A Journey of Sea and Stone by Tracy Balzer

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.


From Journey of Sea and Stone: How Holy Places Guide and Renew Us by Tracy Balzer copyright © 2021 Broadleaf Books. Reproduced by permission. 


On this Good Friday, we hope that these posts, which include music, art, and fiction, help you to reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice and the coming hope of resurrection.


Lisa and Prasanta


“Today You Shall Be With Me in Paradise” via The Lent Project, Biola University (a reflection for Good Friday involving Scripture, art, poetry, and music)

The Stations of the Cross via Pádraig Ó Tuama (a guided meditation for Good Friday)

Holy Week via Duane W. H. Arnold, Ph.D. (a brief history of Holy Week and looking ahead to hope)

Ubi Caritas via Joel Clarkson and Joy Clarkson (an arrangement of Ubi Caritas, which commemorates Jesus washing his disciples’ feet)

Gethsemane via Simon Parke (an extract from Parke’s novel, Gospel, Rumours of Love)

Easter Flight: Crucified in the Middle Seat via Leslie Leyland Fields (“This week, Friday, many of us will watch a man take that middle space for us, the place no one wants…”)


Today’s meditation reminds us that although we can fast with our body, a traditional Lenten practice, we can also and more importantly fast — and feast — with our minds, our hearts and our life.


Fast from judging others;
Feast on Christ dwelling in them.
Fast from fear of illness;
Feast on the healing power of God.
Fast from words that pollute;
Feast on speech that purifies.
Fast from discontent;
Feast on gratitude.
Fast from anger;
Feast on patience.
Fast from pessimism;
Feast on hope.
Fast from negatives;
Feast on encouragement.
Fast from bitterness;
Feast on forgiveness.
Fast from self-concern;
Feast on compassion.
Fast from suspicion;
Feast on truth.
Fast from gossip;
Feast on purposeful silence.
Fast from problems that overwhelm;
Feast on prayer that sustains.
Fast from anxiety;
Feast on faith.



In 1548, Ignatius of Loyola published one of the most popular devotional books in Christian history – the Spiritual Exercises. This book is a compilation of meditations, prayers, and other practices. In one of the Exercises, we find a way to prayerfully meditate on the cross of Christ. It seems especially appropriate for Holy Week.

In the first Exercise of his book, Ignatius introduces the idea of a colloquy, which, he says, is made “in the way one friend speaks to another . . . now begging a favor, now accusing oneself of some misdeed, now telling one’s concerns and asking counsel about them.”

Ignatius suggests this colloquy, or conversation, with Christ:

Imagine Christ our Lord suspended on the cross before you, and converse with him in a colloquy: How is it that he, although he is the Creator, has come to make himself a human being? How is it that he has passed from eternal life to death here in time, and to die in this way for my sins?


In a similar way, reflect on yourself and ask: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ?

Ignatius says that as you gaze on Christ, you should “speak out whatever comes to your mind.”

End the colloquy by saying the Lord’s Prayer.


Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556) was a Spanish priest, theologian, spiritual director, and founder of the Jesuit order. Read more.

Read the Spiritual Exercises here.

Contemplative Profiles: Thomas Merton

This month’s contemplative profile by historian Lisa Deam is Thomas Merton:

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk, a beloved modern contemplative, and a prolific writer. He left us many books and essays on the spiritual life. When I read Merton, I’m especially struck by the way he confronts and even embraces the difficulties of living the Christian life. Following Jesus is not easy, and Merton knows this. His frank admission of his struggles ministers to us in our own.

Regarding his internal struggles and contradictions, Merton writes:


“I have become convinced that the very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me: if only because someone so complicated and so prone to confusion and self-defeat could hardly survive for long without special mercy.” (A Thomas Merton Reader)


“Paradoxically, I have found peace because I have always been dissatisfied. My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings . . . All life tends to grow like this, in mystery inscaped with paradox and contradiction, yet centered, in its very heart, on the divine mercy . . . and the realization of the ‘new life’ that is in us who believe, by the gift of the Holy Spirit. “ (A Thomas Merton Reader)


Such paradoxes define the life of faith. About each person’s struggle with both internal and external darkness, Merton says:


“Those who continue to struggle are at peace. If God wills, they can pacify the world.  For he[/she] who accepts the struggle in the name of Christ is delivered from its power by the victory of Christ.” (A Thomas Merton Reader)


Read more about Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani.


How willing am I to embrace and learn from the contradictions and struggles in my spiritual life?


About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.

Featured Book: Finding Grace at the Center

Week Three: Prayer without Judgment or Evaluation

finding-grace-at-centerIn Finding Grace at the Center: the Beginning of Centering Prayer, a collection of essays by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke, Thomas Keating provides an extremely helpful introduction to centering prayer based on The Cloud of Unknowing, a Carthusian monk’s prayer guide for novices dated to around the 14th century.

Keating is especially careful to avoid overselling what “happens” during centering prayer. One may not expect incredible revelations or to even be fully in control of what happens during this prayer. Rather, intention becomes essential as we enter this form of prayer.

Keating writes:



“[Centering prayer] is not an end in itself, but a beginning. It is not to be done for the sake of an experience, but for the sake of its fruits in one’s life.”


“The presence of God is like the atmosphere we breathe. You can have all you want of it as long as you do not try to take possession of it and hang on to it.”


“Accept each period of centering prayer as it comes, without asking for anything, having no expectations. In that way its fruits will grow faster.”


“We always want to possess. That is why it is so hard to leg go–why we want to reflect on moments of deep peace or union in order to remember how we got there and thus how to get back. But charity is non-possessive. It gives all back to God as fast as it comes. It keeps nothing for itself.”


“Take everything that happens during the periods of centering prayer peacefully and gratefully, without putting a judgment on anything, and just let the thoughts go by. It does not matter where they come from, as long as you let them go by. Don’t worry about them.”


Read more…


Friday Favorites for Prayer and Writing

Each Friday I share some of my favorite finds related to praying or writing. If I think it could help you pray or write better, then I’ll include it below.

Do you have someone else’s article or post to share? Join the Contemplative Writers Facebook group, comment on today’s post on my Facebook page, or follow me on Twitter (@edcyzewski) to nominate your favorite articles, blog posts, and books by Thursday at noon each week.


Hygge: A Heart-warning Lesson from Denmark (found via Michelle DeRusha’s newsletter)

Not All Habits Are Equal (Just read a lot, ok?)

9 Practices for Post-Election Contemplative Resiliency  (Since we don’t have a time machine yet…)

How to NOT Be Driven by Your Aversions

Characteristics of Healthy Spirituality


Keep the Contemplative Writer Sustainable

The Contemplative writer is ad-free and never shares sponsored content, but it is a lot of work to maintain. We rely on affiliate links from the books we share and the generous donations of our readers. An automated monthly gift as low as $1 per month or a one-time gift of $5 goes a long way to sustaining our mission to provide contemplative prayer resources for our readers.

Learn how your support, through a one-time gift or small monthly gifts can keep this website running: Support Us Today


Scripture Meditation: Don’t Think Too Hard about It…

“The Lord knows people’s thoughts; he knows they are worthless! Joyful are those you discipline, Lord, those you teach with your instructions.”
– Psalm 94:11-12, NLT

What better motivation to pursue the silence and rest of contemplative prayer than to read that God knows our thoughts are worthless!

While there is a great deal in scripture that praises meditating on scripture and remembering God’s laws, this Psalm offers a reality check for the times when we rely on our own wisdom. Most importantly, we find that even when God sees our inadequacies and failures, he responds with mercy and instruction.

Even when God knows that we will fall short over and over again, he desires to give us the joy of his instruction and discipline. May we find God’s loving direction, even as we discover the folly of our wisdom.

Contemplative Profile: Evelyn Underhill

Week Two: Contemplation and Action

Contemplative profiles are back with the help of author and historian Lisa Deam. This month we’re featuring Evelyn Underhill:

In Evelyn Underhill’s later works we see a theme that runs through the history of Christian contemplation: the dance of contemplation and action. Our private prayer life is important. In fact, Underhill says we must each be a “secret child of God.” Yet our prayers also open us to the larger purposes of God. We’re not merely fulfilled; we’re spilled out into the world.


“For it is the self-oblivious gaze, the patient and disciplined attention to God, which deepens understanding, nourishes humility and love; and, by gentle processes of growth, gradually brings the creature into that perfect dedication to His purposes.” (Worship)


“A real man or woman of prayer, then, should be a live wire, a link between God’s grace and the world that needs it . . .” (“Life as Prayer”)


“We are transmitters as well as receivers. Our contemplation and our action, our humble self-opening to God, keeping ourselves sensitive to His music and light, and our generous self-opening to our fellow creatures, keeping ourselves sensitive to their needs, ought to form one life; mediating between God and His world, and bringing the saving power of the Eternal into time.” (Spiritual Life)



How can I be both a receiver and a transmitter of God’s love this week?


About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.

Scripture Meditation: Servants Don’t Need to Be in Charge

“Mary responded, ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.’ And then the angel left her.” Luke 1:38, NLT

How do we live by faith today? Mary faced one of the greatest stretches of faith that anyone could face, and she remained able to fully trust in God’s provision and plan because she knew her place.

As God’s servant, Mary only had to trust what God showed her.

It wasn’t up to Mary to figure out the plan or to provide the means. She didn’t imagine that she was in charge in any way, and with herself entrusted to God’s care, she didn’t have to be worry about what happens next.

Living by faith as the servants of God makes it possible to approach the challenges of each day with a peaceful confidence in God’s provision.