Where are your thin places? Where are the places where the barrier between heaven and earth are so thin that the two worlds feel like one? Where are the places where you consistently experience God’s presence with intimacy and immediacy?
Camp McDowell in the Diocese of Alabama is one of my thin places. The small Tanzania village where I spent a summer in seminary is one, too. The expansive backyard of our former home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia is also a place where I regularly sensed God’s nearness.
I imagine some folks prefer keeping their thin places to themselves, so that they remain personal sanctuaries hidden from the rest of the world. However, I’ve found tremendous joy sharing them with my husband and children. I love that my daughter delights in spending week at Camp McDowell each summer and that it’s become a space of refuge and wonder for her. I know my husband feels similarly because of how excited he was to introduce me to one of his thin places, the Isle of Iona, in 2013.
Eric first visited Iona in 2003 with a pack of teenage pilgrims during his days as a youth minister. A decade later he led a group of adults from the church he served, and I thankfully was able to join them. And now, after another ten years, it’s time to share this thin place with our own kids. Hill and Pailet will be 14 and almost 12 years old when we arrive on the tiny Inner Hebrides island off Scotland’s northwest coast for ‘family week’ at Iona Abbey next month. They aren’t exactly the ages when folks crave shared sacred experiences with their parents. And yet, we cannot wait to take them.
Eric is most excited to worship as a family in the prayer soaked walls of the Abbey chapel and to spend a day walking the pilgrimage way. This hike includes walking through the Nunnery’s ruins, on the stones of Saint Columba’s beach, and climbing up Dun I where we can take in the vista of the entire island.
The island is barely 3 miles long and 1 mile wide, but it contains so much history. In 563 CE Irish missionary Saint Columba (whom we celebrate today) and 12 companions arrived on Iona. They built simple monastic quarters and a church, and then set out converting the pagan Picts of Scotland and northern England to Christianity.
This was not the first monastic community Columba established, but it became one of his most influential. Serving as a place of learning and prayer, the Iona monastic community produced huge Celtic high crosses and gorgoes artistic manuscripts, perhaps even the Book of Kells. Even in its ancient history, Iona was a thin place where experiencing the divine inspired creativity and prayer.
In her book about her love of Iona, A Journey of Sea and Stone, Tracy Balzer says that she’s often asked, ‘Why would anyone want to spend their vacation time going somewhere that has…nothing?’ Her response is always the same, ‘It is true that on Iona there is less of everything, which means there is more space for what we truly need if we hope to attend to our sense of ‘home,’ our deep longing for the things of God.’ This will be our kids’ first intentional pilgrimage, and please God, may it not be their last. My husband and I eagerly await experiencing God’s presence in such a holy place, but perhaps even more so, hope our children are able to simply rest in God’s presence. So much of our faith is felt rather than articulated, and I cannot think of a more profound place to feel the divine than on the Isle of Iona.