“I’ve heard it called a ‘thin place,’” he told me. “I’m not sure that I believe that, so I want to see for myself.” It sounded to my ears as if he’d laid down a challenge—to me, or the island, I wasn’t sure which. Coming from someone I respect, his apparent skepticism gave me pause. He was one of many pilgrims on a journey to the Isle of Iona that I was co-leading with Carole Crumley several years ago. I wondered, “What might this holy island that I have loved for many years have to offer to him?” As much as I wanted him to appreciate Iona, it was clear that all I could do was trust that he would be given what was right for him.
In a “thin place” it is said that the barrier between Earth and the heavens seems nearly non-existent; it seems somehow easier to hear the gentle nudging of the Spirit. It is often a place that has been saturated by the prayers of pilgrims and seekers for centuries. That is especially true for Iona.
In 563AD, the Irish monk Columba fled his homeland and established a monastic settlement here that brought what became known as Celtic Christianity to large parts of Scotland, the north of England, and beyond. The early Celtic Christians worshiped here, outdoors around a cross, most likely where the ninth century St. Martin’s Cross still stands outside of the Abbey. With its beautiful carvings on both sides, we are reminded of the Celtic desire for connection with both the Book of the Bible and the Book of Creation.
In the Middle Ages, the Benedictines built an abbey which was lovingly restored in the 1930’s and 40’s. The remains of the Augustinian Nunnery still grace the isle. Imagine all of the prayers that were offered throughout the years! The practice of abundant prayer continues today in the historic Abbey with the morning and evening worship of the Iona Community, an ecumenical group that welcomes all pilgrims. Yes, Iona is definitely saturated in prayer.
Perhaps there’s also something about its remoteness that makes Iona special. A tiny Hebridean Island a little over one mile wide and three miles long with a resident population of 125, Iona is a stone’s throw from the Island of Mull off the coast of Scotland. For pilgrims, it requires nearly a day-long trip from Glasgow via bus through hills and around lochs followed by a 45-minute ferry ride; then re-boarding a bus to cross the sparsely populated Mull and finally taking a small ferry to Iona. On the other side of Iona, looking out to sea; there is nothing between the pilgrim and Newfoundland.
In a thin place, we also may be more likely to sense the beauty of Creation and to claim our oneness with all. On Iona, birds, sea life and abundant wildflowers share space with sheep and highland cattle (sometimes known as “hairy cows”)! Walk to the top of Dun I, the highest point at 333 feet above sea level, and you can survey the entire island as well as other islands in the distance. Not far away is the Well of Eternal Youth associated with the sixth century St. Brigid of Ireland. Clearly Iona is a land of deep history and great beauty.
Our pilgrimage rhythm invites prayers in the Abbey, times of community, an exploration of the gifts of Celtic Christianity, a pilgrimage to St. Columba’s Bay, quiet time, and abundant opportunities for spacious walks wherever the Spirit leads! I sense that rhythm may contribute to a greater openness to the Spirit always among and within. Certainly Iona has been a thin place for me. I yearn to return each time to that sacred isle where I know that I slow my pace, breathe more deeply, and listen with my senses more finely tuned and my heart open.
So what of my skeptical friend? I stood next to him on the ferry as we looked back on the tiny isle that had been our home for the week. “So what did you decide?” I asked. “Is Iona a ‘thin place’?”
Slowly he responded, “Well, I don’t know if it’s the centuries of prayers, or the services in the Abbey, or our time together on the pilgrimage, or something about the island itself, but it’s definitely a special place.” I smiled to myself; that was good enough for me.
(Published by Shalem Institute, 11/3/17)