Finding my thin place l Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Aug 14, 2019

I found myself face down on a beach last week, contemplating my mortality and talking to no one in particular, as there was no one in particular in my immediate vicinity. Or even not so immediate.

I was pretty much alone, in fact, sprawled across rocks gleaming with foam from the North Atlantic, which seemed to inspire my philosophical side.

“At least I’ll die in Scotland,” I said out loud to the seagulls, who didn’t appear to be paying any attention at all. I pondered this idea for a bit before I stood up, noting a long scrape on my forearm and a hole in my favorite jeans, minor trauma in the big picture.

I just did a dumb thing, which is hardly breaking news, especially considering I didn’t break anything. With a nod to Lewis Carroll, I often do six dumb things before breakfast, occasionally seven. And it was way past breakfast.

I was on Iona, a tiny island off the west coast of a much larger island, itself on the northwest coast of Britain. Which is also an island, of course, but back to the beach.

Deciding to take a hike on a sunny afternoon, I followed others down a hillside to what looked to me like the Scottish version of the Caribbean, with white sand and turquoise water splashing up against reddish rocks. Those rocks were slippery, although that didn’t slow down my dumbness at all. I got some great photos, which I suppose would have looked lovely surrounding my casket.

But God was apparently not finished with me yet, so I just took a minor tumble with minimal damage, got to my feet and headed back to our hotel. I took a shortcut through a farm, having a close encounter with some sheep, who seemed uninterested in this lurching figure with blood trickling down his arm.

It was a teachable moment, let’s say, but then it was Iona. That sort of thing happens on Iona.

If you’ve ever admired a Celtic cross or noticed an increased interest in Celtic Christianity, you can thank Iona. For over 80 years, what has come to be known as the Iona Community has been an ecumenical source of inspiration and reflection for Christians around the world, from Quakers to Catholics to Presbyterians, and many who aren’t aligned with any denomination.

Established by a Church of Scotland minister, George MacLeod, in 1938, the Iona Community focuses on social justice and peace, and is probably best known for liturgical material, particularly music.

If you attend a mainstream Christian church, you’ve quite possibly heard and sung music from the Iona Community.

My wife, who’s a Presbyterian minister and a professor of music, has had Iona on her wish list for years. Contemplating an upcoming sabbatical from her church position, she considered a trip to this small island.

There were limited funds, and various places she could also go, but if you knew her, you’d understand the yearning to experience Iona at least once in her lifetime. A surprising gift from a member of the congregation allowed her to not only make the journey, but to take me along for the ride.

I had no real yearning myself, although I’ve always wanted to travel to Scotland. Nobody told me about the beaches. I kind of expected sheep. I’ve been falling down for a while now, of course.

It just turned out I was more of a pilgrim than I knew. We left Seattle with the news from the El Paso and Dayton shootings still fresh and terrifying, and the latest U.N. report on climate change nearly as awful. I numbly stared out the window as we passed over Greenland, a circle of melted ice appearing directly below my window.

Maybe that section always melts, I thought.

I can’t fly away from any of this. My nightmares happen in the daytime now, inspired by strange weather and active shooter drills. I have a grandson, nearly 6 years old. The world is more than terrifying these days.

As I said, though, Iona is a special place, notable for its thinness.

The concept of “thin places” is an old one, resurrected in the past few decades because of the renewed interest in Celtic Christianity, and mostly because of Iona.

It refers to a place where we’re closer to the divine, or that’s roughly the idea. It’s become a bit trendy, but it’s not hard to grasp. A place further away from the ordinary and mundane, maybe.

A remote island in the Inner Hebrides is about as far from the ordinary as I will ever be, and taking a tumble on an isolated beach will always tend to sharpen the soul.

I’m a skeptic about things like this. I have a natural affinity for the ordinary, taking comfort from the way routine dulls the chaos of existence.

And while I’m an active member of a church, and go every Sunday, I have no illusions that prayer or reflection, even in such a lovely place, will change the world at all.

It just changes me, and maybe that’s where we start.

I’ll tell you a fun story next week, about how a minor quest on this trip turned into an abundance of joy in a small Scottish village.

But I’m a seeker of joy, always. And as I stopped to rest on a grassy Iona hillside, surrounded by incurious sheep, bruised and tired, I think I found it.



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