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A few year ago on the last day of the year I traveled from Fort William across the Isle of Mull to the Island of Iona. It was one of those beautiful, cloudless winter days, freezing cold but one which brought clarity to everything you looked at. As we travelled across Mull we talked about what it must have been like for those first few Christians on British soil to begin their Christian mission from such an isolated place and how hard it must have been to travel without the luxury of cars (or roads)! On reaching Iona the Abbey stood out in the silence that surrounded it. As we began to walk through the village our own silence enveloped us and we went our separate ways on our own spiritual pilgrimage.
Iona is a rare and special place.
Nobody can imagine that Columba chose Iona for its ease of communication or accessibility. I believe he chose it because there Columba found, as many other Christian have also found, a “touching place” where the beauty of creation can give us a glimpse of God. A place where God’s presence shines out – just as we remember a human being transfigured by God’s glory.
Iona is often described in Celtic Tradition as a Thin Place. Thin places describe the veil being parted between this world and the other world, between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human, between matter and spirit, between the eternal and the temporal. In the thin place the duality of those parings disappears and we now stand in union, wholeness, and ultimately holiness.
But if that were all it was about then life on Iona might appear like an escape from reality. However, the Christian Community which exists there today has used the inspiration of that place elsewhere. If you like Iona is the mountaintop experience but you don’t remain there. It is the revelation which inspires and encourages.
In far different locations the vision of Iona gives an impetus to pray and work creatively where environmental or human ugliness has disfigured the everyday and everywhere beauty which God inspires. In parts of Glasgow the Iona Community works in physical and spiritual ways to enable people to find their own “touching places” of encounter with God. In a song written by the Iona Community we hear the following words:
“To the lost Christ shows his face, to the unloved he gives his embrace, to those who cry in pain or disgrace Christ makes with his friends a touching place.”
We all need our “touching places”. Somewhere to go, and somewhere to be, that reminds us of a vision of God which can often get lost in the preoccupation of the everyday. Yes, God is around and about and beside us everywhere, but we also know that we sometimes need to be reminded of the otherness of God as much as God’s day to day presence.
One aspect of the Christian experience of God, is that God is “above and beyond” as well as at our side and within. In moments when we see and experience the vastness of creation – the uncontrollability of the elements – we can become aware that God is whether of not we are. It reminds us that God is in the present moment and, at the same time, throughout all ages.
It is a humbling experience because it calls to mind the fact that God loves us despite our inconsequence, so succinctly put in the eighth Psalm:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
It may be that all of us here today have some “touching place” where we renew our vision of one aspect of our relationship with God. Such places, like Iona, might be far off and only occasionally visited. But it might also be the case that there is a place, some words or a piece of music which enables us to re-vision ourselves more easily. It might even be something that reminds us of that far off place, like a relic which a Medieval pilgrim might brought home and guarded jealously. We turn to these when we are worn-out, deflated and demoralised. We reach out and touch them in the hope that God might touch us and enliven us.
The Celtic vision of Christ and God which Columba and many others shared was a spiritual way of life which knew the need of touching places. Today many people are turning back to that way, welcoming its less cerebral approach to faith. Yes, the Church in Britain gained much from the Roman influences of Christendom, but we also lost a theology of creation which we would do well to recover. The Celtic saints held out a vision of Christianity which emphasized ministry outside the Church; that spoke of a vigour in life; that used the language of taking, binding, bursting, and returning. Their faith was exercised in precarious and dangerous places, where heaven and earth were part of the same journey.
As Christians today we have much to learn from what Columba and others found in ministering the Gospel in the British Isles 1,400 years ago. We need to find and to cultivate our “touching places”.
In those days, in every Church in the land, a fire was kept constantly alight. Not just a tiny flickering candle – but fire. It ought to remind us today that no matter how well organised our Church life; or no matter how considerable our acts of service to others; unless we feed the light of our faith – unless we turn aside to find our “touching place” – than we are in danger of ministering a dry and lifeless Gospel.
We read in the Gospels that Jesus often turned aside into the wilderness – to find his place of prayer.
Yes, there were still people to be healed; teaching to be done; disciples to encourage. But Jesus did say no; he did choose stillness over action; he didn’t use the worthy excuse of ministry in order to avoid the work of prayer. If we value the faith we have been given let us give it the place it deserves. Let us dare to stay still just long enough to risk encountering the God who is both near and now, and also above and beyond. To see the ordinary transfigured by the God whose light and love creates thin places for us all.
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