Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Story of Iona

The Story of Iona by Rosemary Power is a welcome and informative look at the long history of a famous location that is west of Glasgow in Scotland, and northeast of Ireland. A small island in the Inner Hebrides, surrounded by water, Iona can be reached by ferry from Oban in Scotland, to the Isle of Mull and then by bus to Fionnphort, and another ferry from there to Iona. It’s not a long distance, but it may be a wet day, or a very cold and windy day. Patient travelers will be rewarded.

Author Power begins with the early days of life on Iona, offering ideas and suggestionas as to who was there, what was their daily life like, were they farmers, what language was spoken, were they people who came from Ireland or from Scotland? Power has done her research and she is also a member of the current community there, knowledgeable and eager for visitors to know what she has learned about the history of Iona, a place of pilgrimage, as well as tourism.

She begins with describing Iona before the Irish Saint Columba arrived. He came to the island in the sixth century, in 563 AD, and began a monastery there. The monastery continued for many years, but Columba died in 597. So in chapters 1–8, Power describes changes that occurred in every hundred-year period. Using descriptions and photos of physical remains of the buildings and artifacts found, as well as written sources, she helps readers imagine life as it was on Iona.

After the Columban period, there were 350 years of Benedictine and Augustinian monastic life. The buildings changed and some were rebuilt by the monks of their time. Chapters 9 and 10 tell their stories. And in the Afterword, we hear of what happened during and after the Reformation, and the continuing life of the community that lives there. Power includes poetry, prose, and prayers of the early, medieval, and high medieval monastic communities.

A group called the Iona Community is not an official monastery but does live by a Rule, which includes daily prayer and Bible study, music and worship, as well as concern for justice and peace. There are other local residents who make a living by farming, fishing, and tourism. There are many visitors, some of whom are there for pilgrimage, some for historical interest, and some come as tourists. There are a few hotels, bed and breakfast places, a golf course. If you plan to go, The Story of Iona, published by Canterbury Press, would serve as a helpful guide.

—Lois Sibley

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Glastonbury Grail Series

Near Glastonbury Tor is the town where, in the 16th century, one of the monasteries of the Church of England, so named and claimed by King Henry, is located. Tor means hill. Glastonbury is the town. Glastonbury Tor is the first in a three-part series of fiction called the Glastonbury Grail Series. Author LeAnne Hardy begins her story in Wales, where Colin, a young man angry with his father, blaming him for his mother’s death, attacks his father and accidently wounds him. Colin thought he had killed his father, but not so. Yet, his brother Walter tells him he better leave, giving him a special ring to identify himself and a purse of money, advising Colin to go to the monastery at Glastonbury across the River Severn in England, where one of the monks is their cousin.

When he is almost there, he sees the Tor ahead of him. Colin meets Wilfrith Thatcher, a local farmer, who offers him a ride in his cart. Tired from many miles of walking, Colin accepts. When they reach Thatcher’s home, Colin is invited for supper and overnight. To his surprise, this family has a Tyndale Bible in English and several family members, including daughter Alice, can read it. They read a portion every night after supper. But that is against the law and Colin will be expected to report them. Of course, he does not. He is surprised and pleased to see and hear a Bible read in English rather than Latin.

Colin stays with them for two days and then finds his way into town and to the monastery, meets his cousin who is now known as Brother Arthur, meets the Abbot and explains his situation, and is granted permission to remain at the monastery for a time, not as an official novice, but just as a person who needs that kind of care for awhile. Colin’s mother had always wanted him to join the church, be involved in a monastery, so he takes his time to look at it and think about it.

King Henry is sending Lord Cromwell’s men around to all the monasteries to inventory goods that might be given or taken for the king’s coffers. Glastonbury Abbey is rich, and Colin is assigned to help secure, and perhaps hide, some items the monks do not want to have taken away from them. Colin soon finds other concerns as well. As monasteries are being closed, monks are being turned away though some want to stay in their areas and continue to help the poor and any who need help. There is talk of petitions to the king. Some of the monks want to march as pilgrims, thinking the king will then change his mind and keep them in their places. There is much more...I haven’t even told you about the special cup yet, the olivewood cup that may have come from Israel with Joseph of Arimathea, long ago when perhaps he came to Glastonbury.

There are many mysteries here. And there is a second volume available, called Honddu Vale, in which Colin returns to Wales to try to reconcile with his father and has further adventures there. And there will be a third book in this series. LeAnne Hardy has been a missionary in six countries on four continents. Her plots and settings are inspired by these locations. She has also  written for children affected by HIV/AIDS. Her books are available at

—Lois Sibley

Saturday, March 1, 2014

One Woman's Spiritual Life

Here it is the last day of Black History Month and I am trying to squeeze in a review of the biography of a famous American woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe. She was author of many short stories, articles, and books, but probably best known as author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a singularly influential work of fiction against the practice of slavery in the U.S. in the 1850s.

Published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., the book title is Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Spiritual Life, and it is available at The author is Nancy Koester and she is an ordained Lutheran minister who teaches religion at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

Harriet Beecher was born June 14, 1811, the sixth child of Lyman and Roxana Beecher. Her father, Lyman, was known as a fiery, evangelical Calvinistic preacher. He was a Congregationalist and served a church in Litchfield, Connecticut. In those days, boys had access to formal education, girls, rarely. But next door to the manse was the Litchfield Female Academy, so Harriet began her education there. She and her sister became teachers though Harriet also knew she wanted to write. And she did: many articles, short stories, books and whatever she could, whenever she could along with her teaching and her rising interest in social action. She was active in helping her sister Catharine gather signed petitions in favor of the Cherokee Nation when they were threatened with removal from their territory. She also became more and more concerned for those who were slaves and she began gathering stories and experiences as she became acquainted with slaves and their stories.

In January 1836, Harriet married Calvin Stowe from Natick, Massachusetts. A graduate of Bowdoin College in ME, and Dartmouth in NH, Calvin taught at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Lyman Beecher was president. Calvin had been married to Eliza, but when cholera swept through Cincinnati, she died and he then married Harriet.

Through correspondence with Editor Gamaliel Bailey, who started a new anti-slavery paper, called the National Era, Harriet began submitting articles to him. They agreed that attacking slaveholders was not helpful. It was better to show the effects of slavery more broadly, and to try to persuade those who were wavering to give up the practice of having slaves. Stowe’s articles in Bailey’s paper began in 1850 and continued weekly for some time.

In those days, women were not expected to speak in public, especially on issues like slavery, and those who did were shunned as fanatics. But Bailey encouraged Stowe to continue her writing and he continued to publish it.

 In June of 1851, when Stowe was in her 40s, Bailey began to advertise Stowe’s weekly installments in his paper as Uncle Tom's Cabin. She began with her own material, gradually weaving in appropriate Scripture passages, newspaper clippings, anti-slavery writings and other sources. The book was finally published on March 20, 1852. Within the first year, the book sold 300,00 copies in the U.S. and 1.5 million in Great Britain. Thousands of “Stowe’s readers were changed, converted to Christ and to anti-slavery at the same time.” Stowe said “she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin to ‘awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race.’” She wanted readers to know slaves as human beings in their own right. Slavery was a heavy subject, so Stowe decided to add humor and readers laughed and cried their way through the pages, unable to stop reading.

Reviews, reactions, discussions, disagreements went on for a long time. Stowe continued her writing. She also traveled abroad, first to Britain, then Scotland, and Paris. She and her husband, Calvin Stowe, made three trips to Europe before settling down at home. She continued to write until she suffered the effects of stroke. Author Koester says of her: “She changed the world with her pen.” Harriet Beecher Stowe died on July 1, 1896. Koester has given us Harriet's life in remarkable detail and I for one am grateful.

 —Lois Sibley