The Isle of Iona is regularly referred to as a "thin place." But what does that mean? Thin places are spots in the world where the veil between heaven and earth seems less opaque, where all that separates the natural from the supernatural, spirits and angels and demons from the living, is as thin as tissue paper. The curtain between this world and the next is drawn back, and heaven and earth meet. Well, that's the idea, anyway.
Historically, Iona fits that description perfectly. Saint Columba came here from Ireland in the sixth century and from the island Christianized the northern Celtic world. Legend tells that the island was home to a group of pagan holy men before Columba turned it into a flourishing center of Celtic Christianity. Columba was known to have conversed with angels on a hill in the center of the island, where they flew from heaven to meet him in the nighttime. The Book of Kells, practically a sacramental vessel itself that illuminates in a tangible, artistic way the love of God revealed in the Gospels, was written here. You can see it today at Trinity College, Dublin. Many spiritual treasures from this time can still be found on Iona: from the hermit's cell to St. Brigid's Well, the island is teeming with connection to the ancient Celtic world, a world in which the mystical union of heaven and earth was understood in concrete, natural ways. God is in the running water, the flowing air, and the quiet earth.
Today sees a different picture that I did not quite expect to find here. Celtic Christianity no longer exists, not in that historic form, anyway. Columba and his angels have been gone from the island for hundreds of years, and while there was a Benedictine revival in the 13th century, and pilgrims continue to flock to the island, Columba's project is largely a relic of the past, an attraction to be sought out and visited by tourists as well as pilgrims. I was surprised to discover little connection between his world and ours, even in the same geographic space.
While the modern Iona Community has a laudable commitment to peace and justice from a Christian perspective, it lacks the contemplative spirit of the earlier monasticism that inhabited this island, a spirit I hunger for more and more. One of my main disappointments here has been to discover a breach between the Christianity of Columba and the Christianity of the Iona Community.
With this knowledge in mind, I began to ask myself a couple months ago, "Does this remain a thin place?" I have been pleasantly surprised to discover that the island retains much of the thin-place spirit it is famous for. A major reason for this is that the natural world here is just as mystical and magical as I imagine it was in Columba's day, albeit with the conveniences of modern life. Full, 180 degree rainbows, days when the mist is so thick that the Isle of Mull disappears and Iona becomes a wandering ship lost in the endless expanse of the gray ocean and sky, the waterfalls on the side of the mountain Ben More, fragrant wildflowers, unique chirping birds, and snails sporting beautiful, intricate shells - God's creation is stunning here, unbridled and wild. The march of industrial progress and and civilization hasn't really reached these shores, and visitors often feel as if they've come to the end of the world.
And I think that right now, if I am honest, that is good enough for me. I am comfortable, after two months, coming to the conclusion that yes, this is a thin place, but one that is the result of God's presence in the natural world. To be frank, I don't connect with the spirituality of the Iona Community all the time - I expected more monasticism and less preaching. More prayer, and fewer ideas. This is because the work the Iona Community does here (good work) in the centers is to equip week-long visitors to return to their own communities having learned something from this community's commitment to peace and justice, from the ecumenical worship and work, and from the inheritance, in some way, of the Celtic tradition. That model works for pilgrims who come for a week, and it worked for me last May - very well. The problem is that I expected more of that last bit - the Celtic tradition - to pervade every aspect of life as a staff member, when in reality the ethos of the Community is no different on this island than it is in Glasgow or London or wherever members are dispersed throughout the world. This is not a monastery. Coming to peace with that fact has been a major part of my growth here, introducing reality to my expectations.
And so that leaves me with a thin place, yes, but not the one I expected. I feel close to heaven here in a rainbow or gorgeous eleven o'clock sunset, but not always in the tenth Peace and Justice service that has reiterated the same point to me for two and a half months. And that's okay. God created a beautiful world, which blesses its creator with birdsong, sunshine, and rain.
Saint Columba famously predicted about his island,
Iona of my heart,
Iona of my love,
Instead of monks' voices
Shall be the lowing of cattle;
But ere the world come to an end,
Iona shall be as it was.
Some say that the Iona Community and its presence here fulfills this prophecy. Other hunger for a day when the Celtic monastic tradition will return. Nevertheless, this remains a thin place, a place drenched in God's mystery and awesome presence. It is a crossroads where pilgrims meet. A world at land's end where creation cries a never-ceasing Benedicite. A place of peace.
Thanks be to God.