Monday, August 29, 2011

A Thin Place

The sight of the Abbey's stone walls from a mile away across the sound nearly brought tears to my eyes.  Admittedly, Iona was one of the biggies for me on my sabbatical.  I was keen on many of the other places on the docket, but Iona was a show-stopper, a deal breaker.  I just HAD to go to Iona.

I had heard so much about the place.  I know the history, how in 563 St. Columba had come here from Ireland to found a monastery and to begin evangelizing the Pictish Scots that lived in Scotland at the time.  I knew that it had been a place of pilgrimage and Christian prayer ever since...1400 years of hallowed ground.  I had been told the place was magical, ethereal, a thin place, to use ancient Celtic categories, where the otherworld and this one are not quite so opaque to one another.

I was disappointed, in a natural sort of way, to find out that the stone abbey was not built by Columba himself, but dates to the 12th Century.  Viking raids had all but shut down the Christian witness of the place in the 9th, and it took many years to rebuild.  By then the preferred building material was stone rather than wood, more durable and capable of greater heights.  I was delighted to find St. Martin's Cross standing in the courtyard just as it has since the 9th Century.  Apparently the Vikings never got around to tumbling it to the ground like they did so many others.

I was also disappointed to find out that Henry VIII, so key to the emergence of the Anglican tradition, was also responsible for desecrating the place in his suppression of the monasteries.  Fearful that they would foment loyalty to Rome, he set about destroying them one by one across the realm.  Iona fell into ruins, only to be rebuilt shortly afterwards, and then fall again into disuse, not by political decree, but by the spiritual vacuity of the Enlightenment.  The actual building as we see it today is still being renovated, part of a project that put it back in use beginning as late as 1938.

But it is in use.  It's not a ghostly relic like St. Aidan's Priory on Lindisfarne.  Each night Christians gather in the hoary nave and choir for a variety of worship experiences.  The choir is lit by candles hanging on the ancient stone walls and the corners of the pews.  The nave is populated by folding chairs, electric lights, and a sound system.  Ferns grow from the wall up by the Altar and the carved stone frames for the glass in the rose window twist and turn on one another like a Celtic knot.  The place is timeless because it encompasses all times since its inception.

A thin place indeed.  My tears anticipated the truth.

However, everyone attests that it is not just the Abbey that is a thin place, but the whole of the island.  Landon and I went to find what is known as "St. Columba's Bay" where he is supposed to have made landfall the first time.  Some soul of great mystical generosity has formed a simple labyrinth of stone on the grass, an invitation to reflection on the time and place.  Suddenly the whispers of ancient chants seem to emanate from the stone cliffs to each side.

Most moving personally, however, was a circle of stones, perhaps 15 feet in diameter, that we discovered on the west side of the island.  It sits inside the remains of a stone wall that incorporates in a square corner, another square room.  The map labels it as "The Hermit's Cell."  Only a quarter of my blood is continental, the rest of me comes solidly from the Celtic parts of the Islands, half of my blood is Scot.  From here my people were introduced to the Christian faith.  From here the special richness of the Celtic heart blessed the Church.  From here comes much of the character of my own being, the shape of my own soul.

I laid down spread-eagle in the circle.  Suddenly I felt as if I was not alone, and would never ever be again!  A thin place indeed.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Way to See

In 1746 an Indian man was walking between villages outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  Night caught him before he got to his home village, so he camped beside the trail with his son.  In the middle of the night something poked him in the side.  Groggily he pushed it away.  It poked him again, and he pushed it away again.  The third time he grabbed it, stuffed it in his bag, and went back to sleep.  In the morning he awoke, stirred his son, and went home.
Curious, he looked in his bag.  There he found a small figurine of a Madonna, about 4 inches tall.  Word got around and soon curious people filled his house.  Miracles began to occur, healings and fortuitous events that were credited to the figurine.  Soon a house was built as a shrine, then a church, and she was named after the town in which the man lived, "Suyapa."  Devotion to the image increased to where eventually she was named patroness of Honduras.  Pilgrimages from all over Central America end at the altar of the small church.

About a dozen years ago the Catholic authorities decided to build a larger church to house the pilgrims.  It is a stately thing, done in shades of blue and green rather than pink and red like the small one, but patterned after the original.  Green marble accents the appointments within, and beautiful stained-glass windows picture important scenes in the life of Mary from a Catholic Marian perspective.  It is all beautiful - and empty.

The people are all down the hill at the original church where the figurine is.  The story goes that on two occasions the authorities tried to house the statue in the new church but mysteriously by morning it was back in the old church.  After two tries they decided she wanted to be there so they left her there.

I find it interesting because the figurine itself is seen as imbued with power.  It "fell from heaven" so to speak, not crafted by human hands.  Miraculous powers are attributed to it, and then by inference, the Mother of God.

It's a different way of seeing.

But I saw something else again.  The new church, beautiful as it is, is hollow.  It is the idol of the church authorities, devoid of life for the people, cold and strangely un-welcoming.  The smaller church is crowded and dirty, but homey and warm, full of the hearts and souls of devout believers.

Strange as it may seem, the Spirit of God was almost palpable in the old church, and eerily absent from the new.

An almost invisible faultline

The drive from County Mayo where Patrick's mountain stands up to the ferry that took us to Scotland took is across the boundary between Ireland and North Ireland, from the Republic to the Kingdom.  I had allowed for some time to cross the border.  I had heard stories of the Protestant north vs. the Catholic south, and we all know of the atrocities committed on either side.  Such a place of tension would certainly be marked by armed guards, razor wire and menacing looking gates.
The only indication I had that we had crossed the border was a simple and small sign that said, "Speed limits marked in miles per hour."

What is the significance?  Ireland is part of the European Union.  The currency is the Euro and the speeds are marked in kilometers.  Signs are all printed in Irish Gaelic as well as English.  The UK circulates the pound sterling and marks distances and speeds in miles.  Only in Scotland and Wales are there bilingual signs.  It came clear to me an hour up the road when we were stopped by a "police" (not a "garda" of Ireland,) because a short parade was moving through the center of the town, flying the Union Jack and featuring kilted pipers.  We were definitely no longer in Ireland, we were in the UK. It seemed simple enough, but there is no mistaking the boundary. It marks an almost invisible faultline.

How quickly we bury our deep divisions with commonalities, only to have them emerge once more as hidden and dangerous faultlines.  How much better to name them, own them, and learn to value the other precisely for their differences.

Croagh Patrick

Patrick was all Irish.  Well, historically he wasn't, he was Welsh, but he was Celtic to the core and the Patrick of story and legend is all Irish.  He is dramatic and powerful, imaginative and full of flair.
The place in Ireland connected with Patrick is a mountain.  It stands in stark contrast with green, hospitable, hearth-oriented Brigid.  It is high (as high as any of the surrounding mountains,) windy and blowy, and the day we were there we saw the sun actually shine on the summit only for moments at a time.  When we first began our ascent it looked as if we may not see the ground below us from the top--it proved true much of the time.

The ascent, or "the Reek" as it is called, starts out challenging enough, but the climb of 2500 feet from sea-level gets real serious for the last third.  The path takes you straight up a scree slope along one edge of the mountain.  It feels like it's nigh-on vertical when you're going up, and your knees will tell you it IS vertical coming down.  People climb it for many reasons:  the exercise, the view, to worship in the small chapel on the summit, or barefoot as an act of penance.  Some climb to see the traces of pre-Christian circle-huts that populated the summit before Patrick.  Those who know say that the mountain was a druidic place of worship.  Few know, unless they have visited the museum at the foot of the mountain, that underfoot, protected by a layer of rocks and dirt, lies the square foundation of a Christian oratory or prayer-chapel that dates from the 5th century.  In other words, Patrick himself could actually have prayed there.  The peak has its draw.  On the last Sunday of July, known as "Reek Sunday" 20,000 people climb the mountain and a Catholic priest says Mass in the chapel.

From here Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland.  From here Patrick threw the mother of the Devil, a pernicious demoness named Corra down from the heights, where she plummetted to her death in the valley below.  The crater her body created filled with water and is known as Lough Nacorra.  If Brigid is the welcoming, mothering, nurturing side of the Irish heart, Patrick is the challenging, buffetting and proving side.  The Irish in this broad sweep of legend capture the two great movements of the human soul toward God, not in tight theological definitions, but in the infinitely more articulate language of symbol, poetry and song.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


Irrrrlnd, the land of Guiness and leprechauns and the gift of gab!  Ireland, the emerald isle, was enchanting to us.  We saw its rolling central hills, the high peaks of the west, and the almost skitzophrenic change as we drove out of Ireland proper into Northern Ireland, part of the UK.  One difference you cannot miss is that in Ireland proper all the signs are bilingual, in English and in Irish Gaelic, as soon as you cross into Northern Ireland the Gaelic goes away.

First stop was St. Brigid's Cathedral in the village of Kildare.  "Kildare" comes from the Irish "Cill Dara" (pronounce the "c" as a hard "c" like in "cat.")  Cill Dara means "Church of the Oak" which is a fitting icon of its meaning.  Here a young woman, daughter of a druidic warrior and a Christian mother, accepted the Christian faith under the tutelage of Patrick himself, or so the legend goes.  Not wanting to marry as her father wished, she instead began to serve as one of the first Irish nuns.  Around her a group of men and women gathered, and in 480 A.D. she formed one of the first double-abbeys in Ireland, of both men and women.  An abbey was built under a large oack tree that quickly grew and spawned sister houses all over central Ireland.  She became known for her leadership qualities, her works of mercy for the poor and her open arms to all.

Almost nothing is known historically about her outside of the brief sketch above, but just like with Patrick, stories and legends abound.  She needed a place for her abbey and approached the local chieftain for a piece of land.  \He laughed her off, not wanting to encourage the new Christian religion at all.  Finally she convinced him to give her the land her cloak would cover.  She then directed four of her sister nuns to take her cloak, each by a corner, and begin walking north, south, east and west.  By the time the cloak stopped stretching it covered an area that became known as the Curragh, on which no one is allowed to build even today--it encompasses 800 acres!

\Like the stories with \Patrick, the mix of pre-Christian Celtic thought and images and Christian tenets is a seamlessly woven tapestry of color and surprises.  Both are credited, Brigid in her feminine way and Patrick in his masculine way, with Christianizing the island with no bloodshed by using the very fabric of Celtic thought to bring a new way of being to the people.

Oaks were sacred to the druids.  Hence Brigid's birthplace and the town that grew up around her abbey are aptly called "The Church of the Oak."


Roatan was wonderful as always, beautiful beaches, beautiful coral reefs, and a wonderful surprise.  Actually I had stumbled upon hints of it before I was supposed to, but my beautiful wife joined me there for three days in paradise!  It was grand!

But that wasn't the only surprise.  We hired a boat that took us out to a reef we had not seen before, and a cut in the reef called the "Spooky Cut."  As you approach the bottom is about 30 ft. down, covered in sand, and the coral rises before you like a giant underground beachhead.  In the center is this crack that at its narrowest is only about 10 ft. wide, but probably drops 120 feet to a narrow floor covered in chunks of broken-off coral the size of a large pick-up truck.  You can only see the ones that got caught above 60 ft or so because the darkness of the cut and the intervening water make the depths a dark, foreboding no-man's-land.

I found myself asking myself why it was so spooky to me personally.  I recalled a dream many years ago in which I dove under the floorboards of my house into the ocean below.  The floor of the ocean in the front half of the house sloped gently away from the shore to about 50 ft.  Pretty shells washed to and fro on the sand.  Half-way back from the front of the house the land dropped away vertically...yes, you guessed it, into a spooky black depths in which there were scary things that might embarrass me horribly if they ever came to light.  There was more to the dream, but it felt eirily as if I was staring back into my dream as I gazed down into the blackness of the "Spooky Cut."

So what do I do with it?  I do not have the technical skill to go down into the cut safely to face my fears, so to speak, and I had the distinct insight that such would not have worked anyway.  In the intervening years since that dream in many ways I have plumbed the depths of the darkness.  I know what there is there that can embarrass me, but more importantly, I have discovered riches hidden away until their appointed time of discovery, capacities I did not know I had, gifts to give far more significant than the pretty shells of my then-conscious soul.

The "Spooky Cut" was still spooky, but now in a fun sort of way, as it recalled what I have found in my own depths.

Inside Out Blesssings

It's been a while since I blogged, finally got access to a computer!  Here goes nothin...

Honduras Medical Mission is always an exciting week.  I approached it, however, with a bit of trepidation in my heart.  I was on Sabbatical, and this felt like going back to work too early, like the workaholic who can't stay away from the office because he's convinced the place will fall apart without him.  I had planned to do my Sabbatical research in Tegucigalpa before the mission began, but due to the events in my last blog such was not possible.  We arrived just an hour before the rest of the team and wiped out.  Mercy was granted for us to take  our truck to the college where we stay and get there early!  Ah....sleep!

The next day, however, it did feel like work, so I did something about it.  I found the other clergy person on board, the Rev. Pat Richie, deacon from "down east" in the Diocese and began delegating.  Between her and a couple of others I had opened up for myself a chance to sit back, watch and relax a bit while carrying my load with the mission.  It worked fine until the very last day.

That day I was scheduled to go to Oropoli.  Oropoli has a reputation among those of the Mission who have been there.  Crowd control is always a problem, you have to watch your haircut lest someone try to lift it, people always want more medicines than we have, and people will do most anything to get them.  Such is the reputation that the dean of the convocation who decides where we go and where we don't go, the Rev. Dagoberto Chacon, had not wanted to send us there.  The local lay pastor, like in Jesus' parable of the unfruitful fig tree, had begged one more year on a trial basis.  He hoped that somehow against hope it might prove able to turn over a new leaf.

It wasn't.  The day was exactly as we had expected, in some respects worse.  Among misgivings that somehow we were complicit in holding self-fulfilling profecies in our heads, we battled against the aggressive, deceitful crowd as we tried at the same time somehow to share with them the love of Christ in the form of medical attention and medicines.  We finally closed up shop early and headed out, as much due to having run out of medicines as patience.#

So how does this contribute to the happy glow we normally associate with those who return from the Honduras\Mission?  Well, for some I am sure it tarnished the shine a little, but it need not have.  All we have to do is remember that our greatest advances are usually granted (certainly not achieved) in the midst of what often feels like the greatest failures and disappointments.  We gave out medicines, but we learned patience.  We gave out care and we received an awareness of just how desparate a people can be.  We gave out time and received instead time to reflect, time to consider how God loves us sometimes in spite of what we think of ourselves.

Once again we received more than we gave.  Hmmm.....