Iona is described in Celtic writings as a ‘thin place.’ That is, a place where the space between heaven and earth barely exists. For me, this is experienced most powerfully of all on the beaches of the island. Though constantly changing with tides and weather conditions, these places have remained essentially unchanged since the time of Columba and long, long before that. Discovering that the rock which is always visible on Iona is among the very oldest in the world only adds to the sense of being connected with that which is infinitely beyond me and yet still includes me in its personal history.
The beaches sparkle with the tiny jewels of shells in the process of becoming sand. Their smooth white light set off dramatically by the black storm torn rocks. Rich in marine life they invite the visitor to approach expectantly, reverently, not knowing what encounter awaits, if one will only wait.
As I look back to that week on Iona I would have to say that what I regret most is not spending more time walking, sitting, being on the beaches. I should not be surprised though. If time on the beach is about experiencing a connectedness with creation, celebrating mystery and being humbled by history and heritage, then it does not normally come into my top priorities for time spending. I would like it to, and I know those things feed my inner being, but life is just too busy and I hurry on to get the next thing done. The result for me, and for many like me, is a depletion of joy, because life is seen more as a problem to be solved than a gift to be enjoyed. And there is the key – it really is more about how we see life rather than the circumstances we are in.
The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, makes this point in his inspiring book Celebrating Life:
‘Happiness is not far away. It is here, but first we have to know how to look.’ He suggests that one of the great gifts of what he calls ‘religious vision’ is that it does not show us something new, it shows us the things we have always seen but never really noticed. This is what allows us to be, in C.S. Lewis’ phrase, ‘surprised by joy.’
Learning how to celebrate life is therefore nurtured by a developing capacity to see differently. Its significance cannot be overstated, for as Julian of Norwich boldly states: ‘The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything.’
How can that capacity grow in us?
Jesus put it very simply in some of his most intimate words to his friends:
‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy complete.’ (John 15; 9-11)
We are back to knowing that we are loved. Jesus asserts that in as powerful terms as he can. In the same way God the Father loves his Son, so we are loved as passionately and as completely. If we will remain, or dwell, or live in the awareness of that love two things will follow, says Jesus. You will be have an unlimited capacity to live God’s way, and you will be overflowing with joy.
The beaches of Iona are spaces where I am somehow more open to God’s Spirit washing my eyes so I can see differently. I begin to see afresh that the whole of life is a gift, and that it is God’s gift to me. Being connected to God’s creation has a mysterious power to transform our inner vision, whatever or wherever that creation might be.
Think of possible practices of your own that enable you to celebrate life as gift!
A final thought…
The 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games have been a poignant reminder of the lengths athletes will go to in order to win gold. They could not have been better prepared and they gave their all. The sight of super fit, ultra committed athletes was a familiar one to the apostle Paul. In his day a competitor could be disqualified from the games if he had not trained for ten months. So he wrote to the church in Corinth, ‘Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever.’ (1 Corinthians 9; 25)
He knew that running a marathon could not be done simply by trying hard on the day. If this amount of discipline and dedication goes into winning a laurel victory wreath, what lifestyle, he asks, would be appropriate for a person who is set on responding to God’s call to share the greatest of all possible victories?
It is my prayer that some of the Spiritual Disciplines introduced here will, when practiced consistently, serve as a springboard into living a life that is being transformed by God’s grace. Despite all his urgings to train towards godliness, St. Paul never lost sight of the truth that the ultimate power to become more like Christ rests not upon our own efforts but within the loving Spirit of God.
‘And we, who with unveiled faces all contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.’ (2 Corinthians 3; 18)
Out of all the many growing spaces I experienced during my sabbatical none was more transformational than the hour I spent in front of the icon in the chapel at Burford Priory.
To see the infant Jesus gazing with intense love at his mother Mary, who cannot quite turn her eyes toward his, spoke more eloquently than all the many words I’d been reading. It spoke of God’s passion for the whole of humanity, his longing for us to know the depth of his love, and his waiting for each of us to dare to turn our eyes towards his. It carries the tension of that moment which asks, can Mary look at Jesus?
That question is asked of me, and everyone who is loved by God.