2016-06-30
My fascination with Iona, a wildly windswept and ruggedly beautiful island off Scotland's western coast, began almost 10 years ago when I met an extraordinary man who invited me to join him in his somewhat eccentric life's work as a stacker of rocks. My friend had served for many years as a Presbyterian minister, got married and divorced, raised a family, and retired--all very normal. Then, during the early years of his retirement, he went to Iona, and the island changed him. He saw visions and dreamed dreams. He heard voices and discerned a new calling that led him to a rural part of northeastern Pennsylvania, where, for reasons known only to him and to the spirits of Iona, he started stacking rocks with the passionate zeal of a true believer. I never stacked rocks with my friend, but my interest in Iona was cultivated by other stories I began to hear about persons who had visited Iona. These were tales of transformation in large and small ways, and after a few years my desire to visit the Isle of Iona was in full bloom. In the Celtic Christian tradition, it is understood that in some places the veil that separates the eternal from the temporal grows thin and becomes permeable, so that in such places, the things of heaven are felt and experienced with greater clarity. These places are called "thin places," and Iona is one such place. I wanted to go to Iona, not just as a regular tourist, but as an intentionally religious tourist--a pilgrim--and I wanted, not so much to be overcome by the place and permanently changed--God forbid that I should ever find myself stacking rocks in and around my condominium. Rather, I wanted to observe the island, to discover what it is about the physical and spiritual landscape of the place that makes Iona so important and powerful for so many people. What it is about the rocks or the hills or the beaches or the history or the energy of the place that makes it so spiritually intense, that makes Iona a thin place.
The opportunity finally presented itself to me last September, and on the seventh anniversary of my ordination, I left the modernity of the San Francisco Bay Area, and made my way to a place as ancient and other-worldly as Silicon Valley is cutting edge. I had an eclectic group of forebears. In the year 565, Iona's first pilgrim, St. Columba, came from Ireland to Iona and founded a monastery which would serve as the cradle of Scottish Christianity. The earliest written records of life on Iona tell stories not only of St. Columba's personal pilgrimage, but also of travelers, both secular and monastic, who were drawn to the island and to Columba for healing and for spiritual renewal. By the eleventh century, a Benedictine abbey and convent had replaced St. Columba's monastery, and the religious community on Iona became among the most important centers of learning in Christendom, drawing visitors from all over Europe. In time, Viking raids and the Scottish Reformation's abandonment of monasticism caused Iona's temporal influence to wane, but the island's holiness and thinness were never forgotten. Iona remained a destination for seekers of spiritual enlightenment even after the religious community was long gone and the abbey and convent buildings had been left to the mercy of Scotland's fierce weather. Today a religious community has rebuilt the abbey. The Iona Community was founded in 1938 by the Rev. George MacLeod, a Church of Scotland minister who worked in the poor neighborhoods of Glasgow, and who, as part of that ministry, brought unemployed crafts people and artisans from Glasgow to Iona to work on the rebuilding of the abbey church and to encounter God away from the difficulty of life in the city. The Iona community continues to operate in the inner city of Glasgow as well as on the island, and remains committed both to fostering the deep sense of spiritual connection found on Iona and to serving the needs of the worldís poor through a dogged commitment to the promotion of social justice.

For the most part, travelers, both Protestant and Catholic, are continuing a Christian tradition of pilgrimage. Many of my fellow pilgrims were drawn as I was, to the Christian history of the island and to the blend of Celtic spirituality and liberation theology practiced there. But a good number of modern pilgrims to Iona are not Christians.

Like many holy sites in the British Isles, Iona was probably a sacred place long before Christianity was introduced, and with a growing interest in and appreciation for the pre-Christian religions of the British Isles, a new breed of religiously blended pilgrims are making their way to Iona. One of my fellow travelers on the long journey from London to Iona was coming to participate in an organized walkabout on the island, engaging in the Australian Aboriginal practice of healing the earth by walking the land. Another group was seeking the island's chakras, or centers of life-energy. Each morning at sunrise a group of folks could be seen doing a Tai Chi like dance to New Age music in the aura of the abbey church. All told, it made for an interesting and, at times, intoxicating religious mix. At the spiritual center of the Island is the abbey church, which stands magnificently on the bluffs overlooking the Straight of Iona toward the Island of Mull. Even restored, the abbey church has a wildness about it that reflects the island it inhabits. Ferns grow out of the stone walls by the high altar, and the birds who live in the church's nave often accompany worshipers in their singing. The standing Celtic crosses that guard the church's entryway, and the graves of Scottish nobility adjacent to the abbey grounds add to the holy mystery that surrounds the place. The holy mystery is not, however, limited to the abbey church. The island is small--only three miles long and a mile and a half wide--but within the island's limited space are many treasures for the eyes and the soul of a careful observer, who could spend several happy days on Iona.

The island's beauty invites the pilgrim to explore, visiting the hauntingly beautiful ruins of the Twelfth century convent, walking among windswept moors and white sand beaches, climbing hills and gazing out on the vistas that have inspired more than a millennium's worth of pilgrims, including Robert Louis Stevenson, Felix Mendelssohn, and Samuel Johnson, who upon his visit to Iona in 1773 wrote, "To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavored, and would be foolish if it were possible...That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona."

After evening prayers, Iona's holiness finds expression at the island's only bar, where a Presbyterian from California can sit down to drink good Scottish ale, and even better scotch whiskey with others who have traveled by ferry to the island, to stay in one of the four religious retreat houses, two hotels or in one of the several bed and breakfasts that welcome pilgrims and tourists. It is a mixed group that meets at the bar each night--a broadly ecumenical assortment of Christians, practitioners of Neo Paganism and a variety of New Age seekers, along with some of the one hundred fifty local folk whose families have been living and working on Iona since time immortal, together making peace in a world of diversity. I found Iona to be a very thin place, a place where heaven and earth come close and almost touch. An encounter with the thinness of a place is necessarily objective. For me, the thinness of Iona was most acute when, during prayer services, a bird living in the abbey church would sing along with the congregation, sometimes antiphonally during the liturgy, sometimes harmonizing with the hymns. Somehow, in the voice of that bird, the God who is revealed in nature and the Spirit who is manifested in the life of a community joined together as one.

Perhaps it is the history of the place, perhaps the island is holy because of the godly people who have set foot on its beaches and grassy hills. Perhaps it is the majesty of the abbey church or perhaps it is the stone crosses which for a thousand years have stood as markers for the faithful. Perhaps there is a special energy to the place, an aura, a chakra. All these things must certainly play a part. But perhaps it's better not to try too hard to form a concise description of what makes Iona a thin place. Some things--a Puccini aria, a good bottle of wine, the company of friends, a tender kiss--are better enjoyed in admiration that is uncluttered by analysis. The holy mystery of Iona is just such a thing.

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