Author’s Note: I wrote most of this blog while on the Scottish island of Iona early in July. Mrs. Newton and I spent a week on the western island with a tour/retreat group. My time on Iona was filled with thought — mainly reflection on Scripture and pondering about matters of life and faith. This blog, in origin and in spirit, is from Iona.
Silence, peace, rest, refuge and waiting… all of these words seem to be interrelated. Maybe one produces the other, then another and so forth. Maybe they are all synonyms or cousins. All of them, however, have been at the forefront of my mind this week on Iona.
My thoughts keep turning to the physical characteristics of this blessed island off the west coast of Scotland. To the lush green grass and the deep blue sea. To the rocky crags and the beaches of smooth stone. To the grey stone abbey and the white block houses; the waves crashing against the shore and the wind coursing between hedges of fuchsia. These are all physical attributes of Iona, things that make the island insanely beautiful and deeply desired. Add in the spiritual significance of this place and Iona is a must-see for any lover of goodness, truth and beauty.
It has been fun to learn about Columba over the past six days, and the religious order he founded that evangelized most of the British mainland in the span of a hundred years. From this tiny island, three miles long and a mile and a half across, monks went out on mission, befriending kings, establishing monastic centers, and spreading a message about God’s care that reverberated in hearts and minds. Celtic Christianity captured Britain, and for four hundred years Iona served as the sheltering mother for monasteries, pilgrims and merchants.
Iona was such an important place that kings and lords demanded to be buried there. Three Saints lived and died there. And many thousands and hundreds of thousands of Christians made trips there to worship God and find refuge.
The Stunning Nature of Silence
Iona is one of the quietest places I have ever been. Though it is an island filled with wildlife, dotted with houses and harassed by the crashing Atlantic Ocean, if you stop in the middle of it on a sunny day and cease all activity, you’ll likely hear the sound of silence. No noise other than an occasional seagull or endangered corncrake bird.
(What is a corncrake? We first learned of that little creature at a worship service, when a lady prayed openly for the restoration of “the corncrakes, wildcats and other endangered Highland and Hebrides species.” I thought, “What?? Did she just say ‘cornflakes?’” Indeed, the corncrake is a small Oriole-sized bird that is being fiercely protected here on Iona. Unlike the typical high-pitched singing or chirping sound of most birds, corncrakes sound a bit like bullfrogs, with a croak/short burst of noise/baritone call.)
Ah, stillness. Iona is amazing, seemingly void of all air conditioners, lawnmowers and every other piece of technology that makes background noise. Instead, you may hear a light breeze in the background, followed by silence. The world still exists around you but it is a place of perfect stillness and quiet!
I first noticed this still effect when our Iona tour group headed across island on a walking trip to St. Columba’s Bay, one of a number of pilgrimage sites. Shannon sat down on a bench outside a small artisan jewelry shop and I walked up to her when I noticed something remarkable. The only noise I heard was the sounds my ears constantly make (I suffer from constant tinnitus). I was overwhelmed by emotion. I motioned to my wife and shushed my lips, pointing to my ears and then the surrounding environment. It was almost too amazing to believe. Silence. Peace. Stillness. Remarkably, the island grass was still waving in a light breeze and sheep were grazing on every hillside and yet… silence.
Mrs. Newton and I talked at length about how our society is filled with noise and busyness. Even out in the American countryside, there is noise. Air conditioners, cars, weed eaters, airplanes outside… even inside our homes there is constant noise. Ever heard a refrigerator or ceiling fan? A dishwasher? An air conditioner? If you say, “No,” then you’ve probably become accustomed to having your ears filled with noise. The noise is still there. True silence? Found only between your ears and accessible via industrial-grade earplugs (unless you’re me, of course).
It could be that part of our world’s anxiety and stress problem could be blamed on the noise with which we fill our environment. I know that I, for one, have great difficulty finding rest in the midst of the noise or, more importantly, being silent before the Lord.
In Psalm 37, the older and wiser King David instructs his hearers to, “Be silent before the Lord and wait expectantly for Him (v7).” The command is literally, “Be quiet!” Be silent. I’m reminded of another famous verse, this one from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” To be still. To let go. To be quiet.
Learning to Block the Noise
Have you ever noticed how our world doesn’t appreciate the concept of silence? Music blaring, cars racing, machines whirring, TVs entertaining… the things we are exhorted to buy in order to occupy our time.
When I was growing up, I never understood why people read books. Funny, right? My older sister was a book lover and she would spend her free time with her nose in a novel or short story series. Family vacations, at home, during holidays… when someone would ask, “Where is Jennifer?” the answer would always be, “Upstairs reading.” I kind of grew to despise books, holding to the firm belief that Jennifer would have enjoyed her childhood a lot more if she simply looked out the window instead of looking at a page of tiny words.
It’s funny how attitudes change over time. I married a book reader. She reads multiple books each year and, in fact, just downloaded a new one here on Iona. Books may be one answer to the silence problem our society faces. Retreating from the noise and bustle of life to read a bit all alone might be a needed bit of stillness for the sound-bombarded soul.
Another way to combat the noise is to simply create a space around you where the noise is at its least. A “safe space” for stillness. One lady in our group mentioned that her back deck is her place of stillness. I’ve always enjoyed going hiking away from neighborhoods, letting the trail be my still space. The wife and I are hoping to one day build a covered gazebo-like place on our mountain property, with benches, so people can go away from the noise and either read a book, say a prayer, or just enjoy the creation of God around them. Speaking of which…
Creation and the Sensation of Peace
Psalm 19 says that the heavens declare the glory of the Lord; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. When King David looked at those heavens at night, he was amazed by the greatness of God (and the smallness of man; Psalm 8). Another man of faith, the Apostle Paul, put a theological spin on this sentiment when he wrote, “For since the creation of the world the invisible attributes of God have been evidenced by the things He has made.” God can be seen in His creation. Just like a potter that has left a thumbprint on a vessel he has just created, God has left His thumbprint on this universe — heavens and earth.
Iona doesn’t have the highest mountains or the purest white beaches on earth. There cannot possibly be more than a hundred trees on the island! There is no flowing creek that cascades down a dramatic waterfall into a tropical lagoon. No, Iona is a wind-swept island on the turbulent and cold west coast of Scotland, inhabited by marshes, ferns, rocks and grass. And yet, Iona is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. There is a great peace in its beauty, a peace that hits the heart and leads a stressed-out soul to relax‚ if but for only a moment.
My soul is easily ministered to by the beauty of God’s creation. Is yours? I’ll never forget one of my most memorable interactions with Creation. In 2011 I found myself on vacation, tent camping my way through Colorado by myself, exploring gold mines, Old West towns, waterfalls and the other adventurous landmarks that make Colorado special.
One day I drove to Silverton, a high-altitude mining town in the Southwestern part of the state. Silverton is in one of the most beautiful settings of Colorado, in my opinion, situated at 10,000 feet in elevation and surrounded by jagged rocky mountaintops on all sides. It is in a bowl — a high mountain saddle — that is bisected by the cold Animas River, a rushing stream that owes its origin to the melting snowcaps above Silverton.
After driving east of town to the Old Hundred Mine and snooping around on foot, I walked back to my grey Ford Focus and looked up. I don’t know what existential thing happened to my spirit in that moment but I suddenly was mentally, emotionally and spiritually floored. I leaned back against my car and took a deep breath. I found myself in a mountain valley that slopes down to the Silverton saddle, with steep, tall, rocky mountains on my left, on my right and standing right in front of me. I was surrounded! The air was clean and crisp. The sun was shining off the peak in front of me. I was both transfixed on the beauty of the place and completely stunned by it. God was certainly present in that place, though I also had no reason to question His attendance anywhere else in my life! But His Creation in that moment was testifying to His beauty, His might, His power, His… everything. And the fact that I could enjoy it with my own eyes and my own heart spoke to His love and grace for me.
I am fully convinced that God’s Creation can also be an agent of His peace. If the heavens declare God’s glory, the skies show His workmanship, the trees clap their hands in praise, and the stones cry out that Jesus is Lord, then… they must also point to His perfectly present peace. On Iona, we were surrounded by the vistas of white sandy beaches, green lush grass, and rocky outcroppings, and our ears were serenaded with the sounds of waves crashing and seagulls conversing. There was great peace on that island (though sin was also present thanks to humanity, both residing and visiting!).
One aspect that Mrs. Newton and I plan to commit to the operation of Restless Heart is that of “Creation’s Counsel.” We want to find a spot for our retreat center where people can come and find an environment of peace. Where water flows and trees wave and beautiful views beckon the heart to peace. I cannot help but think that the human heart may be more receptive to hear the ways of God if it is surrounded by the things of God. And so we want to see God minister to restless hearts through the peaceful things He has made while we counsel those hearts with His Word.
Iona had long been on my bucket list of places to visit, dating back years before I met my wife. It wasn’t until after we first met last year that I found out she had previously committed to a trip to Iona led by a former mentor at John Brown University. I must admit that I was very jealous. As our engagement proceeded, she was worried that this committed trip would prevent us from getting married when we wanted. So I decided to join her and call it our “official honeymoon.” Am I ever glad I went!
The week was relaxing and renewing for my heart and mind. I got to know my wife a lot better and we dreamed deep dreams about our family and our ministry. We came away from the time stronger as both individuals and as a couple. Like many pilgrims before us, we sought the Lord on Iona and He heard us. And now we’re ready to face the next exciting chapter of our lives. Stay tuned for details!