One of my earliest memories took place in a monastery. I remember eating muesli from a wooden bowl in a very, very quiet place. I was 5, visiting Boston with my Scottish family; I turned out to be extremely allergic to our host's cat, so it was somehow organized for my mother and I to stay with the monks of St John of the Cross. I didn't go to church as a child, and our household of four children was rarely quiet, so this encounter with the monks and their silence left a strong impression.
Half a lifetime later, at the age of 30, one thing led to another and I came to live in the abbey on the island of Iona, in the inner Hebrides. Iona's is a modern-day abbey, staffed by a lay community that changes from year to year. I lived there for two and a half years, and found myself deeply accustomed to, deeply fed by, the life of routine: the bells calling to twice-daily worship, the daily liturgy, the year intricately woven around the holy days of the calendar and the holy seasons of the earth.
Each morning in the abbey we chanted, “If Christ's disciples kept silent, these stones would shout aloud.” On Iona the stones did indeed shout – especially when it was windy! I learned there that the stones are speaking, and the earth, sky and sea, that the teachings of Christ-consciousness are written in the bones of the land, not only in human words and voices.
People refer to Iona as a thin place, a place where the distance between heaven and earth is tissue-thin; I would add that Iona is also a place where history comes alive, where the distance closes between what has been and what is, and perhaps even what will be. Iona has not hosted a monastic order since the late 19th century, but their legacy and memory are still very much alive – you sense it as you walk the island, sit in the cloisters, or touch the magnificent weathered ruins of the old nunnery. There is a still-living history all around.
For me, Iona is a place where my soul woke up and spoke to me very directly, taught me to pay attention, to listen, to talk with nature, to think with my imagination and to sing to God with a full heart. Years later I remain so grateful that this intense, vibrant, open-minded & creative community was my real introduction to Christianity. I woke up hungry, very hungry, and began searching for what Christianity should have become.
After leaving the abbey, I traveled to the USA and trained first as a carpenter and then an interfaith minister – always with the intention of joining the two. With time and distance my faith morphed and grew, my spiritual practice became less structured and more personal. I noticed that my lips no longer wanted to shape the words of the morning service or the litany of memorized prayers – but the abbey's familiar songs had burrowed their way into the center of my soul. To this day, the songs live inside me and sing through me, most especially the psalms.
Recently I've started giving my own musical expression to the psalms and sharing this aspect of my personal spiritual practice with others. Religious scholar Philip Novak describes the psalms as “expressions of religious emotion.” The psalms are a spiritual road map as well as a portal into the collective human pysche; the trick is finding the psalms set in a musical landscape and language that speaks directly to you, so that you can feel in them your own stories, longings, thanksgivings and lamentations. From that place, they've helped me to be human, one naked humble piece of Adam standing before the expanse of creation and creator. It is my deep joy to share this piece of my spiritual practice with you.