Traveling Music

Back in June, we received an e-mail from saint ben’s regular Sarah Chopee, informing us that she was spending a few months as a volunteer with Scotland’s Iona Community, and asking for permission to introduce that community to Jenny Moore’s song, (“O Woman“) “I am coming for you.”  Needless to say, we were keen to share the song, and after securing Jenny’s approval we sent along lyrics and an MP3 file of the song. We also asked if Sarah might be interested in writing a reflection about her Iona experience.

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his summer I had the opportunity to spend 3 months volunteering as a musician with the Iona community. Iona is a small island (1 mile by 3 miles) off the Western Coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides and is often referred to as the cradle of Christianity in Scotland. Due to its religious significance, Iona is an important pilgrimage site, and has been drawing people to her for centuries. Like many others, I had been curious to learn more about Iona for years, and was excited to experience island life.

When I first arrived at the abbey I was immediately taken aback by the pace – with twice daily worship services, volunteers and guests coming and going on a weekly basis, and an endless stream of tourists, the island was not the idyllic sanctuary for rest and contemplation that I had envisioned. I found myself in a community that was constantly being broken and reformed, a process that was both rewarding and exhausting at the same time.

One of the main hubs of life within the Iona community is the abbey church, where I spent the majority of my time either preparing for or playing in worship services. Part of the ethos of the community is a commitment to social justice and the renewal of worship, which is often apparent in the music that is used in services. As a student of ethnomusicology (music and culture) my situation was ideal – surrounded by largely unfamiliar music in an unfamiliar place, I was able to learn about and experience the music culture of Iona through participation.

After a few weeks of learning and playing new music and experiencing the ebb and flow of worship on Iona, I was surprised to realize that on a spiritual level I was becoming somewhat disconnected. I found this ironic because I was on Iona, the island that has been described as a “thin place” with only a “tissue” separating the physical from the spiritual. As I processed all of this I began to realize how much I longed to worship in a way that was familiar to me – in my own musical language, so to speak.

John Bell, musician, songwriter, and member of the Iona community, often asks people “what is the song you carry in your heart when you are away from home?” It is only since being home that I came to realize that two of the songs that I carried with me are from St.Ben’s; they are “O Woman” and “Be at rest.”

I had the chance to share these two songs in my final week on Iona and each time I felt a sense of peace and belonging like no other. Hearing my friend and fellow volunteer Ashley sing “O Woman, you are not forgotten” while I played piano during Sunday communion was a divine moment for me – a reminder that although I was on an isolated rock, I had not been forgotten. Later on in that final week I taught my friend Catherine the song “Be at rest,” which we sang together for the Thursday night communion service. Again I experienced an overwhelming sense of reassurance; after a long and often difficult time away from home, singing and hearing those familiar words soothed my soul and reminded that the Lord has been good to me.

Whenever I travel I return home with a renewed appreciation for the people and places that form my community and this trip was no exception. Upon returning to St.Ben’s for the first time this fall I breathed a sigh of relief as I thought to myself “I’m home.”

Sarah Chopee

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