Sounds of Iona September 2022

Iona Community Leader Ruth Harvey reflects on Chance Encounters and Choice Conversations

I have arrived and departed Iona dozens of times. It’s likely you have too. My most recent leave-taking of Iona reminded me why I come back again and again!

As I approached the early-morning jetty, rucksack-laden, with my hard-boiled egg and flask of coffee in hand thinking I’d have a moment to savour the flavours, I was swept up into chance conversations and choice encounters with islanders, and Community volunteers. This pattern was to shape my day.

First, on the ferry, the chance encounter with long-standing friends as we exchanged stories and glances that marked deep memories and bonds beyond time was a delight, seguing neatly into a chance conversation in the bus queue with deeply beloved Associate Members of our Community.

Bus conversations are not always ideal. They are peppered with childhood Mull memories of un-sprung car seats, squashed sibling bodies vying for hip space, and stressed parents navigating midge-mist-strewn valleys, as we (safely) hurtled towards ‘the last ferry.’ My grandmother always cautioned me to ‘sit on a newspaper’ to quell the nausea. That worked. For a while. Nevertheless, this particular chance conversation on the bus, before I had to close my eyes and doze, edged us into spaces of church renewal, worship development, ecumenical relations and the deep ease that is, for us comms nerds, conversations around communications development.

The drizzle had developed by the time we reached Craignure. As we huddled in the pier shelter my bus companions introduced me to another Associate Member, this time a global traveller with a keen passion for celtic spirituality. The boat and café queues neatly navigated, we four settled in to a deep and stimulating conversation about what exactly we mean by ‘celtic’ anything. My tutor in Celtic Studies at the University of Aberdeen in the 1980s, Colm O’Boyle, was famous for (at least) two things: his succinct lectures; and his mantra after each lesson in celtic history: ‘but, we just don’t know.’

I found myself probing and querying assumptions about the shorthand that ‘celtic’ offers, while also acknowledging that in my eagerness to dig deep I may be in danger of missing the truth in front of me: the literary, spiritual, genealogical, theological traditions in these islands is a heady mix of identities, the complexity of which is overpowering. And it is a mix that includes that which we call ‘celtic.’ Colm O’Boyle also used to quip ‘Ireland’, in response to the question: ‘where did the Scots come from?’ That response didn’t always help us students write essays or pass exams. But it was perhaps a neat answer to a very complex question.

Taking my musings from the CalMac hub to the bus queue (a nod here to the millions of workers in our lands, including those in the railway industry who were striking that day in protest at the scandalous rise in the cost of living) I bumped into an Iona guest who I’d met the previous week. On sabbatical, she was in musing mode which was a delight for me as we reflected together for three hours between Oban and Glasgow on the ‘big bowl’ that is ‘celtic spirituality’, on the role of radical feminism in the life of the church still gripped by patriarchy, and in that deep commitment in liturgy and language, in action and in prayer, to the raising up of the lives of those marginalised in our seats of power.

As loch-side roads gave way to busy dual carriageways, and as high-rise office blocks edged into view, we took our leave of each other, me making a mad-dash for a bus to retrieve my car. Eyes fixed on the pedestrian crossing ahead, dodging the dozens of urban wanderers, I almost missed the cry of ‘Ruuuuth’, glancing round to spot a recent long-term Abbey volunteer heading in the opposite direction. Time out of time; face out of place I had to do a double take as this gorgeous chance encounter pummelled me straight back their soaring voice in the Abbey church, and to the morning jetty. And in my exhausted stupor I gave thanks for chance encounters and choice conversations, for the delight that is community.

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