We're off to Scotland this week. Both Cheryl's and my forbears hail from this lonely country of wild men and skinflints, and more than a few fiery preachers. When we came here for a week in 2010 it was a spiritual homecoming. This time, over the next 10 days, Nicola and I are doing a road trip. It will take us west from Glasgow across the Isle on Mull to the tiny remote island of Iona, then back east and north to the forlorn shores of Loch Ness, then due south to the medieval quaintness of Edinburgh, then west again, through the imposing grandeur of Stirling Castle back to the industrial grubbiness of Glasgow, where the Buchanans once held some kind of sway, at least to have the main street and city square named after them. I hope to bring back a leather journal with Celtic embossing, a scale off Nessy's back, an autograph from William Wallace, and a kilt, so I can start dressing proper for the pulpit.
But the greater adventure, I suspect, will be all Cheryl's. We're leaving her for a week in the austerity of Iona, at the Abbey which has stood since the 13th century, and where a Christian community of monks has existed since the 5th. She is signed up for a 7-day prayer retreat. While Nic and I are off taming ancient serpents or figuring out how to snitch the Stone of Scone and reassert Scottish sovereignty, Cheryl will be on an altogether different journey, higher up, further in.
Iona is a thin place. That's a term Celtic Christians use to describe places where the barrier between earth and heaven is only gossamer, not the brick wall or iron gate it usually is. In a thin place, God is louder, closer. You can hear his voice. You can feel his breath. You can sometimes see his eyes. Story after story of such places (we are staying about an hour from one, Ffald-y-Brenin) recount how saints become more saintly in them, and hardened sinners fall to their faces in reverence and repentance. They're places of healing and restoration and revelation.
I don't fully understand them. I guess that's the point. God doesn't work by formulas. These places are crucibles of divine mystery, where God, by his own counsel, has chosen to tip his hand. Still, the one thing all thin places have in common is they're prayer-soaked. Every one is birthed in a movement of intercession and sustained by a living heritage of prayer. Every one represents decades, sometimes centuries, of men and women faithfully seeking the face of God, in season and out.
I've been in churches sometimes that, if not thin places, are thinner: a wall of balsam, not bricks, separates heaven from earth. Even thinner places are breathtaking.
Maybe the greater mystery is not how they work but this: If prayer is the only thing we can bring to the making of thin places, why aren't we soaking more ground with it?