Thin Places, where Heaven reveals its violence

People are right, Iona truly is ‘a thin place’, a great Celtic expression, describing special places where Heaven and earth are drawn together. What I didn’t know before I came for this week (and perhaps, what many of us do not feel) is how dreadfully frightening Heaven is. Perhaps frightening is not the right word: awe-some, full of awe, entirely alien to us and frightening because of its alien nature – these are all weak descriptions, but they are as good as I’m able to make.

Iona is a thin place, but through the thin veil one can see a frightening revelation. It is precisely because these are thin places that they are frightening, too. What we see through them, what we see through their transparence is the real Face of God: not a tame God, a domesticated God; not a God taken to pieces and rebuilt to fit our sinfulness and weakness; not a God shaped against our emotions and cheap piety; not a God of human traditions and cult; not a God of political correctness or incorrectness – but the LIVING God. The Being beyond being, the Uncreated Creator of everything that is, the untouchable One, indescribable by any of our created words, philosophies and concepts. The frightening God, the crushing God, the God Who utters His voice and the earth melts; the God Who commands: Be still, and know that I am God.

To be in a thin place like Iona is frightening because of the Frightening Being Who suddenly becomes visible and Whom you must now face. I’ve learnt that to face God is frightening, because every meeting with God is a moment of total exposure and Judgement: exposure and judgement of ourselves, of our carefully assembled idols and our horrid manipulations of the Divine realities. God is an alien Being to us, because we have turned ourselves in alien beings to Him. Thin places are dangerous places; approach them with fear, as you approach the Face of God. You are in a moment of Judgement.

Taken from ‘Iona. Where Heaven Reveals Its Violence‘, available from the Monastery online Book Store.

St Columba’s Bay. Impossible Bay.

I don’t know what to write today. It is all too immediate, too close to me still, and I lack any sense of perspective.

It’s been a beautiful, sunny day. I finally got to St Columba’s Bay – all by myself, after a few hours of wandering about, losing my way every five minutes, then finding it again. I had a lot of time to think about St Columba, about St Cuthbert and St Ninian – all the saints who have taken over my life. I had time to pray, and time ask the questions that grew in me as I walked these sacred hills.

There is a lot in them that speaks to me. Their need to always leave behind what one has built, the fear to allow anything of this world embrace you, and encapsulate you, their obsession with pilgrimages with no destination. I thought, what can constitute a destination? When are we home? What does it mean to be home?

Their home was Christ, and everything else was an idol. Getting home meant overcoming death, entering the life which is Christ, and becoming one with Him. Home meant a transformation of the person who arrived there – not a place of rest, not a place of comfort; in fact, not a place at all. Home is Christ Himself, and they denied everything, everyone and their own earthly selves in order to get to Him and become one with Him.

How is that love for Christ even possible? These saints were made of the same flesh and blood, the same bones and skin, feelings and emotions as I am. What made their love so unearthly? What gave them this holy, wonderful madness? What sort of fire melted their hearts? If only I could light it myself, if only I had the love to at least begin this pilgrimage…

Taken from ‘Iona. Where Heaven Reveals Its Violence‘, available from the Monastery online Book Store.

The Irish Cells on St Brendan’s Isle

There is something unique about St Brendan’s island, something I find very difficult to put into words, because I have no term of comparison. These Celtic Pilgrimages are filled with places of such spiritual strength that they can be overwhelming. About Iona, there is a saying that no pilgrim will ever come here just once. You will always return because you need to hear once more the things you’ve heard in your heart the first time. This is true of all the isles; in some ways, it is even stronger on the smaller, more secluded ones, precisely because of their very remoteness and silence.

Let me tell you a secret. Of all the amazing places we see during our pilgrimages, my heart aches for four in particular: St Brendan’s beehive cell; the hermit caves on St Kenneth’s Isle; St Columba’s Bay on Iona; and the Nuns’s Cave on Mull. It is revealing to me, as the leader of these pilgrimages, that people tend to wander alone here. After we pray together, each of us instinctively looks for solitude to pray alone. It is as if we all answer a personal silent call from the cliffs, the hills or the coast of the ocean.

There is something deeply unsettling about these sites, something that immediately throws you out of your spiritual comfort zone. The things we learn to avoid, the aspects of our faith we gradually learn to ignore somehow become the essential, central themes here. These are un compromising places, dangerous places for anyone except uncompromising characters of dangerous, uncompromising faith. I hope to tell you about all these places over time, but let’s start with few words about St Brendan’s cell.

The ‘data’ concerning the cell is itself impressive beyond belief. Dating back to the very early 500s, it is stunningly well-preserved. Fifteen centuries later, its unmistakably Irish character is perfectly obvious, building a direct link with St Brendan’s first monastic community. All the original monastics were Irish, and they built their first cells as they did in their own country. The beehive cell on St Brendan’s are identical with those you find on the Skellig Islands, for instance.

What makes this cell even more remarkable is that it is an extremely rare example of a double beehive cell. From what I know – please tell me if this is not true – the cell on St Brendan’s is the only example of a double beehive cell in Scotland. We don’t really know why the Christian Celts built these double cells, just as we don’t know why they are so rare. The most likely explanation is that they were intended for the use of the Abbot of the monastery, who would have needed the second space to hear the brothers’ confessions and to offer them private guidance.

It is a unique experience to kneel in this cell and to pray for St Brendan’s guidance. Just kneel down and ask him to accept you as one of his community, and to cover you with his protection after your return home; just ask for the unspeakable, ask with boldness, ask with the positive desperation of the one who feels lost but refuses to give up the fight. Hope against hope. ‘Christ beside me, Christ within me.’ – these words come from the heart of a tradition that knew this feeling very well.

My gratitude to a wonderful group of pilgrims

At the end of our first Celtic Pilgrimage this summer, I want to thank our pilgrims (now, our friends) for all the help they have given me during this week, and for all the effort and love they brought to the pilgrimage. The ‘secret ingredient’ of a successful pilgrimage is not so much the weather, nor is it human comfort and things like that – the main thing is that we manage to remain open to accept and love each other as we are.

We lived together for a week. We prayed together for a week: every morning, every night, every holy place we were blessed to visit. Please take this monastery and its story to your homes, to your friends, to your family, and make them part of this story, as well.

As our beloved Celtic Saints would pray: may you be blessed, wherever you go, on each mountain you climb, on each sea you sail. Then, one day (sooner, rather than later) come back, so we may pray together again.

IMG_7849IMG_7945

 

IMG_7876IMG_7879

 

IMG_7871

Divine Liturgy on St Brendan’s Isle

What a glorious day we’ve had on St Brendan’s Isle! We prayed in his monastery, founded in 542, twenty years before St Columba even arrived to Iona. We prayed in the ruins of the original church of the monastery, which is the most complete monastic dwelling in Scotland. We prayed in the double beehive cells dating back to the 500s. We prayed everywhere and for everyone.

For the first time, we’ve managed to celebrate the Divine Liturgy on the island, which is quite an achievement for our small group. The island has been abandoned and remained unpopulated for over four centuries, so we had to carry everything with us on the boat, up the rocky coasts of the island and through the tall, beautiful overgrowth, filled with hundreds of wild yellow irises.

Shortly after we began the Liturgy, the rain came pouring down, so we had to open our umbrellas and hold them above the Divine Gifts throughout the entire service. We were there to serve and worship God, and we received His life-giving Gifts in return. For a few minutes, nothing else existed except this calling, this common service to God. For a short while, our tiny group felt and acted as one being: alone on a deserted island in the Atlantic, worshiping our Creator.

I shall remember this day. I shall remember this feeling. Glory be to God for all things.

IMG_7798IMG_7799IMG_7818IMG_7810

St Brendan's Isle Liturgy

Glorious day on Inch Kenneth

We had a wonderful day on St Kenneth’s Isle, praying in his cave and the ruins of the medieval monastery. Glory be to God for His care. We even saw a whale! On our way back, we really wanted to see a whale, so God sent us a very playful one – it kept its distance from the boat, but it was a great reminder that the ocean under our feet is filled with life.

IMG_7768IMG_7698

IMG_7719IMG_7734

SOCIALICON