Last week I was on the Hebridean island of Iona where I stayed with the community at the abbey to help lead a programme for the week reflecting on ‘Thin places and spaces’. We explored, with a group of amazing people from across the world who had all travelled to this little rock in the Atlantic, what it meant to find sacred space in ourselves, the island itself, with its rich history stretching back thousands of years, and in our neighbourhoods back home where we live and work.
It was an astonishing week in many ways. The years of prayer stretching back to St Columba who founded a monastic community there in 563AD and most likely reaching before that into the deep history of pre-Christian spirituality seem to have dug a well into the hidden recesses of the soul of the place. Time seemed to have an elasticity there and it was hard to tell sometimes whether I had been there for 5 minutes or 100 years. This mystic experience was grounded in the earthy and pragmatic spirituality of the Iona Community at the Abbey which taught me so much to be a part of their rhythm of life for a few days.
I was privileged to have the opportunity to preach at the Sunday morning Communion service. I spoke about my experience of the children of clay art piece I made a few years ago details of which can be found here and some photos of the project can be found here as well as on some of the posts that follow it.
I left 3 new figures in the abbey and revisiting them a few days later I found that one of them had been reshaped and moulded, moving from gazing upwards in wonder to bowing his/her head in peaceful prayer. I left the figures on the island so they now have a life of their own.
For the initial Children of Clay piece I sent out 40 of the figures around Sheffield, leaving them in the streets of the city. 23 of them remained after 40 days and I gathered them together but I never knew what happened to the other 17. By coincidence or grace someone from Sheffield happened to be in that congregation on Iona as I preached. Afterwards he told me that he had seen one of those figures before; on his friend’s mantelpiece. His friend had found it on the street two years ago, been delighted by it, and given it a home. I was surprised and blessed to hear news of one that I thought had long disappeared.
For those who attended the sessions I led with my friend Caroline I promised to post some of the texts we used during the week here, so here they are.
We considered the prayer of St Aidan, who sailed from Iona round to Holy Island in the North East of England. Reflectign on the tidal flows of the spirit that call us to withdraw into solitude and to engage deeply with the world:
A Prayer of St Aidan
Leave me alone with God
As much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters
Close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart,
Alone with you, God, holy to you.
Then with the turning of the tide
Prepare me to carry your presence
To the busy world beyond,
The world that rushes in on me
Till the waters come again
And fold me back to you.
We considered the relationship between spiritual experience and our bodies as St Teresa of Avila writes in her classic work ‘Interior Castle’:
“As I write this, the noises in my head are so loud that I am beginning to wonder what is going on in it…My head sounds just as if it were full of brimming rivers, and then as if all the water in those rivers came suddenly rushing downward; and a host of little birds seem to be whistling, not in the ears, but in the upper part of the head, where the higher part of the soul is said to be; and I have held this view for a long time, for the spirit seems to move upward with great velocity.”
On a pilgrimage around the Island we heard some of the words of Robert MacFarlane from his book ‘The Old Ways’ where he asks a powerful question:
“For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?’
And, whether we inhabit sacred and ancient places or the shiny bustle of the new city we remember these words:
Where you are, however unchosen, is the place of blessing.
How you are, however broken, is the place of grace
Who you are, in your becoming, is your place in the Kingdom