Sunday, May 18, 2008

My Great Britannic Adventure, Day Seven

Thursday, 23 March, 1989
Glasgow to Iona
Day Seven, Maundy Thursday

It was snowing this morning when I woke up. Lovely.

Breakfast was interesting, as the hostel seemed to have been taken over by a gang of junior high-aged boys, who made a terrible din-- and who insisted on using the women’s bathroom, despite the sign. I’m not sure the food was worth the £1.85-- it was all rather soggy from having languished too long in the bain-marie.

Only 93 miles to the Port of Oban, but I got out of town around 9:30, and good thing I did, too.

First, of course, I have to get lost trying to find the A82 out of Glasgow. But once that was located, I was fine the rest of the way. When the town was cleared you could see the snow-covered foothills of the Highlands, and it was so beautiful! It was "Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen" over and over, and thank goodness I had some decent top notes to sing it with!

The A82 goes along Loch Lomond and where I wasn’t crawling along the queue due to construction work I was hopping out to take pictures. Scotland doesn’t make it easy on you, though . . . No nice designated overlooks as in Nova Scotia.

Got the A85 at Tyndrum and thereafter the weather grew entertaining again. I’m afraid I was becoming thoroughly tense and white knuckled, especially as most of the other drivers were zooming along around the curves as if it were a dry, sunny day. The landscape is beautiful, though, all bathed in mist, and I began to wonder if maybe I should’ve taken the train.

Arrived in Oban a little after 12:00. The ferry to Mull left at 1:00 and I needed every bit of that time to find the ferry pier, buy my ticket, learn where to park the car and park it, assemble my bags, and stagger with them back to the gangway and onto the boat.

On the ferry, I bought a cup of tea and, establishing myself on the upper observation deck, I drank that and ate a bun and a bit of stottie bread. There was a slight swell, though nothing unpleasant. The sea was a beautiful green color under the overcast. You never get out of sight of land on that run . . . I went out on deck despite the flecks of rain and watched the islands with their lighthouses and castles drifting by.

The bus journey across Mull is about 37 miles and takes a long time, along a one-lane road. I couldn’t see much, as the windows were all fogged up. I should’ve brought something on to read. There were a couple of boys, ten or eleven years old, in the back singing popular songs in flat, tinny voices-- they nearly got a paper was bounced off their noggins. Fortunately they were not coming to Iona.

It was raining in earnest at the ferry pier in Fionnphort (pronounced more like "Finnafort"). The Iona ferry is a little thing and I elected not to try to cram into the diminuative cabin with everyone else, but remained out on deck. The sea was indulging in the most lively of leaps and arabesques and making its presence emphatically known over the sides. My umbrella had rather the worst against the wind, so pretty soon I took it down, moved my bags to where they wouldn’t get quite so soaked, and resigned myself to a total-immersion baptism by salt water and fresh.

It’s really a pity my camera isn’t waterproof. The swells were hilarious. And again, that jaw-dropping combination of sea-green and grays and muted blues . . .

The people from the MacLeod Center had brought a blue van down for us and we all piled in. They said the magic words-- "Tea" and "Fire"-- and after a blind journey along a narrow road between rock walls, they made good on the promise.

I suppose the first thing to say is that the Iona Community is not Roman Catholic. After a few questions put here and there, I learned that it’s fundamentally Church of Scotland, which is to say Presbyterian, and was started by the Duke of Argyll fifty years ago [I've since learned that the Duke of Argyll and the Rev. George MacLeod were two different people with different roles in the founding]. But it currently has an ecumenical thrust with emphasis on peace and reconciliation. The members and staff are a mixed group, men and women, singles and marrieds. I’m still not straight on how people join, what sort of commitment they make, or how the community is funded.

The second thing is that the MacLeod Center (named after the aforementioned Duke of Argyll [my misconstrual--see above]) is a brand new building, a replacement for some derelict huts of an old youth camp across the road and up the hill a bit from the abbey, all not far from the Sound of Iona. And unlike a lot of other retreat centers, the owners got an architect to design it. Christine MacLean, the woman who is the Center’s director, told me it was someone named Joe Green, but that sounds highly unlikely in Scotland . . . The detailing of doorframes, pulls, benches and other built-in furnishings, as well as the general proportions and disposition of the spaces, shows a good eye for line, space, and detail. The building isn’t quite finished, as is obvious by the lack of curtains on the windows and all the hooks that aren’t where they should be. But it’s all on order, from what I hear.

The dorm rooms have six berths apiece, with nice new mattresses on the unfinished pine bed frames. Oh, yes, the woodwork still needs to be stained.

After tea and biscuits in front of the fire in what they call the Combination Room (I’d tend to call it the Common Room or the Great Hall), the first order of business was a shower, to wash the highly-evocative but not entirely amenable smell of sea water off my person. After that, I found the drying room (the only warm room in the place) and hung up my wet things. Tempting just to stay in there-- the wind was coming in through every crack and the hardware was not keeping the doors closed at all and the central heating wasn’t working worth a poop. Nothing wrong with that building a little caulk and some revamped hardware wouldn’t solve . . .

Dinner, aka tea, was at 5:30. And I don’t know why, but it bugged me a little that it was vegetarian. Maybe because I associate that kind of thing with political and religious views I’m not entirely in accord with. In fact, I get the strong feeling the whole thrust of this place is a little--ahem--liberal . . . but I’ve learned since coming to Oxford and Coverdale* last October not to automatically brand people heretics just because they have this or that view on isolated topics that happen to be shared with frankly syncretistic or cultish groups. So I’m going to hang loose and see what happens around here. But I really don’t like the ambivalence and find it very hard to relax.

There was a recital down at the Abbey church at 7:15. Goodness, the things I’ll do for music! I have never been out in such wind and rain before in my life, especially not after nightfall. It was sheer labor to make any headway against the gale and the rain was driving so everyone was soaked even before we reached the MacLeod Center gates. And no one in this little group had brought a flashlight with them. You get out in a wild cold dark wet windy blow like that and you’re likely to forget everything except getting in out of it. And it didn’t help that the cloister door down at the abbey has no light over it.

All got in, though, and sat in the choir stalls trying to keep the teeth from chattering while the recital was going on. Various people played: pianists, flautists, a violinist, singers . . . The wind players were rather good but the violinist needs to work on his tone.

Lukas* was not there, but I’ve never known him to be a diehard music lover. There’s time enough to see him and to do that wasn’t the point of coming here, anyway.

The MacLeod Center group had a session in the library over the chapterhouse afterwards. The purpose was to catch us up with what the abbey group has been doing all week, following in Jesus’ footsteps as He moves towards the cross. The avenue to this seemed to be more that of imaginative projection than of direct Scripture-study. And I’m afraid I was rather a вопреки† and inwardly refused to do the ‘quieting’ pre-contemplation exercise, since although quieting is probably just what I need, I associate the prescribed technique with New Age idiocy.

By the time the Maundy Thursday service started in the Abbey refectory I was feeling really out of it. I couldn’t find any of the people I was sharing the room with and Lukas* didn’t come in till the very last and sat quite far from me. And I decided I was going to wait for him to greet me first. It was his prerogative, under the circumstances. He's established his turf here since last Monday and it wouldn't be right for me to push in.

The service proceeded, featuring a bit of drama that may be ok if you know the actual New Testament story but which needed to be taken with a large grain of salt anyway. And a lot of singing. They have a highly skilled a capella choir led by a woman who seems to have perfect pitch. And the acoustics enhance the voices very effectively.

For that matter, I wish I could have gotten my camera down to the abbey without drenching it. The chinks between the stones of the refectory walls were filled with little candles that made a myriad points of light all over the long room.

After the Communion bread (leavened, wheat) and the wine (real, but golden) had gone around and some more singing was done, a chant was begun and everyone proceeded through the cloister for the ceremonial stripping of the church. And behold, Lukas* was holding the door as everyone went out. I saw it would be terribly rude not to acknowledge his presence when face to face with him. So I silently saluted him as I passed . . . he gave me no response . . . and now I’m beginning to wonder if it was a misjudged thing to do. . .

He had his part in the stripping of the church, carrying out the great silver Celtic altar cross. As a recording of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries played, one of the women danced out with a piece of the altar plate in a way that was so effectively barbaric it was almost appalling. How should that sort of thing be done? As if we were mourners ceremonially donning our black clothes, or as impersonators of the despoiling powers of darkness? I’m not sure at all.

There was tea and biscuits back in the refectory thereafter, the cold wind still howling at the windows. Lukas* made no effort to come and greet me, at which I was beginning to be a little irritated. To counteract this feeling I wanted to do something nice for him, like see that he got a cup of tea. But I couldn’t even accomplish that. When he came round to the tea table someone else had the pot and besides, he stated baldly, he was already getting tea for someone else. And that’s all he said to me.

Got wet again coming back to the Center. Stood around with some others in the Combination Room feeding the fire with bits of odd construction wood and cardboard boxes. There’s no proper firewood around here, it seems.

But the heater in the room was beginning to come on, which was encouraging.
"Вопреки" (vopreki), Russian preposition meaning "contrary to"; transmogrified by the characters in my high school Russian class into a noun signifying someone who willfully does the opposite of what's expected of him. It's been part of my personal vocabulary ever since.


Sandy said...

Nothing like being cold and wet AND getting the cold shoulder. Sigh.

St. Blogwen said...

Really. Especially when you're used to the shoulder being pretty warm!