Reconnecting with Spiritual Practice

Hermit's Cell on Iona

Hermit’s Cell on Iona

One sign of rebirthing, not only within the Christian household but also in the lives of many in the Western world today who do not identify with any particular religious tradition, is a reconnecting with spiritual practice. In the last two decades there has been an enormous burst of interest in yoga and other practices from the East, based on ancient teachings and disciplines that combine physical rigor with spiritual awareness. Likewise, we have seen a resurgence of labyrinth building in our church and public parks, and a reclaiming of other simple contemplative tools that speak of the desire to recover practices from the past to promote the rebirthing of spiritual well-being today.

One of the stations of the Iona pilgrimage is the Hermit’s Cell. It sits at the heart of the island. No more than a circular ruin of stones, it is the remains of an ancient Celtic beehive hut. Legend has it that Columba and his brothers would retreat there in turn for periods of solitude and prayer as a balance to their life together in community. The Hermit’s Cell stands as a sign of the relationship between contemplation and action, silence and expression, solitude and relationship.

On pilgrimage to the Hermit’s Cell I was once asked how many monks used to live here – a question that reveals the disorientation among many moderns in approaching the ancient practices of solitude and stillness. An interesting feature of the Iona Hermit’s Cell is its location. It is hidden amid hills in the interior of the island, so people often get lost trying to find it. They become disoriented. Similarly, so much of our culture, including our religious inheritance, has felt lost when it comes to spiritual practice. But we are in the midst of a reawakening.

One of the things that we remember on pilgrimage as we approach the Hermit’s Cell in silence together is that reclaiming the relationship between stillness and action, or between solitude and relationship, is part of the desire to come back into relationship with the wisdom of nature’s rhythms. The earth knows its patterns of night followed by day, of winter barrenness succeeded by spring energy and summer fruiting, of long periods of infolding and dormancy followed by seasons of unfolding and the expression of seed-force. We know that if we do not give ourselves over to the darkness and dreaming of nighttime, entering its intimate invitation to sleep and rest, we will be only half-awake to the demands and creativity of the day. Yet at other levels we forget the natural patterns that we are part of. Or we pretend that we can be deeply engaged and productive while pushing ourselves and others in ways that are antithetical to the essential rhythms of earth’s cycles and seasons.

Newell, John Philip. The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New BeginningsVermont: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2014. | Photo by Karin Baard