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Book Review: Urban Iona by Kurt Neilson - nhpeacenik
Book Review: Urban Iona by Kurt Neilson
"I believe that we are close upon a great and deep spiritual change. I believe a new redemption is even now conceived of the Divine Spirit in the human heart, that is itself as a woman, broken in dreams, and yet sustained in faith, patient, long-suffering, looking towards home. I believe that though the Reign of Peace may be yet a long way off, it is drawing near: and that Who shall save us anew shall come divinely as a Woman, to save as Christ saved, but not, as He did, to bring with Her a sword .... Sometimes I dream of the old prophecy that Christ shall come again upon Iona, and that later and obscure prophecy which foretells, now as the Daughter of God, now as the Divine Spirit embodied through mortal birth in a Woman, the coming of a new Presence and Power. But more wise it is to dream, not of hallowed ground, but of the hallowed gardens of the soul wherein She shall appear white and radiant. Or, that upon the hills, where we wandered, the Shepherdess shall call us home."
- Fiona McLeod (pseud. William Sharp) 1900

The folks at Morehouse Publishing  contacted the radio program I host with an offer of an interview with the author of this new book Urban Iona: Celtic Hospitality in the City . I jumped at the opportunity to read the book, because I had made my own, less formally religious, pilgrimage to Iona with my wife and my daughter a decade ago. I had read the book "Iona" by Fiona McLeod, which I quote above, shortly before the birth of our daughter and had been so impressed with the description of the place that we ended up naming her after the island. Naturally, when she was old enough, we went to the island as a family, and each had subtle but life-changing experiences there. I went to the Island as a middle-aged man, and I quickly learned of numerous other people who had also felt the need to make a journey at this time of life. Chief among them was Satish Kumar, a Jain, whose book No Destination described a midlife pilgrimage on foot to many holy sites in the British Isles, culminating at Iona. I still hope to speak with Kurt Nielson on the radio show, but I wanted to get something in print as soon as I could, because this is a worthy  book that  can benefit a large number of people if they hear about it and read it.

This book is well-written and moving to read as a spiritual journey, as the biography of a churchman who has doubts, insecurities and a family life like the rest of us, and even as a travelogue. At the start of the book, Neilson experiences a "call" to travel to a storytelling conference at Iona as a way of renewing the life of his struggling inner-city parish and reorienting his own vocation. His friends, family and advisers all confirm this calling and raise the funds to send him to the conference. At the conference, he visits the sacred sites of the island in a prayerful way and has a vision/encounter with Saint Columba in which he was told that his  (and his parish's) prayers had been granted, but that he would have to work for the realization of the promise. Next, he travelled to Ireland, the island from which his ancestors had been driven by poverty and despair, to meet Saint Bridgid. At Bridgids's well, he was able to release the grief and spiritual baggage that he and his family had been carrying for generations and go forth to carry out the mission that Columba had empowered him to do. For Nielson, I sense that he heart of the book is really Bridgid rather than Columba, but the holy isle of Iona is also a central presence.

Through various kinds of ancient and family stories, he tells us how he arrived at the point where he understood how Saint Bridgid operates to feed and serve the poor. When he returned to his Oregon parish,  through a series of "coincidences", he was shown the way to reorient his parish as a kind of "monastery in the world" to start serving the prostitutes who plied their trade outside the church, by providing them with food and community, along with assistance in finding a new way of life when they were ready. He speaks of metaphorical holes that have been kicked in the church wall that let the parish interact with the people out in the community, The church no longer just  survives as a  kind of dwindling island of good-hearted aging churchgoers in a sea of suffering humanity, but takes part in the uplifting of its local community; nonetheless, the church is not bound by physical location but consists of its human participants wherever they may be. The healing and protective "mantle of Bridgid" is slowly being drawn over a larger area.

The story told in this book is difficult to summarize but wonderfully easy to read and relate to. The occasional despairing references to the dominant form of Christianity in the US, which is allied with patriotism and sees nothing wrong with warfare and money-grubbing, warmed my heart because I know just what he's talking about. The vision of a what he calls a "celtic" Christianity, where mystical vision, pilgrimage, community and hospitality take the place of hierarchy, warms my heart even more.

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1 comment or Leave a comment
iona_inireland From: iona_inireland Date: March 28th, 2007 09:42 am (UTC) (Link)
Katie gave me Iona by Fiona McLeod two weeks ago in Dublin and I read it on my train journey away from Scotland!
I just finished it yesterday! amazing.
now I want to read Urban Iona!
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