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Friday
Nov052010

Back in The Age with a piece about Iona

A few readers have asked how people will know when I have a new post up, given that I don't do twitter or face book. So here's the plan. I hope to post most weeks, generally towards the end of the week when I have my writing day/s. That's the plan - we'll see how it goes. Thank you to those who have visited, responded and sent emails. It's great to know there's somebody out there.

Keeping up the momentum, for the first time since May, I was in The Age last Sunday, with a faith column. Here it is:

 

The phrase I heard most often used to describe Iona is that it’s a “thin place” – where heaven and earth are separated by the barest membrane. I’ve never quite got this, but I’ve been hearing about Iona all my life, so I half expect to be disappointed when I finally get to see it for myself.

It’s a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland. At various times it has been home to St Columba and his monks (sixth century), site of a magnificent Benedictine abbey and nunnery (thirteenth century), and scene of the rebuilding of said, ruined abbey, from the 1940s till now.

It continues to be a place of Christian pilgrimage, with an ecumenical community based there that works in tough areas on the mainland and writes beautiful prayers and music used all over the world.

The aura of Iona is enhanced by the effort it takes to get there. From Edinburgh it takes two trains, a ferry, a bus, another ferry.

During the few days I am there, I join a group for a ‘pilgrimage’, walking 10 k’s around the island. There are only two roads, so we soon strike into the trackless bogs and cliffs and hills. The rest of the group is chatty, but I don’t want to have to make conversation. There is too much to drink in. The soggy ground that sucks at my blundstones. The tiny wildflowers scattered generously in the springy grass. The shaggy brown bull that straddles our path defiantly and the silly, black-faced sheep. The reservoir of peat-brown water the colour of tea. The cliffs that plunge into a sea that sparkles in early summer sun. Beaches – some of which are made up of tiny cowrie shells, others of fine silver sand, still others of smooth pebbles made of marble (allegedly the oldest rock in the world) that fit snuggly in my palm and find their way into my pocket and then my suitcase and end up on my desk in Melbourne.

The twice-daily worship in the Abbey feeds my soul. The history of the buildings fascinates me. But the strongest, strangest magic I find there is in the land itself. Despite having lived most of my life in India and Australia, it feels as though I have come home.

I’m still not sure what “thin place” means. What I do know now, though, is that walking alone on the edges of the island, across wide-open grasslands to the beach, I felt as though I had finally made it to Narnia – CS Lewis’ fantasyland I spent my entire childhood trying to stumble into, the world I still think of when I try to imagine heaven.

And so I travel back to life in Melbourne, with my Iona pebbles and my memories of soaring delight. Sometimes, going on pilgrimage to a thin place, a holy place, is what it takes to remind us that joy, breathtaking beauty and foretastes of heaven are to be found wherever we are.

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