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.