Tiny Iona is one of the world’s most famous “thin places,” where the separation of the material and the spiritual becomes almost transparent.
“People from all over the world arrive on the ferry expecting God to be waiting for them on the jetty,” musician, teacher and writer Jane Bentley told me via telephone from Scotland a few days ago. “And of course that’s not the purpose of an Iona pilgrimage.”
As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I have made two pilgrimages to Iona and, in one case, our fellow pilgrims (including ReadTheSpirit Publisher John Hile) were met—not by the warmly enfolding arms of God—but by a bitterly cold, gale-force hail storm that blew in off the Atlantic without warning and knocked some of us to our knees. As the full force of the storm unfolded across little Iona and the surrounding northwest coast of Scotland—all electrical power in the entire region crashed. That part of Scotland was dark for days.
Huddled around the last sputtering stubs of candles in the centuries-old Iona abbey, warden Malcolm King regarded us with a wry smile: “Well, you said you wanted to experience a thin place. Nobody ever said that a thin place wouldn’t be terrifying.”
I have never forgotten Malcolm’s response to the storm and the blackout that returned us for a day or two to the truly medieval lighting of Iona’s sacred landmarks. Nor have I forgotten Malcolm’s reminder that, at the core of faith, is not necessarily warm reassurance—but awe. Wonderment. A humbling awareness of our own precious-yet-fragile place in the grandeur of Creation.
Now, in Around a Thin Place, Jane Bentley and popular Iona writer Neil Paynter have produced a spiritual guide to the experience of an Iona pilgrimage. While it is truly a guidebook to Iona’s spiritual experiences—the book is far more than that. These readings, even without a physical visit to Iona, are accompanied by images of the island and readings that we suspect many people will enjoy for their own inspiration. Many pieces in the book also will be popular in groups and congregational settings—some of them prompting fresh thoughts about pilgrimage and spiritual discipline.
The book is not available via Amazon (although an occasional Amazon re-seller lists it). The best place to get it—and all of Neil’s books—is the Wild Goose Publications site, which is the media-production arm of the Iona Community. (Here’s an Iona Community page within the Wild Goose site, if you want more background.)
FROM ‘AROUND A THIN PLACE’ …
‘A CELTIC BLESSING’
This is one of many prayers and blessings sprinkled throughout this 192-page book. Not all the prayers are voiced in this Celtic style. Many of the prayerful readings are focused on stirring up our awareness of the urgent needs in our world today. This prayer does both.
A Celtic Blessing
Bless to us, O God, the earth beneath our feet.
Bless to us, O God, the path whereon we go.
Bless to us, O God, the people whom we meet.
Bless to us, O God, each thing our eyes see.
Bless to us, O God, each sound our ears hear.
Bless to us, O God, each ray that guides our way.
FROM ‘AROUND A THIN PLACE’ …
EXCERPT FROM ‘GOD AND MAN AND WOMAN’
This reading often is part of the daylong pilgrimage on Iona. Two people read it aloud—A and B—usually at a stop along the route in the ruins of a centuries-old nunnery. At that sacred site, pilgrims are challenged to remember the often-forgotten roles of women throughout our religious tradition. Many of the pilgrimage readings are spiced with humor and are aimed at troubling our all-too-complacent assumptions about our faith and our world. This is a memorable example and is a text often requested by pilgrims after the daylong journey ends.
God and Man and Woman
A: In the beginning, God made man.
He was so disappointed that he tried again,
and the next time, he made woman.
B: Eve, the first woman, was a vegetarian.
She liked apples, and ate the wrong one.
Men have been suspicious of vegetarians ever since.
A: Noah didn’t eat apples.
He was a man … so he drank alcohol.
In fact, he drank so much alcohol that one day
his sons found their old man completely sozzled
and lying in the nude.
Women have been suspicious of alcohol ever since.
B: Delilah didn’t eat apples or drink wine.
She was a hairdresser.
Samson didn’t know that,
but while he was resting his macho muscles,
Delilah cut his hair and took his strength away.
Men have avoided being bald ever since.
A: St Paul didn’t know Eve, Noah or Delilah.
But he did know some women,
and those he did must have given him bad memories.
Because he told them not to speak in church,
not to go into church without a hat
and always to obey their husbands.
Paul also said that men shouldn’t get married
unless they were able to control themselves.
Men have been unable to control themselves ever since.
B: But Jesus was different.
He was strong, but he cried.
He even cried in front of other men.
He knew that some women had bad reputations,
but that didn’t keep him back from them:
he knelt beside them.
He loved his disciples who were all men
and he wasn’t afraid to tell them that he loved them.
And though he was never married,
he was always surrounded by women, who, at his death,
were more faithful to him than the men.
Jesus didn’t make a fuss about who was who, or who was what.
He said that everyone who loved him was his mother,
A and B together: Thank God for Jesus.
Care to read more about Iona?
MEET JANE: Read our in-depth interview with Jane Bentley.
READ A PILGRIM’S STORY: In 2007, we published a series on our first pilgrimage to Iona.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.