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Thinking Out Loud

Are We There Yet?: Serendipitous Pilgrimage, Part One

by Michael Jinkins | Apr 15, 2016

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!

Are We there yet

If there is any place in my life where serendipity has intervened, brushing so closely to providence that the two have become almost indistinguishable, it is in the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It's hard to say why. But I started out going there as a tourist nearly thirty years ago, and have become a pilgrim there since. What once seemed merely the magic and beauty and lore of the land has become more and more difficult to describe.

I am not alone in this experience. As Neal Ascherson writes:

"There are many kinds of revelation. But the most powerful is the vision which transcends the mental boundary between life and non-life, and Scotland is a place where this sort of revelation often approaches. Staring into a Scottish landscape, I have often asked myself why - in spite of all appearances - bracken, rocks, man and sea are at some level one. Sometimes this secret seems about to open, like a light moving briefly behind a closed door." [Neal Ascherson, Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland (New York: Hill & Wang, 2004), p. 26]

Not long ago, while on the west coast of Scotland doing research and writing, I was engaged in my usual habit of writing in the morning while my wife, Debbie, painted or searched for sea glass along the rocky shore (a quest that is becoming more difficult in the age of plastics).

Debbie stopped in the village shop that particular morning where the shopkeeper, who had seen her painting earlier down near the harbor in a decidedly "fresh" Scottish summer breeze (read: "bone-chilling cold wind blowing off the North Atlantic") offered her a steaming cup of tea. During their chat Debbie mentioned what I was doing - writing on the relationship between places, histories and the life of the spirit. The shopkeeper expressed his interest in my work. Later that day, as Debbie and I visited his shop together, it became clear why Debbie's comments had sparked the shopkeeper's interest.

He explained that he had visited this region as a tourist thinking he might stay a couple of weeks. That was over forty years ago. He didn't know what drew him there, or what kept him there, but, he said, it was something somehow spiritual, a connection he had sensed almost immediately. It would be quite enough, he told us, if this was his experience alone, but it wasn't.

A few years after moving to the island, a friend of his from Glasgow visited him there. After rambling among the hills, the cliffs and ocean inlets for a few days, the friend informed him that he had come to a decision. He had decided to enroll in divinity school. Something had happened in this place. Stripped of all the distractions that ordinarily kept him from himself and that insulated him from reflecting deeply on what matters most, he had sensed God's call.

"Something is going on here," said the shopkeeper.

We told him we had experienced something similar. And that something kept us coming back year after year.

The first time we visited the west coast of Scotland, specifically the coastal region of Argyll and Bute, I was on a mundane errand. To my recollection, the trip had no explicitly spiritual intentions. I was tracking down the childhood roots of John McLeod Campbell, the arch-heretic of nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterianism in hopes of putting some flesh on the bare historical and theological bones of his writings. McLeod Campbell was one of two theologians at the heart of my Ph.D. dissertation (the other was the American theologian, Jonathan Edwards).

Campbell was convicted of heresy by the Church of Scotland in 1830 because he taught that God is love. Really. He was convicted of heresy in the Presbyterian Church because he taught that God IS love. I'm not making this up.

It so happened that the International School of Aberdeen, where Debbie then taught and our children attended primary school, was taking a long weekend to celebrate our American holiday of Thanksgiving. The British don't celebrate Thanksgiving, of course, except in the way in which the English wit and curmudgeon G.K. Chesterton suggested, as that blessed occasion when the nation of Britain gives thanks that our Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers left England for America.

I had discovered that McLeod Campbell grew up a few miles south of Oban in the manse of the Kilninver Parish Church where his father served as minister. So we piled into our car and set out for the west coast.

A coast-to-coast trip across the whole country sounds like a long journey. Frankly, most any road trip sounds a lot longer to the average Scot than to the average American, especially an expatriate Texan who routinely will drive 90 miles to have dinner in a really good family-owned Mexican restaurant. Even considering that a mile of Highlands roads takes three times longer to traverse than the sorts of highways linking Fort Worth to Austin, our trip all the way across Scotland, from Aberdeen to Oban, was completed that day, even after a late start in the morning. We even had plenty of time to enjoy dinner at a great little fish and chips shop in Oban where, ironically, Buddy Holly's greatest hits played non-stop. A very Scottish experience.

That first trip stands out in my memory for many reasons, but perhaps most distinctly because the children spent so much of the trip suffering from car-sickness. The Highland and coastal roads have lots of twists and curves. Then there was the disastrous day spent on the Isle of Iona (our first trip to the holy isle) when one nauseated child taunted the other nauseated child until we were all sick.

We have, after several repeated attempts to visit Iona with our children, decided that there is something about that particular place that causes temporary demon possession with our children. Just a few years ago, Debbie and I vowed after another visit to Iona with our children (then adults, with their bewildered spouses along, neither of whom had ever witnessed demon possession first-hand) that we will never again return to Iona WITH THEM.

But that is not the subject of this story. Our story today is about what happened a few miles south of Oban on that very first trip.

Just off the A816 trunk road south of Oban, we found the tiny church where Campbell's beloved bewhiskered father served as pastor and where Campbell himself preached his first sermon, in Gaelic. It was on later trips that I would find, with the help of locals, the manse where Campbell grew up and the palatial home belonging to the area's leading aristocratic family where Campbell's mother gave birth to him. After examining the exterior of the locked church, feeling relatively satisfied with the trip, I declared the scholarly part of our outing accomplished and recommended that we become tourists again.

That was when serendipity intervened. Helped by just a bit of madness.

As I pulled away from the church, Debbie, who had been reading tourist brochures aloud to the children the whole time I wandered around the churchyard, said: "If we turn right at this Y in the road, and continue along for a few miles, we should come to the Clachan Bridge, (and she quoted from the brochure) "the famous bridge over the Atlantic Ocean, built in 1792."

Looking up from the brochure, she added, "I think the children would enjoy seeing the bridge across the Atlantic Ocean."

Debbie spoke these words with a peculiar half-mad look in her eyes which, if I read it correctly, marked a collision between: (A) what I had always, at least until then, experienced as her inextinguishable good humor well on its way to being ... well ... extinguished; (B) her instinctive maternal sense of nurture and care for these two children that was being tested pretty much to the limit just now; and (C) the desperation of a person who was trying with only mixed success to entertain two beloved, but very nauseated, very energetic and increasingly bored children who had been confined in the backseat of a car for days while this woman's husband, their father, was utterly distracted by the childhood of someone who had been dead for over a hundred years.

When she suggested that we turn at the Y and drive out to the Clachan Bridge, I somehow must have communicated just a note of hesitation. Something, perhaps in the way I sighed, showed that I contested her idea and that I didn't really want to go exploring that far afield. Maybe it was my counter-suggestion that we go back to Oban to look around in the bookstore, but something definitely met with her disapproval. As I started the car, I turned and looked at Debbie.

With a twitch in her left eye (that I had never before detected), and taking hold of my wrist with a surprisingly strong grip, she repeated: "I said I think the children would enjoy seeing the bridge over the Atlantic."

As Lyle Lovett has confessed upon reaching the boundaries of what his "baby won't tolerate": "Now a small and more ordinary man might not appreciate the guidance of a good woman who truly loves him. ... That's not me. No. Yessiree. I'm proof that true love will set you free."

Or, proof of something.

I smiled weakly, and turned at the Y toward the world-famous Clachan Bridge over the Atlantic.

That turn, unremarkable in every respect, except that it probably extended my life by some years, ended up changing our lives.

We drove across the Clachan Bridge over the narrow stream off an inlet from the Atlantic (thus "the bridge over the Atlantic Ocean") onto Seil Island, careening down more winding roads and harrowing single-track lanes for miles until we reached, at last, the village of Ellenabeich, the last stop before you reach Canada which lies on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. For almost thirty years we have returned repeatedly to this remote village clinging to a patch of land recovered from now abandoned slate pits at the edge of the sea, sheer cliffs climbing into the sky behind it.

Something else has happened in the decades since we first visited this island and the area surrounding it, something frankly much more difficult to describe or even to talk about.

When we first visited this part of the world, my interest lay on the surface. The surface is beautiful and fascinating to me, aesthetic junkie and nature romantic that I am. But somehow along the way, my interest shifted.

The visual world of natural wonders and historical events have become a sort of portal through which I enter another realm, a spiritual landscape imbedded in this physical world and inseparable from it. It is a spiritual landscape that endures within me no matter how far from these places I may roam.

What I have come to realize is simply this. It's not that there are thin places where the eternal, the transcendent, or the holy breaks through. But there are places that invite and allow us to strip away the distractions that keep us from being conscious of the eternal which is always present, the transcendent that is always immanent, the holy who is hidden only because our eyes are not accustomed to paying attention to the One who is everywhere we may go.

Next time, I'll explore the place of retreat for St. Columba when Iona became too hectic.

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