It’s been over two weeks since I returned from my pilgrimage to Iona. I’ve often thought of the people from our community at the Abbey, remembering their faces and snippets of conversations. I can feel the chill of that early morning air and remember the fierce wind that was sometimes mixed with rain. When I take morning walks in my neighborhood, I’m transported to the single lane road across the island, reminded how few cars there were compared to home. Now I consider the ‘boon’ or blessings of my journey.
I was a bit anxious about joining a group of strangers from around the world, living in close quarters for a week. Last year when I took my solo journey to Artcroft in Kentucky, I thought I was going to live in a community of artists. Instead of sharing with them in farm chores and kitchen duties, I stayed there alone in the quiet of rural Kentucky.
At first, I was disappointed, wondering how I’d fill that empty space, by myself for fourteen days. Gradually, God showed me how to live into that stillness and multiplied my efforts at writing and studying the craft of memoir. The rhythm of my day began to match that of my surroundings. I learned to be present in a house without the sounds of television or another human voice. My delights were hearing birdsong, taking long walks down the dirt road lined with lavender chicory blooms and Queen Anne’s lace, watching for the rabbit at the edge of the lawn. During my two weeks, I ate only one meal in the company of others. What joy to share at the table of the Artcroft founder and his wife, a most welcomed breakfast fellowship over eggs Benedict.
This year, the bustling community life at Iona challenged me in a different way. Most of my time was spent with others; participating in sessions and services, meal duties, and household chores. There were many conversations at varying degrees of depth. We talked while working, casually chatted in front of the fire, and shared one-to-one over tea and oatcakes. Living in community highlighted both my strengths and weaknesses—in a way that being alone couldn’t do.
For me, it was easy to start conversations and listen to the others, but sometimes I tired of interactions that went too long. There were days I felt drained from interacting with so many people. Over the past few years, it’s been pointed out to me that I’m one who listens deeply and gives all, part of my sensitive nature and my profession as a nurse. Sometimes it’s difficult to balance my extroverted self with my introverted self. While the extrovert is friendly and talkative, the introvert wants to run to the quiet of time alone.
The group discussions challenged the narrowness of being in my own head. They helped me to see the world from the vantage point of others, God’s reach broader than my own. I came away feeling that I need to spend more time in community, to be more involved in my home congregation of faith. But, that needs to be balanced with a healthy amount of time alone.
Walking down that dirt road in Kentucky, I was struck by the proliferation of the thorny thistle and used gardening gloves to cut them for a bouquet. The ones I saw in Iona were smaller. That hardy plant is the floral emblem of Scotland and a reminder of the fierce Scots. I loved the thistle’s form and beautiful purple flower that was in juxtaposition to the thorns.
Now, I see the thistle as a symbol that binds my two journeys together; the solitude of Artcroft and the community of Iona. Both sides need to be balanced in order for me to be whole, a reminder that is some of the boon that I bring home.
What about you?
How have you learned to balance the need to be with others and the need to be alone?
What are indicators that your life is out of balance?
What areas do you need to invest more time in to adjust the balance?