by Rev. Patty Meyers
The photo with this post is of the heavenly promise given upon our arrival and was fulfilled during class at Iona, Scotland.
Iona is a small island off the west coast of Scotland, where in 563, Columba founded a Celtic monastery. In the middle ages it was the site of a Benedictine abbey and over the centuries has attracted thousands of people on their own pilgrim journeys. It is peaceful and beautiful with rock-strewn meadows leading to sandy beaches and turquoise blue waters, and far more sheep than people. George MacLeod described Iona as a “thin place,” where the material and spiritual worlds seem separated only by the thinnest of veils.
I recently led to Iona a group of eight graduate students who are seeking United Methodist professional certification in spiritual formation. Some of them are also candidates for the ministry of the deacon. Some are elders and deacons doing continuing education in this field. While the course meets academic requirements for certification and for Pfeiffer University students on the pastoral counseling track of the Master of Arts in Practical Theology, this course involves much more than classroom work. It is a one-week intensive that students say is life-changing.
My goals for the course are that students will:
• grow in their faith maturity and relationship with the Holy One;
• learn to offer spiritual friendship and guidance to others as they receive spiritual direction and practicing with a prayer partner;
• practice spiritual disciplines, especially prayer, lectio divina, examen, solitude, silence, community and celebration;
• be well-grounded biblically, theologically and historically in spiritual formation and direction;
• demonstrate knowledge of spirituality and grasp of ethical issues inherent in spiritual direction;
• begin experiencing the art of spiritual direction;
• know themselves better and create plans for future development to be faithful servant leaders.
Every student I’ve ever taken to Iona said it was a transformative experience.
“The sense of community and Christian love I experienced in our group and when we prayed the Lord’s Prayer in worship in all our different languages and versions and voices, it was like Pentecost and deeply moved me,” said Debra Crawford.
“The spiritual direction intensive class . . . gave me the necessary space to expand my own spiritual pilgrimage and allowed me to explore other ways of integrating pastoral care with my hospital patients, coaching clients and personal family-friend supports,” said Sherry Waters.
“Each morning I looked forward to the walk to the Abbey—even if the weather was more appropriate for ducks—because I knew this would be that sweet time of community that I long for at home. There was a prayer we prayed at each service, a prayer of confession. I cried several times as we spoke it in unison: ‘Before God and the people of God, we confess to our brokenness: to the ways we wound our lives, the lives of others and the life of the world.’ The response is full of the spirit of Iona: ‘May God forgive you, Christ renew you, and the Spirit enable you to grow in love.’ My hope is to now live completely into that sense of community in my day to day life at home,” said Merit Wolff.
“The Iona experience for me, helped me realize what true Koinonia truly is! Being together as equals in community is what God truly wants for [us]. Another revelation that I had after pondering our trip is being still and listening to others and to God,” said Scarlette Pless.
“It was one of the most profound religious experiences of my life. The trip, the things I learned, and the hearts I grew closer to will remain with me for a lifetime,” said Jennifer Grainger.
Practicing the presence
It’s an intensive week of taking care of body, mind, and spirit, because “you can’t give what ain’t got.” Students focus on attentiveness to God, listening skills, psychological awareness, personal spiritual disciplines, biblical and theological foundations of spiritual direction, historical background (including formative Wesleyan spirituality), and ethical issues for fostering this supportive relationship of spiritual guidance.
It includes readings in Christian classics, experiencing the practice of spiritual companionship, and training in ways of offering spiritual guidance in congregations. Each day begins and ends with worship at the abbey with people from around the world. In between are classes, meeting with spiritual directors and prayer partners, study, hikes, naps, shopping, and sight-seeing.
I teach the class at Iona every other time it is offered. The class is held on Pfeiffer’s traditional campus in Misenheimer, N.C., when I don’t lead a group to Iona. It is hard to describe what a special, sacred experience Iona is to live, learn and be the body of Christ together with students in this place. As a deacon teaching deacon and certification candidates, I have the great privilege of bridging the church and world in deep, meaningful ways. Students who take this class often experience international travel for the first time. They learn far more than any classroom can hold or words can say.
“In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love . . . ere the world come to an end, Iona shall be as it was.” (St. Columba)