Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Those high places
My dear mother-in-law Norma phoned me a few days ago with a query. She said she had been reading First or Second Samuel--I forget which--when she ran across a reference to "high places" and wondered where the high places of today would be.
Norma, we're visiting one today. It's called Iona, a small island off the coast of western Scotland, where St. Columba, in 563 A.D. along with 12 followers of his, created a monastic community. From here, Columba and his monks ventured forth to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to England and Scotland.
Columba's monastery is gone now, along with his bones, which were collected as relics and eventually resettled in Downpatrick in his homeland of Ireland; that's where you'll find them today. But near his monastery on Iona, Benedictine monks built a new monastery and abbey church, tall and grand, made of native stone in the Gothic fashion, which became a house of prayer for the praise of God.
Norsemen plundered and ruined the monastery and murdered the monks, and over time, the buildings became little more than ruins, until the late 1930s when an Oxford-educated Church of Scotland minister named George MacLeod founded a new Christian community at Iona, the eponymous Iona Community, which still exists as a vital force for renewing the Church.
The Benedictine abbey church is fully restored--thanks to MacLeod and a group of volunteers--and the Iona Community continues God's work according to MacLeod's vision of deep prayer, cooperation among Christians, inner communion, and social and political action and pacifism (MacLeod won the British Military Cross for extreme bravery during his service in WW I and thereafter became a committed pacifist, even during WWII.)
Last night, Penny and I joined fellow pilgrims and members of the Iona Community for prayer in the abbey church. The church was full of people of all ages, including many, many young people from all Christian denominations. Young people regularly come to Iona for periods of learning about Christ and Christian community.
The service we attended was a healing service; dozens of people went forward and knelt in circles and received the laying on of hands and prayers for healing of body, mind, spirit. Penny and I went forward and prayed for healing for family members. From experience, I know God really does hear our prayers for healing and answers them in ways that are surprising.
Iona is one of those high places, or "thin spaces" in the language of Celtic Christianity, where heaven and earth merge, where God is present in a remarkable and translucent way.
I know God's presence in the gathering of that multitude of Christian pilgrims from so many denominations, in the prayer-saturated walls of the ancient abbey church, in the stunning beauty of this place, with the crystal blue/green sea that surrounds it, the rocky outcroppings trimmed in green moss, the simple, slow, peaceful pace of the island and its people.
I need high places,these thin spaces--be they here on Iona or in my study as I read the Daily Office and meditate in the mornings or in a church. In such a place, I know I am not alone, not without resources for the challenges of life; God is with me. Always,
The high places make it possible for me to live through the low places.