• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Flickr
  • YouTube
Thinking Out Loud

Thin Places: MacLeod's Thin Places

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 12, 2015

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook."
E-mail us!

MacLeod's Thin Places

George MacLeod famously said of the Isle of Iona that it is a "thin place where only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual." Over the centuries, thousands of visitors to the island have agreed. In the sixth-century, St. Columba established a monastery and missionary base from which Christianity spread across Scotland, northern England and parts of northern Continental Europe. Having visited Iona more times than I can count over the past thirty years, I have experienced its mystical pull - the sense that history and eternity, myth and legend overlap, clash, blend and brush against one another.

I vividly recall leading a prayer service for a group of seminary students in the ancient chapel one stormy January afternoon after a harrowing and long-delayed ferry passage from the Isle of Mull to Iona. It was a day on which Iona seemed to teeter on an invisible boundary between the known world and the unseen one, shrouded in darkness and buffeted by heavy Atlantic winds. The ages seemed to fold over on themselves, and one could imagine kneeling beside Columba and his monks or standing beside MacLeod and his craftsmen and young followers, as fog wrapped round this small island making it feel even more timeless than usual.

MacLeod's observation about the thinness of Iona notwithstanding, I also remember the lecture I heard while still a student. It first set me on the path to learn more about George MacLeod. Crowded into a lecture hall at King's College, Aberdeen, other students and I sat enthralled listening to the newly appointed Canon of Westminster and Chaplain to the Speaker of the British House of Commons, the Reverend Donald Gray, as he described MacLeod's pastoral ministry in Govan, an impoverished industrial section of Glasgow. Canon Gray told us how MacLeod translated his belief that the Lord's Table is both a dining table and an altar by serving Holy Communion from house to house on ordinary kitchen tables, reminding his parishioners that God is with us not only behind the stained glass of Gothic cathedrals, but also in humble homes where people struggle to keep body and soul together, and on street corners where unemployed people struggle against all odds to hold on to human dignity amidst the detritus of poverty.

Not long after hearing this lecture, I came across the small book MacLeod wrote, Only One Way Left (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications) in which he challenged the post-war generation to take the message of Jesus into the center of the city, to raise the cross of Jesus in the marketplace, remembering that "Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves: on the town garbage heap, at a crossroad so cosmopolitan they had to write his title in Hebrew, Latin and Greek."

Thin places where God breaks through: this was a regular theme for MacLeod.

Perhaps the "thinness" of the Isle of Iona owes much to the historical proximity one feels there to an ancient saint, Columba, who stood virtually as near to the historical moment when Jesus walked the earth as we do to the age of Luther and Calvin. It is worth remembering, however, with Søren Kierkegaard, that Jesus of Nazareth does not merely stand at the other end of a long historical tunnel stretching back two millennia, but is, through the mystery of faith, "our exact contemporary" standing beside us wherever we find ourselves. This, at any rate, was MacLeod's point of view when he offered up the Sacrament of Communion on kitchen tables in Govan - in places made thin by the presence of the crucified and risen Christ.

This past summer, Debbie and I walked the rugged southern coast of Iona. After four hours of clambering across cliffs and traversing hilltop marshes, we were making our way back to meet the ferry to Mull, when, standing on a massive fell, we glimpsed Iona Abbey far below us. The day had turned sunny and hot after a cool, misty morning. We were, as the British say, "knackered," wanting nothing so much as a place to sit and rest and have a cool drink of water. We were not in a frame of mind particularly conducive to the mystical. From where we stood, farther to the north and northeast, you could just make out the hilltops on Iona and Mull, where Iron Age fortresses had stood even before Columba arrived here. You could easily imagine the land unoccupied by human beings as peopled by Irish, Scottish or Vikings, by migrants, monks, raiders or farmers.

As we made our way down the steep trail, we met a woman, a resident of the island, out for an evening ramble with her sheepdog, and we were brought back to earth, back to the present, and back to MacLeod's theological insight that keeps romanticism at bay even on Iona. The thinness of a place, the fact that its material existence is separated from the eternal by a tissue, does not depend on accidents of latitude and longitude or upon the vagaries of metaphysics, but upon the proximity of God - no less a mystery, no less mystical, but wholly Holy Other. And this "Other" breaks through all over, wherever God pleases to be met.

Leave a comment

  • 1044 Alta Vista Road |
  • Louisville, KY 40205 |
  • 800.264.1839 |
  • Fax: 502.895.1096 |
  • Site Map
© Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary