I was blessed with a life changing experience when I led a pilgrimage to Iona – me, thirty Year 10 students and two colleagues. Iona is not that large and having the responsibility of leading such a group one might think that I had little opportunity to enjoy the special stillness of that place. In fact we all fell in love with the island, the community and its life. I am constantly drawn back to the photographs I took whilst on the island and find great comfort in the prayers of the Celtic Saints and Religious. Why is Iona so special? Sylvia Maddox writes that “the Celts believe that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.” Contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge gives this description
“Thin places,” the Celts call this space, Both seen and unseen, Where the door between the world And the next is cracked open for a moment And the light is not all on the other side. God shaped space. Holy.
I have found ‘thin places’ whist out walking – often in the most unlikely places. The light may suddenly change or a breeze rise and the air change. At that moment ‘the door between the world and the next’ opens just a tiny amount, albeit a sliver it is sufficient for God to call and for me to answer with a prayer.
On Iona I felt The Truth as one feels the sea breeze on Columba’s Beach. Iona is Holy. One feels its holiness, one touches its holiness, caresses it almost. Holy Truth and Holy Peace.
Deep peace of the running wave
Deep peace of the flowing air
Deep peace of the quiet earth
Deep peace of the shining stars
Deep peace of the Son of Peace.
(Thomas Parry, ed. The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse (Oxford, 1962) 332-339)
George MacLeod was surely right when he spoke of following truth. In that sense to ‘follow Iona’ and, indeed, other ‘thin places’ in order to caress that ‘Holy Truth’ is surely the pilgrimage of life. The Iona Community challenges the world through its ministry of peace, and justice. Any preconceived ideas we may hold must be left on the boat as one travels over from Mull. The pilgrim ought to travel light – or perhaps ‘thin’ – all the better for entering alien terrain, to meet the challenges which God has prepared for us. Courage and concentration are then the order of the day. Such is the pilgrim’s lot.
Follow truth wherever you find it. Even if it takes you outside your preconceived ideas of God or life. Even if it takes you outside your own country into the most insignificant alien places like Bethlehem. Be courageous. But concentrate on your search. Truth is one. All roads lead to home.