Thin places — Here, there or everywhere?

In the summer of 2004, I traveled for two months in Scotland. Six of those weeks were spent volunteering with the Iona Community on the Island of Iona. Iona is a three-mile-long island off the west coast of Scotland. It has a long spiritual history. The story begins for me with a 6th century Christian monk and missionary named Columba. Columba was Irish-born, and there are several stories and explanations for how he ended up on a small island off the west coast of Scotland. The one I remember best is that Columba was exiled from Ireland. He and his companions traveled by boat across to Scotland and landed only after they could no longer see their homeland. When they landed, they buried their boat and Columba wept over his exile, turning the stones green. Columba’s Bay is still a source for beautiful green stone.

I traveled to Iona with a heart hollowed out by ministry fatigue and difficult relationships. But in the six weeks of cleaning toilets, hanging laundry and chopping vegetables, framed by morning and evening prayer, my soul slowly healed. Iona is known as a “thin place,” a concept in Celtic Christianity used to identify sacred spaces. In thin places, the boundary between heaven and earth becomes more permeable. We encounter God in fresh ways that startle us out of our inattention, and we are often transformed by the experience.

I don’t know if the ancient Celtic Christians limited the term “thin place” to only certain physical places. I can certainly understand if they did. Iona felt different. It was a place of peace, of vivid dreams, of greater attunement to the divine, of transcendence. And yet, right before I left Iona to return to the fast-paced, concrete landscape of Los Angeles, I ran across a poem called “Circuit,” from the book “The Pattern of our Days: Liturgies and Resources for Worship,” edited by Kathy Galloway. The poem expressed the fact that God journeys with us wherever we go, whether we are surrounded by natural beauty or breathing in the smog of the city. As the poem says: “God has no favourite places. There are no special things. All are God’s and all is sacred.”

I carried this poem in my bones as I returned to work at a nonprofit in Los Angeles. It kept me awake and attentive to God’s presence in the places that had wearied and wounded me. And I’ve had this conviction since then that thin places are everywhere, if only we pay attention. Thin places are places of transcendence, of moments when God feels nearer and clearer to us. Thin places can be physical places, but they can also be expressed in relationships of grace and forgiveness, in moments of prayer, or even in expressions of sheer delight. Thin places, in this way, are subjective experiences of the divine, based on a person’s ability to perceive them.

But here’s the thing: Now, nearly 20 years after I volunteered on Iona, I have a strong urge to return. Ministry fatigue has once again dulled my senses to the presence of God. I long for healing and transformation. And I think going back to the island, while not being the same experience as before, will still be a sacred experience. Because there is something holy about the island that goes beyond one’s subjective experience. Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims over the centuries have come and gone from Iona. And they have encountered God while making their pilgrimage. Iona’s “thinness” comes from a shared history of many people making space for the divine, such that the place itself has become sacred. It is a communal thin place. And sometimes we need the community to remind us that God truly is present with us and with our world.