Normally, when I go across the pond the most direct route to Europe is a flight from a hub city in the USA to the nearest hub in the country I’m headed to visit. For example, when I go to Rome I’ll usually fly from New Orleans to Atlanta, Delta’s main Hub, and from there to Fiumicino Airport outside Rome. It’s a matter of just getting there and getting on with things.
However, for this sabbatical we began looking into doing something crazy. We opted to make our way without hurrying. Since we weren’t in a frenzy to get to Pamplona right away, we thought about going to that strange and ironically not always frozen country called Iceland.
At one time, Iceland catered to the outdoorsy crowd. If one went to Iceland, it was because nobody else was there. Splendor, beauty, and (if you’re in the right season) the Aurora Borealis waited to greet the soul seeking adventure in an unknown land. But things changed. In Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s handy guide The Little Book of Tourists in Iceland, she says that it was in 2010 a tourism boom following the “Inspired by Iceland” campaign caused an influx of over 490,000 visitors to Iceland with the number climbing at least by two more when Fr. Ryan and I stepped off Iceland Air and onto the jetway in Reykjavik.
And step off the aircraft we did onto the TARMAC of Reykjavik International Airport at 5 in the morning. Of course, the sun had been up for about an hour already, but we hadn’t slept on the flight. Since it was so early, we zombily found our way to the bus stop and boarded a 45 minute trek into the central district downtown. It was a little too early to check in to the hotel (by about 8 hours!) so we needed to keep ourselves “busy” for a little while. Thankfully, a little coffee shop was open and we each made a chocolate croissant and an espresso our first Icelandic breakfast. Admittedly, this isn’t 100% authentic, but sugar and caffeine were the most important endeavor at that point. It prompted some insomniac art:
At first glance, the land is extremely expansive and beautiful. The people are extremely friendly. From the shopkeepers to the hoteliers to the café baristas, there was a wide smile and a ready patience to help me count my kronas correctly. What’s particularly interesting is that the city center seems to be staffed by folks that haven’t yet made their 45th birthday. It’s almost as if the elder population of Iceland have said “We’ll be in the highlands if you need us, the tourists are all yours! Bye!” There are also quite a few workers who are expatriates of other countries: The Czech Republic, Poland, and Italy have been represented well in the shops downtown. While we have met a few Icelanders, I understand that many have moved from the center because the tourism has yielded both a never-ending boom of hotel construction, scalper-level pricing (in what was already an expensive place to live) to capitalize on the Americans who love to spend, and what the locals refer to as “Puffin Shops,” which can only be likened to the phenomenon called “Alvin’s Island” at every town along Interstate 10 that comes within 5 miles of a beach. I can certainly understand why an exodus might be in order.
It is said that a trip around the “Golden Circle” which rings Iceland is a must-do event for one’s first time, since it’s possible to traverse the entire nation in about 12 hours. It began with a two hour drive to the site where the tectonic plates that form the northern part of the Mid-Atlantic ridge meet. It’s possible to stand on the North American plate and then step over the crack (via footbridge) to the Eurasian one. They’re moving apart at what amounts to 2 centimeters a year, which in California would be cause to form a cause for concern. It’s also connected to the significant volcanic activity. The magma, I’m told, just keeps on filling in the ridge, so there’s no expected chasm–just a Puffin Shop.
It was here in the drizzly cold atop the North American side of the crag that I paused first for prayer, right before a warming cup of coffee inside the geothermally heated shop (which surprisingly hadn’t capitalized on the notion that we were at the site of two shifting plates. Imagine it! Plates with an intentional “crack” down the middle. I could make a million króna! ...or $9,344).
There’s so much that seeks to split us, especially in light of the news these past few weeks. No matter the source – be it church or state – there are sown the seeds of division, often by those who purport to protect others. It’s reprehensible to be sure and there’s always a great temptation to take to Twitter or a comment box, but the real first response and salvo of defense, which so often gets only a laugh and a pssssh! of dismissal, are prayers of reparation. This used to be much better understood in Catholic culture, rending our hearts and not our garments (or keyboards) to cry for mercy from The Lord for those who have placed both their own souls and the souls of others in peril. It’s not politically correct, because it necessarily involves acknowledging personal sinfulness publicly and it also involves a belief in the function of intercession before God on behalf of others, especially those we would consider enemies. But, nonetheless, it is a tried and true component of the Christian confession (“I believe in ... the communion of saints...”) and ought to be rediscovered.
It was here that I asked the Sacred Heart of Jesus for mercy for the cardinals, bishops, priests and deacons of the Church who have taken advantage of the innocence of a soul or abused their position as shepherds. I prayed that I may not become a man given over to vice of any kind. I prayed for my little flock in Louisiana. I prayed for the many confused, hurting, and righteously angry souls seeking response and resolve and finding none. I prayed that rather than move apart like the tectonic plates beneath my feet, The Lord’s great desire would manifest in our own day:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)
After that moment of fairly intense prayer, I enjoyed a coffee in the much-too-crowded puffin shop to get out of the grey, rainy mountainside. We continued down the divide to a site known as Lögberg, which is allegedly the ancient site where the first parliament of Iceland (which was made up of the heads of the Viking clans and later their appointed representatives). An Icelandic flag stands where the Lawspeaker would proclaim law, orate, and settle disputes. Of course, we Catholics know all about the symbolism of having a firm foundation on which to plant the teachings we believe! As the Italian-cum-Icelandic tour guide was telling us this, I was thinking of Simon Peter’s confession of faith in the Messiah, which Jesus Himself recognized as not having come from another man, but from God the Father. It was this revelation of Simon bar Jonah’s own trust in The Lord and not himself which deepened the call of Jesus to this crusty fisherman. Jesus proclaims him no longer Simon, but Peter – The Rock – and upon him The Church was built, with Christ Jesus as the Capstone. As we heard of the trust that those early tribes placed in the Icelandic Lawspeaker (or prime minister in today’s parlance), I prayed for the pope whose chief role in Holy Church is to teach, govern, and sanctify in the name of Jesus. I prayed that he will continue to trust in and confess Jesus as The Lord in all that he says and does.
After a trip to The Great Geysir — the name from which the English word “geyser” is taken, having been the first spewey, steamy, vent of the earth’s indigestion ever recorded in print, and its accompanying Puffin Shop, we were deposited home, having completed the Great Circle (of Puffin Shops). It was a dreary and tiresome day, but one that was met with some unexpected opportunities for prayer.
Our last full day in Reykjavik, we had a sumptuous breakfast at the hotel (included in the price and incredibly extensive for a hotel!) and made our way over to Christ the King Cathedral for Mass. Fr. Ryan is really good at knocking on doors, and so he had no qualms about presenting himself at the cathedral rectory and asking for a place to offer The Holy Sacrifice. A quick flash of our celebret (the “I’m really a priest” card. Yep, they exist!) and we were in, preparing the little altar inside the bishop’s private chapel. We met a seminarian studying for the Diocese of Reykjavik who heard the call to this specific island on Earth after watching a YouTube video by the bishop calling for vocations. After a cup of instant coffee and an enjoyable sharing of the state of the Church (there’s always a conclave when two or more priests sit at a dining room table), we popped back to the hotel to prepare to leave for Dublin.
I’m very grateful for some Spirit led prayer and an unexpected grace of offering Mass in a place that has known the Faith since times ancient (800AD!).
Tomorrow, off to Dublin! Be assured of my prayer for you, intrepid reader. Please pray for our safety and for these little moments where the Lord whispers.