“One of the most beautiful aspects of (Celtic spirituality) is the perspective that death is a river that is hard to see or a place of black sorrow that is difficult to cross and that the angels of God are guiding us over to a goodness of unimaginable glory. This glory is not, however, unrelated to the goodness we have known in creation and in the earth’s cycles of seasons, to the Source of creation, a returning to the One who is the heart of all life.”
J. Philip Newell, Celtic Spirituality
The jagged rocks I scrambled up onto and over the waves of the ocean.
The cliffs in the distance – they remind me of the Grand Canyon.
I am alive here, and I feel I can pass into this place, not separate from it as a self. No subject/object relationship here; I simply am, with all of this.
(This is something I wrote in a journal, while in Iona, Scotland, in September 2019)
I am still haunted by those cliffs, the distant peaks, the ocean horizon, and the infinite sky.
To be present in a place – really present, not just driving through it or taking photos from a lookout – does something extraordinary. It creates a relationship.
Is Iona a thin place?
The notion of a thin place is, simply described, a place in which the veil between us and God/Spirit/Divinity becomes thin. Iona is described as a thin place, but what is the root of this “thinness”?
Is it through the history of this place – it’s Druidic/Pagan roots that are deeply connected to Earth? The Christianity of St. Columba and all who have come here in the name of religion? Is it the Scottish heritage, that is a part of my own ancestry?
The history is all fascinating to me, I resonate with much of it, and it all contributes to the character or “flavor” of the place. But this history and culture is not “it” either. These are not what make Iona “thin” for me.
If I could name it, it’s a simple reorientation to the landscape itself as a living being. It’s akin to being near Tahoma (Mt Rainier) or in the Grand Canyon. It’s the grandeur of the sky and water and distant cliffs. It’s walking amongst the bogs and stones and beaches. It’s the sense of solitude – that I am alone here (even though I’m not), and that I am participating in the landscape.
The island itself was a spiritual companion to me.
And occasionally, I can dissolve, and see myself as not myself, but simply as part of this continuous whole.
Wayne Teasdale writes, “Natural contemplation is the ability to perceive or intuit the inherent meaning in all things. It is an intuitive faculty that is activated by nature. It is sensitivity to the presence of the divine reality and all things in it.”
He continues, “Nature, being, and human life are pregnant with intrinsic meanings, or natural symbols that, like vehicles, take us to higher realms of meaning.”
A landscape then, is much more than a landscape. And I am much more than an ‘I’ in the landscape. It is this “I” and “other” that becomes thin, even dissolved…
Richard Rohr recently wrote in his daily meditation that “I must know that I am, at least in part, the very thing I am seeking. In fact, that is what makes me seek it. God cannot be found “out there” until God is first found “in here,” within ourselves, as Augustine profoundly expressed in many ways in his Confessions. Then, we can almost see God in others and in all of creation, too. What you seek is what you are. The search for God and the search for our True Self are finally the same search.”
Perhaps a thin place is simply a place in which your search for God, and the search for your True Self, come close to being the same. That gap, between God being a distant transcendent being, and God being infinitely close within the heart, is indeed thin.
Iona is a thin place to me – thin in that I was more easily opened to deeper things within myself and the world around me. The gap between myself and all other things is not just lessened, but dissolved, and with a sense of delight and wonder and awe, become part of a living, continuous whole with all other things. To be present there is to, as John Newell describes in the quote above, return to the One who is the heart of all life.