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Thinking Out Loud

No Concessions, Mercifully: Serendipitous Pilgrimage, Part Two

by Michael Jinkins | Apr 29, 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!

No Concessions

In our last "Thin Places" blog, I said something to the effect that it is not that the places are "thin" but that we are usually sort of thick.

Actually, what I said was this: usually we just aren't really conscious of the holy who is always in our midst, the God who did not just create everything and abscond with his presence, but who is in fact present in and through this creation that is held in existence at every precious moment by none other than God's gracious creative Spirit.

We get distracted. Or, maybe, we are pretty nearly perpetually distracted.

The thirteenth-century Japanese sage, Dogen, observed that our "thoughts run around like a wild horse," our "feelings jump about like a monkey in the forest." There's frankly so much distracted frolicking by the zoo within us we have a hard time even noticing what's right in front of our noses, much less being conscious of the deep reality that holds this present moment in existence.

To remember a story from the life of Jesus much beloved in Christian mystical writings, we are more often a distracted Martha, running hither and thither in our minds if not on our feet, rather than Mary, sitting at Jesus' feet, resolutely attentive to the presence of Christ.

But, sometimes, in some places, God gets our attention. That's really what we mean by "thin places." God puts us in places where the callous that we have built up on our attentiveness gets worn away enough to notice what's right there, what's always been right there, waiting with the patience of the rock of ages for us to wake up.

Even saints sometimes need to get to that "place" where they can be attentive again. Today, I want you to visit with me the place where one of the greatest saints (if there is such a scale) went for this purpose.

An "Accidental" Discovery
After a few years of visiting Seil Island and its neighborhood (to which I introduced readers recently) only as a stopover on our way somewhere else, we decided to rent a cottage on the island for a week one summer. Thus began what has become a more or less regular event, and for longer and longer periods of time.

On one particular visit, about fifteen years ago, I had just presented a paper at Cambridge. Debbie and I stayed at Ridley College where a friend, Jeremy Begbie, then served as vice principal. After a few days, we took a train to Edinburgh, Scotland, to visit old friends and planned to cap off the trip with a couple of weeks on the Isle of Seil in the village of Ellenabeich. It was during that particular stay in Ellenabeich that we heard about the Seafari Adventure boats that take tourists out into the Atlantic Ocean to view wildlife on several of the neighboring islands and to experience first-hand what they described as "the third largest permanent whirlpool in the world." This "whirlpool" is really a highly unstable tidal area in the Gulf of Corryvreckan between the islands of Scarba and Jura where whirlpools form and break up one after another, on some days so violently that no one dares to enter the gulf. In the days of sailing vessels, it was well known as a graveyard of ships. Despite the touristy name of the tour conductors, "Seafari," we were intrigued enough to take the tour.

So we went on the Seafari tour. It was great. We saw deer striding high up on the hilltops, seal basking in the sun, and sea birds of all sorts. And, of course, we experienced the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpools. The boat used was a super-fast craft, part rigid, part rubberized, the kind of boat used for sea rescues in dangerous waters. Just riding in it gave us all a nice adrenaline rush. After passing though the Correyvrecken, the captain took us out into the open ocean, and as we came around from the Atlantic side of the Isle of Scarba, turning to head back toward Seil, he pointed-out a series of tiny islands on the horizon to the northwest. From where we sat, the islands looked like a line of rocky humps rising just above the surface of the water.

"Over there," he shouted above a blowing westerly wind, "Over there are the Garvellachs." He slowed the boat a little so we could focus on these small archipelagos before continuing his commentary.

"On one of those islands, St. Brendan of Ireland is supposed to be buried. Brendan preceded St. Columba to Scotland by several years, and established a small monastery on the southernmost island of the Garvellachs, an island called Eileach an Naoimh."

As we bounced up and down in the water, the horizon bearing those small islands appearing and disappearing with every surge of the waves, he added: "That may also be where St. Columba's body was re-buried when it was removed from its original burial site on Iona. The monks of Iona had to hide his body from marauding Vikings. It seems this island was where Columba used to go in spiritual retreat from Iona. He is supposed to have loved it here. And it is where, reputedly, his mother is buried too, up on the top of that hill that overlooks the monastery's graveyard."

Almost as an aside he said: "We have a license to take small groups there, if you are ever interested. As long as I can get enough folks to justify the petrol, I can come out." Then he revved the engines and we flew across the waves back to Ellenabeich.

Of course I was immediately interested. And I began to do research on Britain's third and least known "holy isle."

The first two holy isles of Britain are famous: the first being Iona, just beyond the tip of Mull (really only a few miles from the Garvellachs as the seagull flies; the second, Lindisfarne, is off the northeastern coast of England a few miles south of Berwick-Upon-Tweed. The first island is associated forever with St. Columba, the founder of those monastic missionaries who took the Celtic version of Christianity through Scotland and Northumbria and across Northwestern Europe into the very center of that continent. The latter island conjures up the names of St. Aidan and one of the most beloved saints in all of British history, St. Cuthbert. Lindisfarne was originally also a Celtic Christian monastery, with close ties to Iona. The Celtic monks prayed, preached and taught a Christian faith forged in Ireland long before St. Augustine of Canterbury established (or, really, formally re-established) the Roman Catholic version of our faith in the south of England.

These two holy isles are now very accessible places. Iona is reachable by a regular ferry service. Lindisfarne is connected to the mainland by a somewhat precarious causeway each day at low tide. Both are frequented by thousands of pilgrims and tourists every year.

The third holy isle, however, is not so accessible. Eileach an Naoimh's annual visitors number in the tens.

We did succeed that year in getting up a group of about ten intrepid souls who wanted to visit Eileach an Naoimh. So down to the sea we went again and into the open ocean.

As our tiny zephyr pulled up to the island, it suddenly became clear why so few people visit it. Our "dock" consisted of a large eye-bolt sticking out of the side of a cliff. The captain pulled alongside the cliff as his crew member tied the bow of the boat to the eye-bolt. As the stern slapped rhythmically against the cliff face, the crew member, then back at the stern, held it in place just long enough that each of us could scurry up the steep rocks.

That was our landing. The boat then quickly unfastened its rope and headed out to sea for two hours, giving us time to explore.

As we made our way across the huge boulders that make up the shore, then up a sheep trail toward the remains of a medieval Benedictine monastery that once stood in a flat area below the crest of the hill, we passed by the ruins of much earlier monastic beehive cells (picture, if you will, igloos of stone rather than blocks of ice). Celtic monks lived in these cells year-round, and at one time there were many of them on the western islands and mainland of Scotland.

The once ubiquitous presence of these "cells" remains indelibly marked upon this entire contemporary landscape. Every map is dotted with small settlements, some little more than a couple of houses and an old church, the names of which often begin with the prefix "kil," which was the original Gaelic word for the Latin "cell" in this region; a cell or a kil was just where a priest or a monk lived. Kilmelford, Kilbrendan, Kilninver: you see them everywhere. Here on this remote island are some of the most complete remains of the structures that gave us this word. You can still crawl into them (and we did) - surprisingly roomy - and picture what life might have been like almost fifteen hundred years ago.

I can hardly think of this island without recalling Neal Ascherson's reflections (quoted last time) about the kinds of revelation that occur in the lives of people in this landscape, this unforgiving, harsh, at times frigid and almost always wind-blown, yet stunningly beautiful landscape. I am especially struck by Ascherson's consciousness, awakened here of the ultimate oneness of humanity with the bracken, rocks, sea, soil and stone. Doors to the soul have a way of opening here because we are stopped by the very elements we contemplate. We are empowered by being stilled to see the world for what it is beyond the mental scaffolding which prevents us from seeing behind our illusions and momentary appearances.

Since Debbie and I first visited this remote island, which each day takes the full force of Atlantic swells breaking for the first time in thousands of miles, we have returned with our grown children and their spouses. We have braved the savage "midges" (tiny, ferocious biting insects that have been known to make cattle go mad and run over cliffs to their death). We have climbed to the top of the high ground overlooking the island and felt the full force of the Atlantic winds which, even on a gentle day, threaten to knock you over.

Each time we have visited, we have returned home with new insights and new tales. But the story I was told by a woman on our very first visit fifteen years ago has stayed with me. I remember her struggling a bit in the small boat as we made our way out across the rough seas. I recall how hard it was for her to make her way up the cliff where we "docked" and across the broken boulders to the trail that led to the ancient monastic site. But climb she did to that place that provided a view overlooking the ocean on the island's easterly side.

When she finally reached her goal, that hillside where she could gaze out over the sea to the east, someone asked her why she was braving this visit. This was obviously not her natural element.

She said that she had long wished to step onto this island. Her father loved it, she said, and his ashes had been scattered in the ocean just off its rocky shores. Right out there. "I wanted to come to see for myself this place he loved so much, to feel close to him."

"Was he a religious man?" someone asked, thinking, I am sure, about the island’s associations with the Celtic monks.

"Not particularly," she replied.

Her comments left me deep in thought. No, it isn't "religion" per se that is kindled in the soul on this solitary holy island. It is something, if possible, even deeper than religion, something somehow more elemental. The word "spiritual" hardly gets at it either. Rather, I would say that there is a sense of "presence" here. And something about this "presence," realized in this fierce wind among these stones and waves, blesses us with a consciousness of our vulnerability, certainly, because this world of wind, water and stone has no regard for us at all. But, even in this realization, this hard blessing of our vulnerability, we also sense that if our words will just give way to the natural silence of this place, broken only by those sounds that nature herself makes in our absence, we can feel our ultimate oneness with all creation.

There is a hard-to-miss quality here that can be missed entirely in so many other busy places, including even Iona and Lindisfarne.

When we step onto this island, it is as though for just a moment we have stepped into a world set apart from ordinary endeavors and pursuits; that is surely at the heart of the meaning of holiness, this being set apart. There is here a sense of being in the presence of something that waits, and will wait for all eternity, if necessary, something that waits in silence, alone, in grandeur and stillness.

We yearn in the midst of lives frenetic, loud and stress-filled for such silence and solitude, or we believe we do. This place is so pregnant with silence, so full, so rich with solitude; we glimpse here the infinite that brings proportion and perspective to our lives. The canopy of blue or grey overhead that turns into the purest darkness on earth at night, shrinks us down to size and allows us to know in our bones how very small we are in comparison to God's great works, and how enormous God's love must be even to notice us.

These stones, this water, this sky does not care if we are there or not. The divine aseity of nature bears witness more capably than any human tongue to the miracle of God's love. The silence tells us this and more.

Anyone who has ever tried (probably in vain) to shut out the chatter of tourist voices in the contemporary crowds visiting "holy" sites in Jerusalem or Rome, crowd-pressed in a cathedral in London, or among the mobs on Iona in the high season when coaches disgorge their passengers on the tip of Mull - anyone who has longed in the bustle of so many people and so much noise to sense "holiness" and "presence" in any of these grand places - would do well to stand on Eileach an Naoimh's hillsides wrapped in silence as rough as the wool that covered the ancient Celtic monks. But whoever dares to enter this landscape should come prepared. Mercifully, there are no concessions here.

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