This past Sunday, the choir sang an arrangement of the hymn, “Morning Has Broken.” I was 15 years old when Cat Stevens popularized the song way back in 1971 on his Tea for the Tillerman album. During the summer of 1973, I lived in an extension of the Iona Community on the Isle of Mull, Scotland. The closest “town” was Bunessan. If you look at the bottom of page 38 in our gray hymnal, you will see on the bottom right the word, “Bunessan.” That is the actual name of the tune that “Morning Has Broken” is set to.
Wikipedia told me that the hymn was written by Mary M. Macdonald in the 1800’s to a traditional melody in Scottish Gaelic, the only language she spoke. Mary lived in a small community near Bunessan on the Isle of Mull. When the hymn was translated into English in the 1880’s, the translator named the melody after the village of Bunessan. The melody was written down in the early 1900’s and would come to the attention eventually of composers such as Ralph Vaughn Williams who were editing a hymnal. Further text was written for that edition of a hymnal and the hymn is now included in many denominational hymnals. I have always loved the hymn (thanks to Cat Stevens) but find it a difficult stretch to sing early in the morning.
The five weeks I spent in the Iona Community both on Mull and on the Isle of Iona was religiously transformative for me. And those weeks were a hell of a lot of fun. The abandoned fishing structure at the end of a couple mile track that went down to an inlet by the sea was the site of weekly camps for youth from all over the U.K. I still remember walking up to the top of the moor with a young boy from Africa named Thabani. It took me nearly a full week just to be able to understand any of the various Scottish brogues that folks spoke to me in. There were some I never did get. It was there that I tasted hot custard over boiled rhubarb for the first time. And learned to shred cheese and roll it up in spinach leaves for a snack. But most importantly, I learned to be a creator and leader of twice daily worship services.
Each week, the camp would trek up the track into Bunessan where we would play the villagers in a football match. I remember playing goalkeeper and having made a save, taking a rather larger step to kick the ball, only to end up on “my arse” because I had slipped on a cow patty. After the match, we would head to the pub for the freshest and best fish and chips I have ever had, wrapped in newspaper. I also learned to choke down the local hard cider years before it became fashionable to drink.
The Iona Community has a wonderful and magical history. Part of every campers experience was taking the tiny ferry from Fionnphort, Mull over to the small isle of Iona for the night, attending services in the famous abbey and walking the pilgrimage trek around the island. Looking at images of the abbey online have only reaffirmed the magic and mystery of the place.
So Easter morning was a flood of memories and gratitude as I listened to the choir sing “Bunessan.” I long for one more taste of those fish and chips. But even more so, I long to be at a service in the abbey, awash in history and a spiritual vibrancy.
Peace, Shalom, Salaam,
“The Iona Community is a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship.” https://iona.org.uk/#