The , located in a distant, maritime corner of Scotland, is still a mental image for me. I even haven’t heard back from the UK General Consulate, Los Angeles about my visa to spend the summer there. After checking a couple iffy boxes wrong online, I’m hoping everything will work out…
But crossing my fingers, I’ll begin with the image.
The island of Iona is 1 mile wide and 3.5 miles long. Like the rest of Scotland’s island-speckled western periphery, Iona is made of Lewisian rocks, Europe’s oldest (named after the Isle of Lewis, where the northernmost point is about as north as you can get before you hit names like “Wick”, “Tain”, and “Tongue”).
My “Moon” guidebook to Scotland says there are four affordable hostels on Iona and a good bike hire. But what drew me to it was a different, oft-quoted description. George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community, called Iona a “thin place”, with only “a tissue paper separating heaven and earth.”
According to another George, French philosopher Georges Bataille, religion is the search for a lost intimacy. However you think about that loss, whether it correlates with something deeply metaphorical or something real and historical, people are always searching for places like Iona where they hear that the veil between the mundane and the amazing is a little bit easier to see through. We thumb through used CD’s searching for songs that will make us forgetful and silent like Bataille’s “water in water”, propelled from the world of clocks and emails into ecstasy. We search for huge deserts, underwater chasms, abandoned quarries, swaths of color, prolonged notes on violins, and shots from Hubble to find thin places and thin moments, before falling back to earth. I’m a religion major because studying a search like this one is deeply exciting at all times.
I am intrigued by the Iona Community’s quest to, in their own words, close the gap between “work and worship” by fostering community along with social justice work – uniting a busy, active life with intimacy like water in water. In the volunteering FAQ’s I read that life at Iona, while inspired by the natural beauty of the island, is not an ascetic one. Informed by Celtic Christianity’s view of work in the world as a form of praising God (the mindset that would inspire monks living on or near Iona in the 800s to spend the Book of Kells), the Iona Community proclaims that working for economic justice, the end of racism, the integrity of the environment, and equality for LGBTQ people is to “live out the Gospel in today’s world.”
Here begins my question and my journey for the summer. How, when especially in America we are so accustomed to religion being the enemy of progressive causes, can a prophetic vision of time and space lead to a political vision of equality here and now? How in a pluralistic world in which there is a such danger that comes from a single story, can there be any power behind sacred stories? And how do we talk about them?
Assuming that my visa is in order, I’ll be thrilled to find out.