Monday, July 25, 2016

24 July: Expectations of a Thin Place

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.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

3 July: Getting Sick Far from Home

I can log a new experience in my book of travels: being sick away from home. Far away from home. Thinking back on last week, I'm not sure that I've ever had an experience that has made me more aware of what I take for granted at home: that my parents will be easily accessible, that I understand the healthcare system in the place where I live, and that I will know what to do, or have people tell me what to do, in response to my health needs. But I am not at home. I am on a remote island in the Scottish Hebrides, where my parents are accessible only by phone, where there is a National Health Service that seems like a foreign language to me, and where the doctor comes only once a week. Above and beyond the tonsillitis, the most distressing part of last week was learning to cope with a sick body away from the securities of home.

At the same time, I was learning how much home a community like the one in which I live can provide to a person in need. I was constantly looked after by the people living and working with me, and by the community at large. Friends from the kitchen brought my meals to my room, tea was always close at hand, and the doctor stayed open an hour later than usual on his one day on the island to see me, although I later made a trip to the larger Isle of Mull to visit his surgery (what all doctors' offices are called in the UK - no one operated on me!). That trip was provided by our maintenance coordinator in his own vehicle. Through the care of my friends, I was reminded that when we live in community, we are cared for, and I found myself thinking often last week of those living without a support network - the elderly, the neighborless, those who cannot afford adequate healthcare, and those who live in places where such healthcare is unavailable because of war, poverty, or disease. We in the developed world should thank God for what has been provided for us, and work to ensure that others enjoy the things we take for granted.

The Iona Community spends a lot of time teaching and preaching about peace and justice as a form of Christian service, and it is a theme that runs throughout the worship each week in the Abbey church. Sometimes, however, we can spend too much time talking about justice, and the systems that prevent a just world from blossoming, and lose sight of what it means to those in need. It is important to identify systemic injustice and a Christian response to such sin, but we also can't forget what people need: food, water, medicine, and care. Love. I am guilty of forgetting this simple fact when the list of injustices around the world grows daily. Being sick, however minor an experience it was for me, reminded me of the care I receive that I take for granted, and I hope gave me a better perspective on the problems facing God's children in less privileged parts of his world.