I’ve been stuck in a rut lots of times — complacent in a pattern of living that becomes monotonous, dull, and routine. A couple of my favorite movies use the “stuck in rut” problem as their hook. There’s Groundhog Day, when a guy keeps waking up to the same day, over and over again. Authentic, selfless love is what finally breaks him out of the rut. The other one that makes me laugh just thinking about it is “City Slickers” - three friends from the city decide to break out of their rut by going on a vacation in the wild-west, driving cattle from New Mexico to Colorado. Early in the movie, one of the friends is pretending to be asleep at a party so he doesn’t have to deal with his wife. When the coast is clear, Billy Crystal’s character leans over and says to him, “That’s quite a life you’ve carved out for yourself, Phil!” Epic line. What makes these movies funny is that we can all relate – we know what it feels like to be stuck in a rut.
One sure-fire way out of rut is to travel. It’s a fail-safe remedy. I went to Iona a few years ago for just such a purpose. But during the course of my extended stay (thanks to the volcano in Iceland) I unintentionally adopted a new rut; I woke up early, took a shower, ate a hearty breakfast, then walked ten minutes to the Abbey for morning worship. After that, I set out for some sort of adventure involving hiking and birding. I returned to the hotel around 4:00 pm, read or wrote for a little while, ate dinner around 7:00 and then returned to the Abbey for evening worship. Every day whenever the hands of the clock read 9:00, I worshiped God. The day began and ended with a mindfulness of the Divine. It was a thought-centering, life-giving rut. When a good and life-giving rhythm like this emerges, maybe instead of calling it a “rut” it’s better called a “pattern.”
Throughout my stay on Iona, I was noticing patterns everywhere. There was a pattern to the rising and the setting of the sun, a pattern to the tides, a pattern to birds’ migration, to their singing and their nesting. There was a pattern to the fences of the pastures and to the plants in the garden. There was a pattern in the trees, patterns in the rocks and patterns in the waves. There was pattern to the ferry’s coming and going. There was a pattern in the quilt on my bed, in the planks of wood on the floor, and the cobblestones on the path. And there was a pattern to my day. The pattern provided a framework and a reference, it gave the days a context and a rhythm. God was in the pattern. The pattern found its rhythm in worship, and then the day and night flowed from it. Every morning and every evening…like the beat of a heart, worship propelled the living of my days.
There has been a pattern of worship on Iona for almost 1500 years. The worshipping community there was established by St. Columba in the year 563. Columba was a monk, already considered a living saint in his own day and he took 12 other monks with him and set sail north from Ireland and he landed on the tiny, rocky island. He established a monastery there. The buildings that are there now date back just a mere 1000 years. Imagine that — one thousand years. Time there has a whole different texture. So almost continually, for 1500 years, a worshiping community has participated in a pattern on Iona.
The community that is there now was founded in 1938 by George MacLeod, it’s an ecumenical Christian community, worshiping in the Celtic tradition. They are men and women from different walks of life and different traditions whose purpose is to work for peace and social justice, and rebuild community. The heart of the Community's life together is worship.
Over the years, a style of worship has evolved which somehow fits its setting. It’s direct and to the point, and it allows the ancient buildings and beautiful surroundings to speak for themselves. It is relevant and challenging, reflecting the Community’s engaged spirituality and its concern to ‘find new ways to touch the hearts of all’. You do not have to be a churchgoer to feel at home in an Abbey service, nor do people need to be experienced or ordained before they can lead worship there. Iona is a place for everyone.
I learned that each of the residents at the Abbey is assigned a duty. For instance, I spoke with a young woman who was extinguishing candles after morning worship – there must have been 100 candles. So I smiled and said to her, “Looks like you got candle-snuffing duty today.” She smiled back. “Not just today,” she said. “Every day….I’m the candle person. It’s my job to make sure the candles are in good order, and that they’re lit and extinguished properly for every service.” It turns out she had been on Iona about a month, and she had two more weeks to go. I thought she might be a Seminarian, but she was actually a medical student, who wanted something different between semesters. “How has your experience here been?” I asked. She thought about that, and then she said, “It’s really hard work.” That’s not the answer I was expecting. I had essentially the same conversation with another young woman who had been there a year with six months to go, and again, when I asked her how her experience had been, she commented on how hard the work was. They work 10 hours a day, and get 1 ½ days off a week. I wonder if they feel they’re in a rut?
Behind the hard work of the community members is an underlying principle of monastic life, the communal life of an Abbey. It’s modeled on the life of a monastery. A strict daily schedule is meant to ensure that the time given by God is not wasted, but in every way used in his service, whether for prayer, work, meals, candle-lighting, spiritual reading, or sleep. So the members share a common Rule that includes: daily prayer and reading the Bible, mutual sharing and accountability for their use of time and money, regular times to meet together, and action and reflection for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. It’s reminiscent of the rule of St. Benedict, written about the same time St. Columba was establishing the abbey on Iona. The spirit of the rule is summed up by the phrase pax ora et labora, "peace, pray and work.” I wish I could run into those two young women again and see then how they felt about their time on Iona after some time had passed. I wonder if it would still be the hard work they’d remember…or perhaps rather the broader pax ora et labora.
The rule that they live by, that strict daily schedule, recognizes something that our modern, secular life has forgotten all about. How we spend our time matters to God. How we spend our days is important to God and our relationship with him. Psalm 113 says “From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised”
Psalm 128 instructs us this way: “Happy is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways. You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.” Pax ora et labora. The pattern of days.
Somewhere along the line, we lost the notion that the day belongs to God. We live as if the day belongs to us. And little by little we have become obsessed with time-saving devices…things that should give us more time. Horses were replaced with cars. Scrub boards with washing machines. Long-hand with keystrokes, conversations with text messages. But all these time saving devices don’t save us time, they take up time – they fill our hours and days with everything but peace, prayer and work. These things matter, and they get crowded out. At the end of the morning service every morning on Iona, we stood for the closing responses. The leader would say, “This is the day that God has made;” and we would respond “We will rejoice and be glad in it.” Then the leader would say, “We will not offer to God…” and we responded, “Offerings that cost us nothing.”
"We will not offer to God offerings that cost us nothing."
That affirmation began to work on me. I wonder if that’s at the heart of our “rut” problem. We go through the day searching for things to make life easier, but the things that are most worthwhile cost something.