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The Isle of Iona: A Thin Place

“I’ve heard it called a ‘thin place,’” he told me. “I’m not sure 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. This apparent skepticism from someone I respect gave me pause. He was one of many pilgrims on a pilgrimage to the Isle of Iona that I was co-leading with Carole Crumley some years ago. I wondered, “What might this holy island that I had 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 true for Iona. In 563 CE, the Irish monk Columba fled his homeland and established a monastic settlement on this tiny isle that brought what became known as Celtic Christianity to large parts of Scotland, the north of England, and into Europe.

The early Celtic Christians on Iona worshiped outdoors around a cross, most likely where the 9th century St. Martin’s Cross still stands outside of the Abbey. With its beautiful carvings on both sides, the cross reminds us 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 1 mile wide and 3 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 our pilgrims, it requires nearly a day-long trip from Glasgow via bus through hills and around lochs followed by a 45-minute ferry ride. We then reboard our bus to cross the sparsely populated Mull before finally taking a small ferry to Iona. After we get our bearings, we might walk across to the other side of Iona and look out to sea; there is nothing but ocean between us and Newfoundland.

In a thin place, we 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 referred to 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 6th century St. Brigid of Ireland. Iona is clearly 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 on your own to 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 slow my pace, breathe more deeply, and listen with my senses more finely tuned and my heart open.

And what of my skeptical friend? I stood next to him on the ferry as we departed, leaving behind 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.

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Wendy Taylor
Wendy Taylor
1 month ago

What is the connection for 10/30 10-4 Iona zoom presentation?

Leah Rampy
Leah Rampy
30 days ago
Reply to  Wendy Taylor

Wendy, Coming up this Saturday is a class about thin places, Iona being but one example. It includes seminars, practices, sharing and time for silence.
If you want to know more about the pilgrimage to Iona, watch for possible Q and A sessions coming up or reach out to the office to arrange for further conversation.