Years ago, I helped lead a youth group to Iona, Scotland for a pilgrimage. I remember thinking how great of a gift it was, to travel there in the first place, but also to be celebrating the Eucharist in a chapel at Iona, as well as on its shores. Walking alongside Iona’s shores and pastures was, and I mean this truly, magical. It felt like being invited into a fantasy novel, like being ushered into a dreamscape. And yet, it was not a fantasy as all, nor was it a dreamscape, it was real. The sand of Iona got stuck in my boots; the wind of Iona tousled my hair. It is a real place. I know, because I have gone there.
Today we think about the life of Saint Columba, who was known for (as Bede tells us) sharing his faith with others through “preaching and example.” He is also known for his ascetic and embodied understanding of the faith. His spiritual community on the island of Iona is still vibrant, and his ministry continues to be known throughout Scotland, Ireland, and the world over.
The ascetic life incorporates self-discipline, ordering of our passions, fasting, choosing to abandon personal pleasure for a better understanding of salvation and spirituality. When done in community, it becomes a common sacrifice, as the community chooses to share both the denial of personal pleasure and also the better understanding of salvation that can come out of sacrifice.
In the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, I have been thinking about Rachel Cargle’s quote, “White feelings should never be held in higher regard than black lives.” I have let these words, alongside some of the last words of George Floyd and Eric Garner, “I can’t breathe,” become something like mantras of me.
Mantras are often thought of as words of peace, but I think of them more as mantras of necessary unrest, as it feels vitally important for me as a white person to have these words and the truth of the people who spoke them become real for me. The fact that they are not already real for me is evidence of my white privilege and participation in white supremacy.
It strikes me that I, as a white person, must take on an ascetic life regarding my whiteness. Saint Columba can serve as a reminder that I must choose to abandon personal pleasure to try to bring about a world that believes fully in the love of black people, the care of their bodies, the importance of their safety, the beauty of their lives, and the non-negotiable truth that they deserve justice. Their deaths are incarnate in front of me, as I watch the videos, and my prayers must also become incarnate and ascetic in order for me to be anything other than a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.
I do not say this as someone who has figured it out. I say this as someone who is working her way through this resource* and who is trying to let the words of Cargle, Garner, and Floyd resound and become incarnate in her soul and life.
Places like Iona are often called “thin spaces,” spaces where we might feel the intersection of heaven and earth. I can imagine no thinner space, no greater collision of heaven and earth, than a society that treasures black lives. And that imagining of a thinner space is not meant to be fantasy, it is not meant to be a dreamscape. I believe it is a real place. I believe we can go there. But first, I must become a white person who sacrifices, or else I will never be known as a person who shared my faith—and in it, a belief that black lives matter—through preaching and example. That’s the spiritual work before me that I must make incarnate in my mind, body, and soul, as the words of Cargle, Garner, and Floyd become my prayers.
*This is a resource compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker, Alyssa Klein in May 2020. It includes a section of resources for white parents to raise anti-racist children, as well as many recommendations of articles, videos, podcasts, books, people to follow on social media platforms, and other organizations to support. While it is not a checklist, because this work will require going past this document, this can be a starting place or a way to continue the work. I want to offer my gratitude to Sarah Sophie Flicker, Alyssa Klein, and everyone who has shared it with me for giving me this resource as I continue my work.
What spiritual work is before you?
How are your prayers becoming incarnate in your life?