retreats


 

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Alone in Glacier National Park

{Homestretch…just a few more days in Lent 2018. A photo/meditation per day for 40 days}

I have no hard evidence for this, but my conjecture is that introversion is rampant in the following alliterative vocations: clergy, comedy, and carpentry. The photo above depicts a person alone, gazing up toward a mountain peak out of our view. The soundtrack is not quite silent. There are some birds there in the woods, and a couple of hikers not in the frame, though their voices are hushed, as if in awe of the serenity of the place.

Full disclosure (as if this series has been anything else), that is my wife on the primitive log bench. I left her to take some photos, and glanced back, and there she was in contemplation of nature’s gifts.

This image suggests a tranquil ease with aloneness. As an introvert myself, I understand and treasure times of solitude. I see the value of the monastery hermitage to which a Trappist retreats on occasion, intentionally moving away from the all-important community of spiritual brothers who ordinarily pray, sing, eat, and study as one. At a monastery I visited in Virginia, the hermitage was a little cabin a short distance from the main house. It was far from solitary confinement; it was more a solitary liberation. Maybe a kind of “working vacation” that contributed to a monk’s working vocation of silence, prayer, and labor. But, again, only for a time, for every monk was to find spiritual vitality living in community, not isolation.

My Myers-Briggs profile confirmed what I had known for some time. I’m introverted. And that comes as a big surprise to people at church or in the neighborhood. I’m sure my obituary will note that I was known for my sense of humor. I have a way of speaking with strangers and making them smile. Or, trying to bring a smile. Usually it works.  Sometimes my comments only bring puzzlement or suspicion. And I feel sorry for such folk. But my wife knows that I will stop at the sales desk in a mall store and ask if today is the day they give out free gum. I enjoy interrupting someone’s routine with an unexpected comment that lightens one brief moment.

So, I do speak to strangers, and as a minister I had no trouble speaking from a pulpit, or to a community group, maybe talking about Habitat for Humanity at a Kiwanis Club. I can be “on” when needed, but then, like most introverts, I need to move away from the crowd and find renewed strength in aloneness. For some reason, many (if not most?) clergy are introverted, or border on it. And, I’ve read that the same is true for comedians. Johnny Carson and David Letterman, for example. They would be “on” for the studio audience, but they weren’t into parties and crowds afterward. (So I’m told; we didn’t mix in the same circles. What am I saying? We introverts don’t have circles!)

When I did my radio ministry (with rock music yet) it was the perfect vocation for me. There I was in the solitude of the sound-proofed studio, but speaking with thousands across the country via broadcasting.

I’m OK with my “condition.” I’m no hermit. I can take groups of people for a time. But I’m far more interested in a quiet dinner with my wife than at a raucous restaurant, with music blaring and people shouting to be heard in conversation over the din. We go out socially now and then, but often find ourselves by ourselves, not mixing among the other guests. Please. I’m not judging others, anymore than I wish to be judged. Some of my best friends are extroverts, affably working the crowd wherever they go, hellos, hugs, and handshakes. I smile and chuckle. They throw their heads back in laughter. We’re all OK the way we are. We are just different from one another.

Now, when it comes to church, here’s the thing for me. I am more the Quaker type. Many churches are big into praise bands, hands lifted high in praise and prayer, some applause and shouted amens. I’m more of a sit-quietly-with-head-bowed kind of guy. I’m more into Taize and Iona chants of simple songs than toe-tapping, lyrics-projected, handclapping unison voices raised high, sing ‘n’ sway praises. Again, I’m happy for all who worship in that vein. From the African-American worship traditions to mega-church multi-media spectacles, it works for a lot of folks, and a growing number of people in our churches.

It’s said that there are “worship wars” going on in some churches, with worshippers on one side wanting more “modern” or contemporary music, and others desiring more traditional or classical approaches. Many churches are trying to blend worship styles, and others are dividing their congregations into two sub-cultures with separate services. I’m not suggesting that we introverts would be happier with one or the other. I’m just saying…the Quakers (the Friends) are probably not wrestling with these things in their meeting houses. (I could be wrong. I was once….or twice.) Quiet is golden in the meeting house, until the Spirit moves, and even then, quiet returns while listeners consider what has been said.

I couldn’t be a Quaker exclusively, not when it comes to worship. I thrive on great music, classical or jazz, and I love “high liturgy” now and then, and banner-waving, organ-thundering, massed choir-singing festivals!

And then I can go home and take a nap.

I don’t have time to do the research on this, but I’ll bet someone has. I’m wondering if extroverts are more lonely as a group than introverts. (Not lonely in a group, that is, but as a sub-set.) Are we introverts more comfortable with aloneness, and less likely to suffer loneliness? I know we are more likely to be lonely in a crowd; does it work the other way? Are extroverts suffocated by aloneness? Like I said…just wondering.

Oh, I almost forgot. Carpenters. Introverts? Don’t the woodworking artists labor alone, just them and their wood? For fun, just consider Jethro Gibbs! He works by day with his NCIS team, but at night, by himself, he’s in his basement, coveting the quiet solitude, as he shapes wood into a labor of love: a boat, too large to even leave his cellar. Gibbs is fictional, of course. But the image is an honest portrayal of an introvert carpenter at work.

Speaking of carpenters…pardon my psychologizing Jesus here, but do you think he might have been an introvert? I know he liked socializing, even being accused by his critics of eating and drinking too much and with the wrong crowds, “glutton and drunkard” that he seemed to be. He preached to thousands at a time, the scriptures say, and moved through crowds teaching and healing as he went. Wedding feasts, dinners — always surrounded by the Twelve, as well as the unnamed women and men who may as well have been called disciples. And yet… how often Jesus had to leave them behind, to go up a mountain by himself, to often seek solitude for prayer, to re-charge by boat or by foot. While he may have found comfort and strength in being alone, betrayal in those last days would not have fit his plan for solitude.

Eventually, the cross. Alone, yet between two others. Alone, but gazed upon by the crowd. Alone, even feeling forsaken by God, but…

 

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Lake Susan, Montreat, NC

{During the forty days of Lent 2018, I am writing some reflections on panoramic photographs I’ve taken over the years.  Full disclosure, finally: most of these images were taken in a standard format and merely cropped to the wide view. But, so what?}

The image above may not be the iconic photo Montreaters expect to see of their beloved North Carolina “mountain retreat” setting. The massive stone façade of the Assembly Inn hotel as seen above the placid Lake Susan is the more familiar view (just below). Still, this panoramic image communicates the serene beauty of the place that Presbyterians, especially the “southern” ones, call their Mecca.

Montreat is more widely known maybe as the long-time home of the late Billy Graham. He lived in the hills, quite a hike from the conference center.  Montreat’s main gate is just a few miles up the road from Black Mountain, and that village is not far from Asheville. And surrounding it all is the Smoky Mountain range. A friend once admitted he wasn100_0405‘t a fan of Montreat because the high mountains encompassing the retreat and conference center made him feel terribly claustrophobic. But everyone else I know so loves Montreat that they dream of living there year-round, a four-season Eden, but with clothes on.

I was a seminary student from “up north” when I first heard of the place from my Southern Presbyterian classmates. They spoke of it so highly that I was immediately suspicious. Then I attended a conference there one summer. And then another. And then led several, maybe a dozen, and went back summer after summer. Youth conferences, music and worship conferences, peace gatherings, meetings…staying in that hotel, or in the dorms of Montreat College, or in rented cottages and homes, and for many years enjoying the grace of hospitality offered by dear friends, the Williamsons. 2333-1Joan and I looked forward to those music conferences like Trekees look forward to the next Star Trek big screen epic. We also looked forward to the day when we might look at real estate there. Then we did. And put that dream away very quickly. ($)

Climbing Lookout Mountain, walking the hilly roads through the area, attending the events in Anderson Auditorium — those opportunities would never be taken for granted by those fulltime citizens of the Montreat municipality, anymore than a Vermont farmer in the Northeast Kingdom would take the daily view of Mt. Mansfield for granted. But making the place a retreat destination is very special, an occasion of spiritual growth, continuing education, and shaping community with friends old and new.

Yet back home, finding that particular geographical sacred space, that place set apart for special times and holy possibilities is something that surely feeds the human spirit. It may be enough to spend a Saturday fishing, or to sit in the local library apart from the busyness that normally occupies our energies. Perhaps a hike in a nearby glen or a bike ride along a rail trail will help us accomplish a kind of retreat. Whatever turns you on, or around.

There was a time when church doors were open 24/7 for anyone who needed a rest from spiritual weariness or personal strife. Doors are locked against fear today. No quiet prayer in the pews is possible, with few exceptions. We have to create our own retreat spaces elsewhere. A garden bench, a labyrinth, even a table in a café in its off hours– these are ripe for private retreats, however short.

The thing about a big summer conference at Montreat like the ones we participated in is that schedules are usually full, people are everywhere…paddle boating on the little lake, heading toward the bookstore or toward some ice cream, racing to a seminar. Even the Lookout peak can be crowded on a sunny afternoon. So, you see that stone bridge in the panoramic photo? That’s often a good place to stand, somewhat apart from the rest of the retreating world, and watch the swan or the ducks. Retreat from the retreat, as it were. And ponder. Anything.

I only went to church camp twice as a kid. I couldn’t swim, so a week on a lake had absolutely no appeal to me. But when the camp took place at a conference center with a pool, I gave it a try. At the end of my second summer’s week-long “retreat,” we high school youth were to go off by ourselves with a small candle, find a place apart and light the wick, and then stay there in silence until the candle was close to going out. I chose a small wooden bridge over a stream that ran through the conference center property. I stood there by myself, candle flickering against the night breeze, and I did what was expected: meditated, prayed, and wondered. Even as the silence was broken by those who had blown out their candles and ignored the directions for being silent until cabin time, I stood there. And fifty-seven years later I remember that night, that bridge, that brief but oh-so-holy retreat.

We miss Montreat. We’re a number of miles away, way up north of it, and even going for a week there seems expen$ive. But while it may not be Eden or Mecca, it is a very profound reminder that spiritual getaways and personal escapes are good for the soul. A week? Yes! A day away? Sure! Take an hour’s break and breathe deeply? Of course.

Mountains, beaches, deserts. Or, a candle on the kitchen table. Locale is one thing, but the main thing is… make your getaway!

 

 

 

DSC07425{Holy Week…2017…a Tuesday without much going on, and a mug that fits just right.}

There’s not much going on with this mug. It holds no printed message, no child’s art, nor any design that says, “Hey, write about this!” This mug isn’t even drunk from. It’s purely decorative, occupying a shelf in the kitchen. Where did we get it? Isn’t there some story to tell?

I turned it over, and etched into the bottom of the mug it says, “Williamsburg.” And it’s in the trademarked logo script. So that makes it official. And probably expensive, at least compared to most of the other mugs in our kitchen. Nice design. Love the color. But what does it prompt me to write about as this forty day retreat into the wilderness of my imagination heads toward a conclusion?

Unlike some of the other mugs we use for daily coffee and tea, this one is real pottery. I suspect it’s handmade, out of clay. Earthenware, we call it. Imagined, then shaped and molded, formed into a useful vessel, and then painted to make it more attractive. I’ve never been to a pottery class, and I won’t try to write about the creative process that puts hands to wet clay, tactile art, sensuous touch, massaging earthly elements into some ceramic shape, artistic or practical or both. I’m mostly interested in the clay.

When I was in youth ministry, so long ago that those teens may be grandparents now for all I know, I led a retreat at a lovely place in Virginia called Shrinemont. Located in the northern reaches of the Jefferson National Forest, the conference center is operated by the Episcopal Church. The weekend focus was the gift of music, and one activity I planned centered on using art materials to interpret some of the songs we were listening to. One teenaged guy used pipe cleaners to sculpt a rock band! I had bought a lot of modeling clay, the kind that was non-drying, non-hardening, so it could be reused after our event.

Obviously, it wasn’t pure clay from the earth. More like some plastic goo from a factory. But it met our needs for the weekend. I really got into that exercise. As is the case with some sculptors some of the time, I had no preconceived plan. I just grabbed a big hunk, and worked it. Yes, it was therapeutic, I’m sure. All the tension and anxiety of programming and leading a retreat for over a hundred teens dispersed as I squeezed and pressed, and gouged and shaped that ball of clay into…a head. Eventually, an old man’s head. Long face, deep set eyes, a weary look, a few lines here and there.

It was no masterpiece, but I liked it. Then I saw that there was a bit more clay left. I rolled it into a ball, and sculpted the head of an infant, to contrast with the old guy. When the retreat ended on Sunday afternoon, I packed up the art supplies and saw my creation(s) there, waiting for me to mash them into a shapeless lump, art recycled. I had told everyone that they could keep what they had fashioned if they wanted to. So, I listened to myself and carefully packed the old man and the infant in a box to take home.

Those clay heads remained in my office for years, and the manufacturer was right: the clay never hardened. When it was time to move out of state to new work, I made the hard decision to finally blend the two lumps together, and leave them for someone else to play with. That ended my sculpting days.

Thankfully, some art is permanent, as lasting as anything on this planet Earth can be. The paintings of the masters, massive cathedrals, The Pieta, castle tapestries, and great-grandma’s quilts. The words of published authors and the music of whatever is considered “classic” these days — words and music live on, for generations. And carpentry, too. The old family hutch and the hand-carved pulpit.

But some art is temporary, too. And intentionally so. At a Montreat, NC, conference a few years ago, huge paper banners, perhaps 20 feet long, decorated the cavernous auditorium. The designs were religious symbols, intricately cut into sturdy paper, letting the light shine through the patterns with stunning effect. The uninitiated wondered aloud how the artist would roll up the huge sheets without damaging the delicate creations. But for those who were present when the plain sheets were first unrolled to be scissored into art, the artist had made it clear: this was to be tempoarary art, inspiring only for a few days, much like sand art on a beach, ice sculpture in winter, or a sand mandala of Tibeten monks. It was a celebration of the temporary.

As were my plastic clay figures.

[It just occurred to me that if there were any “art” to my years of producing music-oriented radio programs, with sometimes, not always, thoughtfully-written scripts, that was temporary too. You hope to write creatively, join the script to popular music, voice it with sensitivity, edit the tape, and then it all airs. Within a few minutes, the tape could have been erased, and the effort begun for the following broadcast. And before we ministers could preserve our sermon manuscripts on the church website, blog them, or at least print them out for the reading public in our pews, what we preached was surely a temporary art too. OK, many of my radio programs and maybe most of my sermons didn’t achieve the status of art, per se. This paragraph was inserted for only illustrative purposes.]

But back to clay. It’s a cousin to the dust and ashes of Mother Earth. It’s related to the soil that brings forth crops, and to the mud we track in on a rainy day. It’s red there, and black here, and gray, too. The earliest use of clay? Pottery. We date civilizations by the remaining shards we dig up. But clay was used for bricks, too, to build structures that sheltered and memorialized. Archeological discoveries included toys and idols made of clay. And, of course, clay tablets preserved ancient writings.

When Jesus gathered his disciples together in an upper room to break bread with them one last time, that bread sat on clay plates. There was some gravy in a clay bowl. And wine in pitcher and chalice of clay. Maybe today we would consider doing pottery, bread making and wine making as “arts,” but in Jesus’ time, it was just the customary stuff of a meal shared with friends. Except when it was a ritual meal, like Passover. Except when it was transformed into what has become a sacramental meal, when Jesus took bread and wine and said, “Remember me.”

There on the table was the clay-ware. Nothing sacramental about it, but the same elements as gave life to the grain and the grapes and to humanity, for in the second of the creation myths in Genesis we read, “The Lord God made man from the dust of the earth.”

On Maundy Thursday, look for that day’s “mug” to look more like a chalice, clay pottery with sacred meaning.

Until then, remember that all the ground we walk on is holy.

 

 

My friend pastor and jazz pianist Bill Carter wrote an evocative composition called “The Consolation of Snow.” I don’t know that Bill and I ever talked about what was consoling about snow. After hearing the piece, no words were necessary. B0004636.JPG

When I ran across this photo, it reminded me of the quiet peace that the cover of snow brings. Apart from the pesky inconveniences that come from snowfalls, and notwithstanding the dangers of icy roads and slippery sidewalks, there is most certainly a quiet beauty that surrounds the neighborhood when a fresh blanket of snow cloaks the winter landscape.

Here in our part of the northeast we missed that gift this year. We had a inch here, maybe as much as two one day. But we never got that heavy storm that kept us from work or school, that gave us an excuse to retreat from daily routines, to get cozy inside while the snow fell (or blew), and then to bundle up, boot up, and enter the scene pictured here.

The snowy cover muffles the everyday sounds of the neighborhood. Other than the occasional plow, there’s little traffic to interrupt the serenity of a walk down the road. It’s just very quiet. And peaceful. Full of peace. Just what we need.  I say again: peace and quiet.

When snow falls in abundance, things stop. So do we. That forced rest is healthy for us. And, yes, consoling.

That common phrase “a blanket of snow” is ambiguous, isn’t it? Blankets are for warmth, and snow is, well, freezing. So we can think of that other meaning attached to blanket: it is a comforter. Whether it is a child’s security blanket (think Linus) or an adult’s heavy cover against the chills of a cold house, it does calm and compose us enwrapped in its snugness.

Freshly fallen snow, maybe a foot or more, calms and composes too. Stop thinking frigid! Stop those negative thoughts about shoveling, plowing, slogging, and the ugly melting that will inevitably come. Please turn your thoughts to that quiet and that peace amidst the beauty of a white thick insulating blanket over the yard. Imagine the warmth of layers for protection, bundled up, and see yourself walking in silence, then just stopping in your tracks and listening to the quiet.

Those seasons of tranquility contribute to our deepest humanity. If we do not find those times, or if they do not find us, how sad. Lord, have mercy.

Do we not crave respite from political noisemakers, haunting headlines, and nettling newscasters? This just in: peace be with you…

Without the peace that comes with the snowfall, we will just have to carve out some small “peaces” that allow us time to breathe, sense the Spirit’s gentle touch, savor the silence, and find refreshment in the quiet, consoling corners of our lives.

If we cannot, or will not, make room for such peace, then I will pray for snow! Lots of it.

 

Today’s image, among the forty I’m choosing from my vast array of photos taken from my teen years ’til today, continues a short theme for this series: mountains. Yesterday I wrote of following blazes as a hiker. Today, a peak I’ll never attempt.

This is Denali, the highest peak in North America. On our first trip to Alaska, the weather was overcast most of the time, and on one particularly gray day we joked that we’d have to go back to Alaska again sometime to see its beauty in color. 380-1_edited-1

It was 2006, and as our guide drove us toward Denali (even then we heard no one refer to it as “Mt. McKinley”), he noted the clearing skies and told us that the majority of tours he led wouldn’t get a clear view of the mountain during that time of year. But it looked like we were in for a treat, he remarked. A “treat?” It was far more.

I know that the overused adjective that modifies the word mountain is “majestic,” and that one could say this was a breathtaking view, or we could go back to my earliest of these forty essays and apply “awesome” to this scene. Maybe it’s best to just let the image, flat and tiny as it is here, communicate the wonder that is Denali.

While in the area, we heard a climber describe  all it takes to get to Denali’s peak. The physical prep, the training, the equipment, the team…commitment, determination, trust, endurance, obviously a high degree of climbing skill, weather-watching, and even some luck — all contributed to his successful climbs.

Personally, I added all that to the list of things I would never put on my bucket list (along with deep sea diving and sky diving). But I admired the combination of bravery and foolishness that got that guy from the base to the summit. Good for him.

As for me: gape, wonder, focus, and take a few slides to preserve the moments.

I’ll spare you the meditation on mountaintop experiences in life. But I am led to think (and write) a little about what mountains meant to the life and ministry of Jesus. Oh, compared to Denali, the mountains Jesus is said to have climbed were mere hills. But they afforded him “retreat” from needy, pushing crowds, away from often dull-minded disciples and suspicious religious leaders. He knew that the occasional escape from the busy-ness of ministry would do his spirit good.

Mountains in those days were seen as holy places, for they were closer to heaven than the dusty roads and everyday routines of the low lands. Today it’s mostly cartoons that picture pilgrims climbing mountains to find the meaning of life from some “holy man” at the peak. In his time, Jesus made it clear that God preferred no particular mountain as a sacred place for worship.

There are several references in the gospels to Jesus heading up this mountain or that, “withdrawing” not to be closer to God, but to be alone, to pray, to meditate. The mountain trek provided fresh air and new vistas. Sometimes, he’d invite friends along, but that was to give them time to breathe too. Look how such higher vistas play into his story: the sermon on the mount, his transfiguration, the Mount of Olives, and, the story we hear as Lent begins of that vision where he is taken up on a high mountain to survey what might be his if he would but worship his tempter.

Yeah, I’d say that Jesus was a mountain man! But, no. On second thought, the mountains were only temporary havens to which he withdrew. He didn’t put down roots there and then withdraw into the valleys to serve for a time. The fresh air, the quiet, the solitude, the vistas of the mountains and hills empowered his ministry back in the valley villages and the lower lands we now call “holy.” The main thing is that those higher elevations had high purposes for him and his work down below.

Today, then, we have lifted our eyes to the hills…and on Monday (after tomorrow’s Sabbath) we will see the view from the summit. And breathe deeply of creation’s, well, “majesty.”

 

 

 

 

For the next couple of days, I want to celebrate mountaintop experiences. Choosing a handful of images for this Lenten discipline of mine, a photo or slide for each day in Lent (2016) from a sixty-year accumulation, is hard when it comes to my scores of mountain views.

From journeys along the Appalachian Trail, to our Alaskan trips, to the Canadian Rockies, and to Lookout Mountain over Montreat…some Matt Matthews on the AT_edited-2.jpgmountains I’ve climbed, some I’ve just framed in my viewfinder. Today, I thought I’d start with this image of my good friend Matt. This hike was so many years ago, I can’t tell you where we were, except it was in the heart of the Blue Ridge in Virginia.  I do remember gently chastising Matt about his “hiking shoes” though. Old sneakers? Really? Turns out, his youthful energy bested my hiking-booted aging body, and he bounded ahead of me up one switchback after another.

Hiking the AT, even for just a day or two, can be both hard work and exhilarating. Climbing can be a challenge, yes, but the views, only hinted at in this picture, make every blister worth it. I’ve climbed with many youth groups (admittedly not recently, mind you) and I always encouraged the teens to spend some quiet time at every summit they reach.

I’d say something like, if a helicopter had flown up here and dropped you off, the view would be exactly the same. But you all struggled your way here, you followed a trail that was sometimes rocky and steep and you wanted to stop and rest, but we had to push you to keep going. You got scratches and blisters and you’re achy and maybe cranky, and your packs seem so much heavier than when we started. But look what you’ve achieved! Just look! No one can appreciate this view like someone who has earned it! So, let’s spend some time here before we head down. Rest awhile. Find your own spot if you want, and say a prayer, marvel at all you can see, respect the mountain and its gifts. Look down into the valley and find the river.

One thing that makes these treks easier is the blazes that guide us along the way. Learning what the various markers mean is simple. Then you just keep your eyes open to them as you go. Now and then, a marked tree has fallen or a blaze has been obscured, but for the most part it’s hard not to find your way if you watch for the guides.

I’m smiling as I remember a “talk” (that’s the quaint word we used back then) by an upper class student in college, a short meditation he was leading at a Christian fellowship meeting. Here it is over fifty years later, and I can still hear George’s voice as he exclaimed over the importance of the “white markers” along hiking trails, and he used them as a metaphor for life’s journey. George urged us to watch for the markers placed by God along our paths in college, in social relationships, and in moral decision-making.

I was pretty impressed by his “talk.” And only decades later did it occur that he may have gotten the idea from some Christian resource for campus fellowship leaders. Still, George’s guidance was useful then and remains so, all these years later.

For one thing, those blazes along the trail were put there by people who had gone before us, and who knew the best way to go. And the blazes marked well-worn paths that had kept others from getting  lost. Further, the markings on trees and rock formations had to be kept fresh, repainted now and then, for future hikers.

I realize as I type this that GPS may make those primitive blazes obsolete. Oh, I hope not. Because there’s a lot to be said for hiking along the trails and looking closely at the rocks and trees and formations and footpaths of nature, not at some damned gizmo’s screen. Keep looking at your phone as you traverse the trail, and you may find yourself tripping over a root, or falling into a deep ravine. To me, the whole point of being on a hike is to appreciate the wonders of nature. And experience the quiet beauty of peaks and valleys.

More about that tomorrow…

 

 

This photo hangs on the wall of our bedroom, a reminder of a visit to the Isle of Iona, Scotland. There are other images from that trip, arranged in one of those collage frames, showing the Abbey chapel, an ancient stone Celtic cross, and the Abbey grounds, each arguably more “artistic” than this picture. Yet this image has special meaning to Joan and me.

Each Tuesday, visitors to Iona take a hike over hill an3512-1d vale, through heather and between thistles, with pauses along the way for some history lessons, singing, and meditation.

St. Columba founded a monastery on Iona in 563 A.D., so, yes, there is some history here. And the singing? At each stop along the way, our guide taught us a song and its harmony, drawn from the Iona-based Wild Goose Resource Group’s repertoire. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to join our voices in sung prayers along that pilgrimage route. And, while we enjoyed the laughter and gentle conversation of a community hiking a path around the island, when we did stop to gaze out at the sea or stand among ancient ruins, quiet reflection helped us center on the “thin places,” the spiritual height and depth and breadth of holy encounters in sacred surroundings.

Among the places we stopped…this stone-blanketed beach at Columba’s Bay. We listened to theories behind Columba’s arrival here, sang a song together, and then walked among these stones, with much rattling and cobbling breaking the silence of our meditation time. We were given an assignment: look for a stone, and name it something you’d like to be rid of. A sin, a bad habit, a hurtful memory, some brokenness. Pick up that stone, let it symbolize that which you would let go of, be totally rid of, repent of, fling away forever. Hold that stone, feel its heft, say your prayer, and then go to the water’s edge and with all your might, throw it away, far away, into the deep waters. Be free of it.

And then, walk back among the stones and choose one to take home, a keepsake of your pilgrimage…a stone that reminds you of your freedom to choose, and your liberation from a weight that kept you from celebrating God fully present in your life. The stones Joan and I brought home in 2007 are still there in the room with this picture, hers on her dresser, mine on a window sill.

I’m no geologist, so I can’t tell you why my stone is so full of greens, grays, pinks, and whites. But I chose the most curiously colorful stone on that beach, a most unusual rock, one that says something about me…something. Sure, it’s a souvenir of an important week in my life, a reminder of a day-long Iona hike, part of the spiritual pilgrimage that is my whole life. But, more, that stone is also the opposite of that one I threw so far away, the thing I prayed to let go of. This stone is blessing, gift, and grace.

And when the sun rises each day, it shines into my east-facing window and falls first on this stone. Its colors come alive. And, thank God, so do I.

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