Welcome to Friday Favorites! This is our final roundup before we go on summer break here at The Contemplative Writer. Enjoy these rich offerings from a host of talented writers, and accept our blessings for a fruitful summer.
June 9 is traditionally recognized as the Feast of St. Columba, who in 563 AD landed on the Scottish island of Iona to begin a monastic community. Author Tracy Balzer has visited Iona over a dozen times, most often taking groups of pilgrims with her to learn of the deep and wide Christian influence of those early Celtic Christians. The following is an excerpt from her new book A Journey of Sea and Stone: How Holy Places Guide and Renew Us (Broadleaf Books), which will be released on June 8, 2022.
The tiny island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland has a history so momentous in the Christian story that we risk hyperbole when we recount it. How the Irish Saved Civilization is not only the title of Thomas Cahill’s best-selling book; it could easily serve as a definitive statement about the role that Iona played in history, grandiose as it may sound. The “Irish” Cahill refers to includes Columba and his band of monks, who apparently possessed this desire for the sacred in addition to a healthy dose of wanderlust. They had read of the ascetic life of the Desert Fathers in Egypt, and this inspired many of them to seek out a “desert” of their own—a remote and lonely place where their service to God would be undeterred. The wild and windswept isle of Iona, just three miles long and one mile wide, would become their “desert.” For the better part of the next six centuries, a monastic community would be present on Iona.
An oft-cited prophecy attributed to Columba (though its true author is unknown) makes a claim worth pondering:
Iona of my heart, Iona of my love, Instead of monks’ voices shall be the lowing of cattle; But ere the world shall come to an end, Iona shall be as it was.
This prediction—that the audible voices of monks would not always be heard on Iona—proved to be true. In the centuries following Columba’s death in 597, his monastery was repeatedly attacked by Viking marauders who plundered its treasures and eventually destroyed the place altogether.3 Even so, their words echo throughout history, speaking through the glorious illuminated manuscripts they left behind, the most famous of which is the Book of Kells. Later, Benedictine monks occupied the space where Columba’s monastery stood and speak today through the ruins of the now restored abbey. Its ancient walls reverberate with the prayers of those who have gone before, expressed in stained glass images of Celtic saints like Columba, Patrick, and Brigid. Their bold proclamation of truth remains in the intricately carved high crosses that stand in front of the abbey, a visual narrative of biblical history. To be on Iona is to experience a deep silence, simultaneously mingled with the voices of the saints of the past.
Sacred places, wherever they might be, share this distinction. They are made sacred by sacrificial living and dying, especially when both are expressions of a deeply held faith. Such places ask us to stop and listen, focus our eyes intently, and patiently wait for those ancient lives to speak. We are invited to learn and receive by purposefully reading, investigating, and pondering the ancient texts, particularly those from the Bible. By examining the lives of the great saints of old, we may be surprised to find the courage and conviction in their lives spilling over into our own.
There is also something about encountering these “voices” that resonates with us internally. Many of us recognize a natural inclination within ourselves to walk in the footsteps of the great saints and influencers of history. Like the late congressman John Lewis and others, do you find the idea of crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, ennobling? Or do you imagine running your finger along the carved names of soldiers on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC? Do you desire to visit the Holy Land and walk in the footsteps of Jesus?
The world turns and changes. The audible voices of monks, saints, and the great bridge crossers evaporate, but they leave behind treasures for us to discover, spiritual nourishment for our souls so that we might continue on the good path. Their voices linger in these sacred places, inviting us farther up and deeper in.
In the frantic pace of our daily lives, we often fret about not having enough time . . . and then we whine about being bored when it feels we have too much of it. No matter how many planners or apps we employ to get a handle on it, we can’t seem to feel anything but behind. Time can feel like an enemy, especially if we crave deep, spiritual reflection on what is most important. The crowded, noisy spaces most of us inhabit are not conducive to that reflection or to prayer.
On Iona, there are no movie theaters or fast-food restaurants, no stoplights. Even the internet is not reliable. Whenever I offer this description of Iona, the response is almost always an amusing one: Why would anyone want to spend their vacation time going somewhere that has . . . nothing? It is true that on Iona there is less of everything, which means there is more space for what we truly need if we hope to attend to our sense of “home,” our deep longing for the things of God.
Sacred places like Iona offer the one thing we cannot seem to grasp in our hyperproductive culture: unstructured time. And that is a true gift for the weary soul. The New Testament cites two Greek terms for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos—as the word implies—is linear, with a beginning and an end, measurable in minutes and hours, weeks and months, centuries and epochs. We can’t read a book without thinking chrono-logically. This is how we grasp the passing of our earthly days as well: we had a beginning, the day of our birth, and one day we will experience the end, the last day of the chronos of a life.
Kairos, however, cannot be contained by a one-dimensional calendar or clock. It doesn’t have a straightforward “before” and “after” or “beginning” and “end.” Kairos is God’s time. It is the time and way in which God fulfills his purpose. In the Gospels, when John the Baptist tells his followers that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2), he is talking about kairos, when what God wants done is done. Kairos reveals that through Christ, a whole new way of understanding time has entered the world: it is time that is characterized not by dates and calendars but by the will of a God who is working to make all things new.
Because arriving on Iona is such a visceral experience, this particular sense of time is one of the first things I notice. I feel the pressure of chronos slide off of me like old skin that needs to be shed. On Iona I experience time in a dramatically different way than I do in my everyday life; time there seems multidimensional. The simple fact of being rid of the pressures of being constantly connected and accessible adds a dimension of true freedom to life. Rarely have I witnessed anyone in a hurry on Iona, and rarely have I been in a hurry when I am there.
The pace at which we live our lives is an indicator of the inner condition of our souls, and Iona insistently points this out to me. Along with the awareness that time moves differently on Iona comes a deep quietude that is freely available on the island. Even in the height of summer, when scores of tourists come for the day, I still manage to find my own private space on the beach. (Correction: I often have the beach entirely to myself.) The only sounds I hear are seabirds and wild geese flying overhead and the calming rhythm of waves and wind. Ewes are bleating in the distance, calling for their lambs. These natural sounds melt into the kind of silence that seems elusive in my daily life. There is the mechanical hum of the dishwasher or clothes dryer, or the clang-clang of farm vehicles bouncing along our rutted street, or the insistent buzzing of my phone, or the whining of my dog, who is adorable but insists that I be the recipient of her requests.
I can’t complain. I live in a semirural area where deer greet us regularly and a herd of cows munches contentedly in the field behind our house. It’s nothing like the high-energy sounds of an urban setting. But where silence is concerned, everything is relative. It’s not only the external volume that can overwhelm but our own internal noise. The stressful thoughts and fearful imaginings that populate my internal landscape are so loud at times that I might just as well be in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Sometimes I long to escape to Iona just to stifle the abundant noise that fills my inner and outer worlds. The peace I experience on the island comes not from the absence of conflict but from a shalom of true inner and outer flourishing.
The peace that we obtain in sacred places is something we can take back with us into the world and set loose like a thousand colorful balloons into an empty sky. I experience this kind of shalom most profoundly as I interact with other people on Iona, most of whom I do not know and likely will not ever see again. We greet each other with a smile on the walking path. We worship together in the abbey every evening. There exists an unspoken agreement that while we are all here together on this fleck of green land floating in the Atlantic, we are not about to let ideologies or theological differences harm the shalom of a holy moment.
Sacred places like Iona often have a way of recalibrating our lives—the pace at which we move, the ways we choose to spend our time and money, and the ideas that call for our attention. This is especially noted where monastic life has been or is being lived out. 4While the historic Columban and Benedictine monasteries on Iona ceased existing many centuries ago, the rhythm of daily prayer and worship remains, led each morning and evening in the abbey by the members of the Iona Community.4 Each day the bells of the abbey ring, morning and night, prodding me to stop what I’m doing and be present to the God who is very near. The rhythm of entering the abbey sanctuary each day for prayer anchors me in a most life-giving way.
Of all the charming souvenirs that routinely tempt me in the Scottish isles, it is this sacred rhythm that is my most valuable keepsake. Iona has taught me that the regular spiritual practice of stillness before God is what gives me life. It is what takes me from chaos to kairos. But eventually, I have to leave Iona and come home.
This essential rhythm comes under forceful attack the moment I set foot on US soil. The transition from the peace of Iona to the frantic pace of modern living is jarring: long lines of impatient travelers at the airport, the stress of the customs process, the dramatic reacquaintance with the speed of cars on the freeway. I may have only been gone for two weeks, but I feel I’ve entered a foreign country rather than the one of my birth. The external demands of modern culture don’t have much patience for the internal rhythms that have been cultivated on a remote island.
I am well aware that merging these two realities will be a battle, yet too often the forces of busyness and productivity overcome my desire for a healthier rhythm that is supported by regular engagement with God in the same silence and solitude I find on Iona. Even though I know good and well that a rhythm of silence, in my own sacred space, is what my soul most needs, it is the very thing I most easily sacrifice. The result is a disordered pattern of higher levels of anxiety and stress. And that is not the way I want to live.
It took going to Iona, to a sacred place, to show me the importance of rhythm for my soul. So when I am home, I know that my best days are also rooted in that rhythm, and that begins with finding a sacred place of my own right where I am. In the spring and summer, that is likely to be my front porch.
Our porch faces due east, just like the Argyll Hotel on Iona. Instead of gazing out on the Sound of Iona and its calming waters, I sit on my porch in Arkansas and watch the myriad of colorful birds that visit our trees and feeders: red-bellied woodpeckers, goldfinches, cardinals, indigo buntings, and hummingbirds en masse. On other days, I opt for the tartan-upholstered chair in my home office, a space I’ve intentionally made as unoffice-like as possible by adorning it with the images and colors of Iona.
I claim my own sacred space. For twenty or thirty minutes, whether surrounded by birdsong or the quiet of my home office, I still my heart and mind and listen for the voice of God. I tend to draw upon the Psalms for wisdom, as that ancient prayer book is so instructive when it comes to conversing with God. And always there are the essential elements of stillness and silence.
The rhythm that sacred places offer us, whether on a remote island or our front porch, can serve us well as we seek a healthier order to our lives. Taking regular time, daily, for quiet meditation is one of the ways I can best appropriate the gifts Iona has given me. I come away not only with a quieter soul but with a deeper knowledge of God’s fathomless love for me and for the world.
Great are you, O Lord, and greatly to be praised. Great is your power; your wisdom is infinite. All people, as part of your creation, desire to praise you; all people, who carry the signs of mortality and sin, desire to praise you still. You provoke us toward that delight, for you have created us for yourself, and our hearts cannot be quieted until they find rest in you. . . . You will I seek , O Lord, calling upon you; you will I call, believing in you.
Welcome to Friday Favorites! Here at The Contemplative Writer, one of our favorite “tasks” is rounding up each week’s collection of posts, videos, and podcasts. We hope today’s selection will provide encouragement and opportunity for reflection.
This week’s prayer is from John Wesley (1703-1791), Anglican minister and founder of the Methodist movement.
O Lord, take full possession of my heart, raise there your throne, and command there as you do in heaven. Being created by you, let me live for you; being created for you, let me always act for your glory; being redeemed by you, let me give to you what is yours; and let my spirit cling to you alone, for your name’s sake.
This week I’m excited to feature an excerpt from Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church by Phoebe Farag Mikhail. I love the way that Phoebe turns to ancient wisdom to help us live with more joy in our life. In the excerpt below, Phoebe talks about arrow prayers, which can be defined as brief prayers “shot up like an arrow to God.” The practice of saying arrow prayers can restore a measure of joy and equanimity to us during challenging times. I hope you enjoy this excerptand learn a new way to live with joy!
Arrow prayers remind us that even when we are alone, we are really never alone. We are surrounded by a team, an ethereal community, a great cloud of witnesses (see Hebrews 12:1). We can reach the Creator of the universe with one sentence prayed from our anxious, weary, aching hearts, shooting up like an arrow to his own heart. He sends us back “stabs of joy,” in the words of C. S. Lewis. He sends his angels, as well as the saints in heaven and on earth who regularly intercede for us with prayers and tears. God is with us; we are never alone. All we need to do is call upon him. In his presence “is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).
Arrow prayers and praying the Hours are intimately connected. Praying the Hours regularly allows us to engrave the Psalms in our hearts and gives us an arsenal of arrow prayers in times of need. The Twelfth Hour prayer, for example, includes these verses from the Psalms, all of which I have used as arrow prayers at different times:
Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice!
Let Your ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications. (Psalm 130: 1–2)
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me. (Psalm 138: 7)
LORD, I cry out to You; Make haste to me! Give ear to my voice when I cry out to You. (Psalm 141: 1)
When these verses are repeated daily, they build a reserve to draw upon for their spontaneous use. Spontaneity is not a reliable way to develop an arrow prayer habit, however. Most people, when they are guided to use arrow prayers, are also guided to the times to use them, such as . . . my prayers to calm anxious thoughts before bed. Some spiritual fathers advise praying a certain number of arrow prayers (usually the Jesus Prayer) per day, designating a time and using a prayer rope, prayer beads, or a rosary to help count them. This deliberate practice allows them to arise more naturally as we go through our days and find ourselves in times of need.
I find arrow prayers especially helpful when I am angry. Anxiety and fear often go hand and hand with anger, and anger can rise up in ways that are not conducive to relationships, especially to raising children. Anger and fear are passions and most certainly joy thieves. In the heat of the moment, I can certainly count backward from ten to keep my voice down, but I can also ask God for his mercy (I usually do both). I have found that those instances of wanting to yell in anger are fewer and farther between when I am intentional about daily praying arrow prayers. Praying this way has also given me a tool for helping my children manage their own strong emotions. When my children were younger, unable to control their tempers or in the middle of a meltdown, I would hold them tightly in my arms and tell them, “Take a deep breath and say the Jesus Prayer with me.” Now that they are older, I might ask them to sit quietly somewhere and pray some arrow prayers. (They’ll still get a hug.)
I’ve also read my children two books from a series called The Silent Way by Jeanette Aydlette and Marilyn Rouvelas. Peter Clashes with Anger and Eleni Looks at Jealousy each tackle a joy thief (a “passion”), and each child goes through a conversation with his or her grandfather about how to overcome that passion, namely through practicing stillness. Hand in hand with the practice of stillness are arrow prayers, and the grandpa advises each grandchild to find a place to sit quietly and pray, “Lord have mercy.”
When I drafted this chapter, it was snowing outside, and my children were playing with blocks in the living room. I took that moment, observing them, to pause and pray a few arrow prayers: “My Lord Jesus Christ, thank you for these children.” I thought about my husband still at church. “My Lord Jesus Christ, bring my husband home safely in this snow.” My toddler hit his older brother with a toy. Before intervening, I prayed, “My Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Near bedtime we pray a shortened Twelfth Hour prayer from the Agpeya as a family. The absolution prayer of that Hour requests, “For the sake of your Holy Name, Lord, and for Your goodness and Your love to mankind, forgive us those sins we have committed this day, whether they are by action, by word, by thought or any of our senses. Grant us a peaceful night free of all anxiety” (emphasis mine).
Arrow prayers have always been my companion before bed, helping me remove anxious thoughts from my mind. My father of confession gave me that advice many years ago when I complained of struggles to fall asleep because of all the thoughts running through my head. Now, as my oldest child asks me how to fall asleep more easily, I give him the same advice–pray an arrow prayer. Some nights, I pray aloud a few repetitions of the Jesus Prayer with him, and then fall silent. Eventually he falls asleep, but I sometimes stay there, still praying.
Phoebe Farag Mikhail blogs about faith, family, relationships, and community at BeinginCommunity.com, and serves alongside her husband at St Antonious & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in East Rutherford, New Jersey. She is the mother of three, a writer, speaker, educator, and advocate, and works in international development.
May 16 is the Feast Day of Brendan the Navigator, a 6th century Irish saint. This week’s prayer is said to be uttered by Saint Brendan before he set off on an adventurous and perilous journey.
Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea? Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honour? Shall I throw myself wholly upon you, without sword and shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on? Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under your yoke? Shall I pour out my heart to you, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks? Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land? Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict? Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean? O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea? O Christ, will you help me on the wild waves?