave birth to the title of this post happened on Wednesday – a week ago today. After breakfast the adults and teenagers gathered for an activity/session. Split into groups of roughly various ages, we were given three tasks, all different. My group – two young teenagers and myself – finished our first two tasks (smiling at 30 people, and looking at light and dark spaces in the Abbey) and set about on our third.
“Explore the Abbey using only your ears” the card read. “What?!” the teenagers subtely cried. I smiled, having seen and done experiences like this. Not expecting much, I suggested we walk one of us at a time down the center aisle of the Abbey Church – from altar in front to font in back, or vice versa. Assenting, we took turns leading each other around tourists, down and up steps, and over grave stones.
When it was my turn, I closed my eyes near the altar and was slowly led westward toward the baptismal font at the other end. With my eyes closed, suddenly I was hit from all around with new sensations. The floor, seemingly smooth as glass moments before, betrayed the slightly uneven nature of the stones. The space, large and cavernous, seemed smaller as my world closed into simply where my feet were and where the next foot would fall. The noise, light and airy, nearly unnoticeable moments before, became a clamor of activity. The calm motions of tourists and fellow participants, listening to audio guides via headphones, reading, sitting, taking photos, and motioning silently to their neighbors something they saw, changed. The stones muffled the noises – they were no echoes, but the rocks could not hold all the sounds, releasing some back to me as I walked. The rustling of windbreakers, squeaking of shoes, mumbled awe of tourists, and the gentle noises of cameras focusing on some distant object flew straight to my ears.
The calm and silence of the open-eyed Abbey gave way to the clamor of the open-eared Abbey. I was moved in that moment – it is something I have been reflecting on so far every day since. Silent places aren’t always silent. Calm places are often flurries of activity. The activity, the noise, just aren’t always things that we pay attention to. We tune them out, we push them off, in favor of things we deem more important.
As I walked the length of the Abbey church, the important things for me changed. It wasn’t the ferns growing on the bare stone walls, nor the fading figures in the stone, nor the high vaulted ceiling. It was the sounds, the bustle of activity, the feeling of the stones under my feet, the earnestness of life emanating from the very rocks that create the space.