Without Iona on my itinerary, would I discover thin places?
The answer was a glorious “yes.”
Instead of going to Iona, I visited my friend Gloria in Leeds. While there, we both witnessed another incredible weather event. The afternoon sky began to contract and expand, leaving trails of color in its wake, almost as though giving birth to thousands of pink, yellow, blue, green, and orange children. The rest of the sky was dark, and a strong wind whipped heaven and earth.
Talk about a thin place!
Gloria, my mother, and I gazed at the sky for over an hour, amazed at the light show and unable to name what we were seeing. The next day the newspaper explained that 15 miles above our heads sunlight was hitting ice crystals at just the right angle to create “iridescence.”
Another name, nacreous clouds, comes even closer to describing what we witnessed: these clouds “blaze unbelievably bright with vivid and slowly shifting iridescent colours. They are filmy sheets slowly curling and uncurling, stretching and contracting in the semi-dark sky.”
Another gift from the trip was seeing this photo in a Quaker retreat center, Glenthorne, and talking to the photographer, David King. Something in the image called to me. He explained that the photo was taken in conditions known as “spindrift” — swirling winds and stinging shards of ice making sight difficult. Nevertheless, he took this evocative photograph of a very thin place:
The 1996 trip, even without Iona, stands out among many wonderful travel memories, both because everywhere I went, from stone circle to Lake District blizzard to nacreous clouds in Leeds, I did indeed touch God’s garment in nature. Just as I had hoped, but not in the way I had dreamed. I had the distinct feeling that this trip was a threshold into the unknown.
Very soon after I returned home, I received two phone calls. The first invited me to consider becoming president of Goshen College.
Four days later, the phone rang again. This time with unbelievably horrible news.
A precious niece, Alicia Showalter Raynolds, a recent graduate of the same college, was missing. For weeks we feared another phone call. When it came, we wept. Our niece had been murdered.
I said yes to the call to become president. I said no to the evil violence around us, so deep. Throughout the year 1996 I felt guided, supported, and sustained by a pillar of cloud by day and a fire by night.
Alicia’s been gone 20 years. The sense that her spirit is connected to thin places in my life has never left me.
In a few weeks, I’m going back to England and Scotland. Iona is the first destination on the itinerary.
My traveling companion? My college friend Gloria who witnessed the iridescent clouds with me in 1996.
Gloria’s been to Iona two times already, so I’ll benefit from her previous experiences. We’ll also journey to Durham and Lindisfarne together, other possible “thin places.”
I’ve been reading a stack of books about Celtic Christianity.
One of the many paradoxes of the spiritual life, however, is that you don’t plan to meet the thin places, they lie in wait for you. So we, as pilgrims, prepare our hearts while God prepares our steps.
Does the idea of thin places make sense to you? Does it name something you have felt also? I’d love to hear from you below.