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Vacation with God

In June of 2015, I experienced a vacation that gave me a whole new connection with God. It changed our relationship from black and white to colour; we went from being acquaintances, neighbours, business partners to having a close friendship, as warm as the sun on my face, as life-giving as the air I breathe.

My adventure actually began about three years earlier when my friend, Donna, suggested that we plan a trip to visit some Celtic Christian communities in the United Kingdom. Donna, a pastor, was looking for material to share with her congregation and her interest in Celtic traditions had been piqued when she heard me talk about my experience as a volunteer at the Iona community.

Our itinerary
We decided that our destinations would be the Iona Abbey, Nether Springs (the Northumbria Community) and the Open Gate Retreat Centre (the community of Aidan and Hilda on Lindisfarne.) We planned for a three week stay.

Our first step was to search the websites of the centres we hoped to visit in order to find three programmes that interested both of us and that we could attend during a three week span. We chose “Unfurling” at Iona, “Psalm Drumming” at Nether Springs and “Mindfulness and Meditation” at Open Gate. The first two provided accommodation but Open Gate had no availability when we made our arrangements so we ate lunch and dinner there but stayed at the Ship’s Inn nearby.

We were at Iona from Saturday until Friday morning when we travelled by ferry, bus and train to Almuth, England, arriving about 7:15. Paul, a community member, met us at the train station and drove us past the hedgerows and drystone walls of quiet pastures to Nether Springs.

Sunday we travelled less than half an hour to the train station at Berwick-upon-Tweed where we took a taxi across the causeway to the village on Lindisfarne. It was low tide; otherwise we would have had to wait until the following morning.

When we left Lindisfarne at the end of the week, we spent a few tourist days in Durham. Our rooms at St. Chad’s College, a residence of the University, looked across the green to Durham Cathedral – a treasure trove of Celtic relics. Traditional services of matins and evensong there maintain a ministry presence in a building which some might treat as a museum.

Three contrasting communities
Iona is a small island of the Inner Hebrides. It first became a centre of Christianity in the year 563 when Columba and 12 monks formed the first monastery there. It remained a base for the evangelization of what is modern-day Scotland and northern England until the monks were martyred and the abbey burned in 825. A Benedictine abbey was active from the twelfth century until the Protestant Reformation. It was reopened for prayer at the beginning of the twentieth century and full restoration began in 1938 as an endeavour by George MacLeod, a Presbyterian minister, to help unemployed ship builders from Glasgow.

Lindisfarne was established as a monastery in 635 by Aidan, a monk from Iona who came at the request of King Oswald of Northumbria. Aidan declined a place at Bamburgh Castle. Instead, he requested the tidal island of Lindisfarne. From there the monks walked through the countryside, sharing whatever material goods they had and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As the monastery grew, the scriptorium produced exquisite illuminated manuscripts, some of which still exist. Bede, a later Bishop, wrote An Ecclesiastical History of the English People which continues to be a prime source of information about Anglo-Saxon history.

Nether Springs was formed in the late twentieth century as a sister community to Lindisfarne. It is currently in its second location, the renovated stables of an English country estate.
Visitors to Iona cannot doubt the value of community there. In accordance with the monastic ideal of work and worship as one, guests live close to each other in small rooms, they spend about 1.5 hours daily working together at tasks such as cleaning, meal preparation, serving and clean-up, and they enjoy many community outings such as a ceilidh (traditional Scottish dance) and a guided pilgrimage.

By contrast, at Nether Springs I felt like a bird for whom a nest had been lovingly prepared so that I could settle in and completely focus on being with God.

The programme at Lindisfarne, “Meditation and Mindfulness,” grew our awareness of God. The context in which that took place was a rich history where everything had revolved around worship of and service to God. Our activities and prayers were encouraged and surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).

The heart of it all
Each community has daily prayers using its own, unique liturgy. Iona’s was developed to make the Gospel clear and worship meaningful to the tradesmen who came for several years to rebuild the abbey, refectory, kitchen and cloisters. The liturgy on Lindisfarne is filled with reference to the saints and history there. The Nether Springs liturgy, which is one small part of their publication Daily Celtic Prayer, uses traditional Celtic prayers as well as more recent material of similar themes and style to open personal pathways to God through contemplative worship.

The cord of rich commonality between these three diverse communities was the practise of the “Office” – regular times of prayer. Two or three times a day, depending on the community, everything stopped as we met to repeat familiar words that affirmed our faith and called us to live it more fully.

Separated now by an ocean and many months, that rhythm stays with me. My practice of the Office creates a yearning to live more fully in divine presence. Ritual prayers provide a familiar, open place where my spirit can rise with the Spirit within me. I sense God’s presence close, at that time and in the hours that follow.

Nether Springs (The Northumbria Community), includes traditional Celtic prayers as well as more recent material to open personal pathways to God through contemplative worship.

View of Mull from the chapter house of Iona Abbey.

St. John's Cross at the Iona Abbey.

GETTING THERE (Travel Tips):

  • Fly into Glasgow (Iona) or Edinburgh (Nether Springs and Linsifarne).
  • Shuttle buses run frequently to bus and train stations.
  • To get to Iona, take a train or bus to Oban, a ferry to Craignure, a bus to Fionnphort and a ferry to Iona.
  • Hint: train tickets are less expensive when bought online ahead of time. You can reserve a free table seat.
  • For a donation of 5 GBP someone from Nether Springs will drive you to or from Alnmuth train station.
  • A cab from Berwick-Upon-Tweed to Lindisfarne costs about 25 GBP by cab.

  • Bonnie Beldan-Thomson is a musician, writer and educator who lives and works near Toronto.

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