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Going to a Thin Place: Pilgrimage as a Sacred Practice
BY STACY SMITH


A bagpiper playing at Baile Mor, the village on Iona.

For many, traveling has become a difficult and expensive process.

We have anxiety about leaving our homes in the care of neighbors. Some say that traveling puts you at greater risk for disease and illness, and we might be anxious about flight delays and airline security. When it comes to travel, we might think the best thing is to just stay at home. Yet for Christians, as well as many other religious traditions, traveling can be a sacred act. Traveling can be a pilgrimage, or a long journey of moral or religious significance. When we look past the flight schedules, packing problems, and hotel bookings, we see that Christian travel, or pilgrimage, can be a source of renewal, rather than stress.

This was certainly my experience when I landed on the island of Iona in the inner Hebridean islands of Scotland. I had come to Iona stressed, tired and unsure of my future. I had come to Iona with a hope for healing – a desire for the place to make me a more whole person. And I was not the first one. The isle of Iona has seen its share of Christian pilgrims over the past 1500 years. The island is known as a “thin place,” where the line between heaven and earth is very thin. Consequently, it is not a place where you just end up. It takes patience, endurance and a little bravery and a lot of faith just to get there.


The cloisters of the Iona Abbey.

The earliest Christians sailed on treacherous seas from Ireland or Norway to rest on this holy island. In the medieval period, the kings of Scotland traveled here to buried on the island. Before modern technology, pilgrims from all over the world spent months traveling to Iona. Modern day pilgrims may start out in London, take a six hour train to Glasgow, then a four hour train to the town of Oban…a hour long ferry from Oban to Craignure…a two hour bus ride from Craignure to Fionnphort…and then finally a short ferry ride across the Sound of Iona to island’s shores. Even with modern convenience and transportation, Iona refuses to be an easy destination.

For six weeks, I lived and worked here as a volunteer member of the Iona Community, a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship. In that short amount of time, I saw pilgrims from all over the world. Most of them were first-timers to the island, shocked to learn about life on this remote little place: that the tides make the ferry unpredictable, or that Iona has one road intersection and no stop signs, or that the errant flight patterns of one tiny bird can knock out power to the entire island for days.


The Iona Abbey was built in the 13th century and restored in the 20th century.

Yet because we were pilgrims, far away from home, we were able to live and experience spiritual lessons in a deep and profound way. We learned how to celebrate a joyous birthday with a complete stranger. We learned to trust in the inconstant tides rather than our strict watches, and to come and go to the island when the “tide” was right. We learned that an innocent patch of mud can become a waist-deep bog, and that it takes several of us to walk across the island safely. We learned that every sunset is completely different, to offer hospitality even in the dead of night, and how to travel to and from the island as a community. The tides, the roads, the birds, the mud, the sun, the people - these are pilgrim lessons that are learned in the process of the pilgrimage.

In our modern Christian culture, we are used to talking about our “spiritual journeys.” We often explain our faith as journey, or that we travel on a path leading to Christ. We have tended to forget that a pilgrimage can also be a physical act. As Arthur Paul Boers says, “For a long while, pilgrimage was metaphorical…But now the original sense of pilgrimage as a concretely physical spiritual practice is being recovered by broad sections of the Christian community and by people beyond the church's walls as well….This interest is part of a wider movement of reclaiming practices that cultivate the habits of heart, mind and body that form faithful Christians, build Christian character and enrich church life. Concretely physical, the ancient practice of pilgrimage pushes beyond the usual crop of spiritual disciplines that are only for the introverted, contemplative or intuitive.”

Christian pilgrims are called to leave the comforts of home for a new and perhaps unknown place. This physical pilgrimage is just as important as the spiritual because it is the embodiment of our spiritual journeys: the living-out of our trust in God and God’s faith in us. When we travel, we are forced to think on our feet, adapt and be flexible. We have to trust the stranger, we have to live with less stuff than we are accustomed to - and sometimes we even have to ask for directions! These are not just safety precautions for the savvy traveler; they are spiritual lessons for the Christian pilgrim.

Stacy Smith is Manager of Faith Community Outreach at the Church Health Center and a Parish Associate at Idlewild Presbyterian Church.

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