The Thin Place of Iona

By Marek Zabriskie

After graduating from high school 35 years ago, I arranged to train with a semi-pro soccer team in Aberdeen, Scotland. I would have starved had I tried to make a living as a soccer player. My mother wisely insisted that I travel before playing soccer; so I made my way to the northwest coast of Scotland and arrived one evening in Oban, where I witnessed a sunset that changed my life.

Oban is pitched on a hillside with a scenic harbor overlooking the Isle of Mull. After enjoying a picturesque train ride from Glasgow, passing lochs and rugged hillsides with cascading waterfalls and fields full of sheep and Shetland cattle, I arrived in Oban.

I stopped at an information center and found the name of a B&B located high atop the hill. I climbed 144 steps of what the locals refer to as Jacob’s ladder — a stairway leading up the hillside — laden with my backpack. I found my room, and then descended to the town in search of food. I climbed the 144 steps once again and sat on the granite window sill in my room eating a dinner of cheese, bread, and milk, while listening to classical music as the sun set over Mull.

As I did so, I had the most profound religious awakening of my life. Oban is famous for its sunsets. The quality of light is breathtaking. My parents were undergoing a horrific divorce, and for a brief moment a veil lifted and I could see something good coming forth from it, and from all sorts of painful situations in our community and in the world. Years later, I linked this mystical moment to Julian of Norwich’s famous words, “All shall be well, and all shall be well.”

I later learned that beyond Isle of Mull, where I saw the sun setting, lay Iona, where Christianity first came to Scotland. At the time, I was not attending church and religion had no place in my life, but my experience was a spiritual awakening. It set me on a journey that eventually led to the priesthood.

For over 25 years, I have wanted to return to Oban and visit Iona, one of Christianity’s great holy sites where pilgrims flock from around the world to pray and experience what the Celts call “a thin place,” where heaven and earth seem to touch. George Macleod, founder of the Iona Community, wrote that Iona is “a thin place where only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual.”

My chance finally came. I was traveling to London and Oxford on church business and had six days for a side trip to Iona. Getting there is not easy. It involves trains, ferries, and buses, each of which must be carefully timed, and bad weather can disrupt things.

Iona is a tiny island located in the Inner Hebrides, 1.5 miles wide by 3 miles long, with a population of fewer than 150 permanent residents. It welcomes 130,000 visitors each year, but is remarkably quiet. A sense of peace and freedom pervades. Pilgrims and visitors can walk for hours and see only a few others.

Iona’s enduring fame comes from its connection with an Irish monk named St. Columba, a major figure of the early Church. Columba was born of royal blood in County Donegal in Ireland in 521. Columba (in Latin) or Colum Cille (in Gaelic) means “dove.” His grandfather was the Irish High King, and Columba stood in line to succeed him. No one knows for certain why Columba left Ireland, but most believe it was an act of self-imposed penance for blood that he shed in Ireland.

Columba’s harsh temper got the best of him. Born to a warrior clan, he rallied his tribesmen to fight against Finnian’s monks and clan. Legend has it that Columba’s clan killed 10,000 opponents without losing a single member of its own tribe. Either from remorse for the deaths that he had caused or because of displeasing the High King, Columba left Ireland in exile. As the story goes, he was banished until he had converted as many people to the Christian faith as he and his clan had killed in battle.

Setting out in a coracle, a round boat made of animal skins strapped to a wooden frame, Columba finally landed on the shores of Iona and climbed a hillside. Reportedly it was the first place he had landed where he could no longer see Ireland. He chose to stay. Perhaps it was not a clear day, for on some days it is possible to spot Ireland from there.

A healthy community existed at Iona, but the island’s greatest years were ahead. Columba founded a monastery that would endure for 1,000 years. At its height, Iona had about 600 monks and many workers, who supported the building and maintenance of the abbey. All told, the island’s population was probably close to 1,000.

The monks grew crops, kept livestock, and tended gardens. They cooked, cleaned, built boats and buildings, caught fish, and grew corn. In the abbey workshops, craftsmen shaped wood, metal, glass, leather, and stone, while manuscript makers prepared their parchment with ink and dyes.

Much of what we know about Columba comes from a biography written by Adomnán, who led the monastery almost 100 years after Columba’s death. Like Columba, Adomnán was known for his holiness and miracles and later became a saint.

In 795, Vikings launched their first of many raids upon Iona, killing monks, stealing treasures from the abbey, and pillaging everything they could. The Book of Kells, now housed at Trinity College in Dublin, was produced on Iona. It was later moved with many other treasures from the abbey to Kells, for protection from Viking raids.

Scotland, like England, had a reformation and most of the abbeys and monasteries were sacked and destroyed. Windows were smashed. Stones were removed to build homes for local residents. Gold and silver were plundered and taken by the king.

In 1938, George Macleod, a charismatic Scottish clergyman from a famous family of preachers, founded the Iona Community and resurrected the abbey. He had been ministering in the midst of poverty in Glasgow and discovered how little the church spoke to the lives of working people. He restored the abbey to be a center of worship and communal life and created a training center for young clergy, who were to study and be formed spiritually on Iona before embarking on urban ministry with the poor.

Today, the Iona Community is an international ecumenical movement of men and women, working for peace and justice, the rebuilding of community, and the renewal of worship. It consists of 300 members who live around the world and follow a rule of life that involves daily prayer, reading Scripture, practicing social justice, and meeting regularly with family groups of other community members.

The abbey only accepts guests who can arrive on a Saturday and stay until Friday. I stayed at the charming St. Columba Hotel, located just a short walk from the abbey. I had a small room with a sea view, and the food was excellent. Breads, scones, cakes, pies, and meals are made using excellent local and organic ingredients. The menus change seasonally to reflect the produce. The fish comes from Neil, St. Columba’s own fisherman. The organic garden supplies ample greens, beans, herbs, salads, flowers, and fruit.

The abbey has a museum, which boasts of having the finest collection of sacred sculpture and ancient high crosses anywhere in Scotland. It is well worth seeing. Each morning I took a short walk to the Bishop’s House, a Scottish Episcopal Church retreat center, where I attended the Eucharist at 8 a.m., before walking to the abbey to worship at 9 a.m. and again at 9 p.m. in a candlelight service.

Each Tuesday, the abbey offers a six-hour pilgrimage around the island. Joanna Anderson, warden for the Iona Community, met us at the St. Martin’s cross — the oldest High Cross in Britain still standing in its original location. It has stood on this spot since 1200. We paused at a crossroads and one of the Iona leaders read from Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (6:16).

After explaining the history of the cross, Joanna offered a prayer for our day’s journey and we headed off. Pausing on the pilgrimage, Joanna asked each Iona pilgrim: “How much silence is in your life?” She then invited us to experience three minutes of intentional silence. Near the end of the pilgrimage, Joanna stopped and offered a blessing to the pilgrims:

Deep peace of the running waves to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the son of peace to you.

We ended our pilgrimage in the cemetery chapel near the abbey known as Reilig Òdhrain, where 48 Scottish kings, eight Norwegian kings, and four Irish kings were said to be buried, including Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Duncan.

On Tuesday night, worship at the abbey is a healing service. Pilgrims and visitors are invited to step forward to where hand-stitched kneelers have been placed in a circle with candles around them. Members of the Iona Community place their hands on the heads of those who seek healing and they pray: “Spirit of the living God, present with us now, enter you, body, mind and spirit, and heal you of all that harms, in Jesus’ name.” It is short but beautiful, and I shall remember the hand of an anonymous pilgrim placed on my shoulder as a community member prayed for me.

On Wednesday morning I took a boat to Staffa, where summer visitors can spot puffins, fulmars, and more birds nesting from May to late July. Basking sharks and dolphins can sometimes be spotted, as well as otters at the South East and North End beaches, and plummeting gannets. The amazing rock formations here are 56 million years old, relatively new compared to the ancient rocks found on Iona.

On Wednesday night there was a service of commitment. We were invited to come forward for the laying on of hands as one of the leaders recited a biblical phrase, which was different for each of us. When my turn came, the leader read, “Love others as God has loved you.”

On Thursday night was a sending service, in which we sat at a long table placed in the middle of the aisle between the prayer stalls, like a great family banquet. The Eucharist was celebrated, and we were commissioned to return home to carry the spirit of Iona and St. Columba and the lessons that we had learned during our retreat on the island. It was just the time away for silence and solitude that I needed during an incredibly busy year.

The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie is rector of St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania.

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