“Liminality / a thin place: a hallowed space and time when heaven and earth for a moment are one.”
While thinking of a blog to post this past week, I was feeling anxious about having four weeks left in my YAV year. Often we can get so caught up in worrying about something coming to an end, that we aren’t able to rejoice in the goodness of the current experience. We get burnt out and don’t allow time or space to recharge (which is problematic when your job description is to serve, love and be present with others to the best of your ability). I wish I could say I wasn’t a worrier, but alas, I must constantly remind myself to breathe. Breathe in the goodness of God. This swell of anxiety brought me back to the peacefulness of presence I experienced in Iona; I was reminded how simplicity is key.
In May, the Belfast and Glasgow YAVs (along with the Church of
Scotland VVs and Belfast VBS-ers) ventured to Scotland for our third and final retreat. Doug emphasized how the journey to get to the isle of Iona was a pilgrimage in and of itself, but the reward found on the island would be worth the long plane, train, bus and ferry rides.
I always say every long journey needs a good book, so I packed one written by the husband (Scott Dannemiller) of a past YAV married couple who served in Guatemala. Emma had ordered the book, “A Year Without A Purchase: One Family’s Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting,” after our last YAV retreat to get a bit of a feel for how the YAV program’s emphasis on simple living could carry-over to our post-YAV years. The couple decided to, as the title suggests, spend a year without making any purchases, with “usable items” (like hygiene products, food, etc.), “experience gifts” and fixing broken items (if a replacement isn’t available), falling into the category of allowed purchases, or viable exceptions to the challenge.
The Dannemillers were entering their own year-long, intentional journey to face the challenge of living with less in an over-abundant, material-focused world. Harder than it sounds, the book pinpoints the difficulties the Dannemillers faced during the challenge, but also the surprises and joys they discovered along the way. One part that really stuck out to me was Scott detailing a conversation he had with a taxi driver, Alex, who came to the U.S. after fleeing Somalia during a civil war. Alex said it was faith that kept him going – faith that was made real by the church bringing him and his family to safety in the United States. Scott is struck by this encounter, and calls it “one of those brief moments where the space between heaven and earth narrows and we catch a glimpse of the divine in another human being.”
Liminality. Thin places. Heaven meeting earth.
In Celtic spirituality, a ‘thin place’ can be described as “areas in nature where the boundaries between the spirit world and the physical world are less delineated and more permeable.” Iona has been called a ‘thin place,’ as the air is heavy with sacredness, and borders seemingly dissolve and diminish on the horizon at twilight. Our pilgrimage around the island brought this imagery into focus. The energy and life given in a place such as Iona isn’t meant to permanently draw us from reality, but rather re-charge and energize us to return at the end of our journey having found the holy: grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, resurrection. . . for ourselves and our communities.
From a reading on our pilgrimage: Murphy Davis, a founding member of the Open Door Community in Atlanta, once said here on Iona “Our hearts are set on pilgrim roads not to satisfy ourselves with finding one holy place but to take the experience of the presence of the Holy back into the thick of things.”
Reading Dannemiller’s book on the retreat brought the idea of living simply to reality.
It’s not just the “stuff” in our lives that physically weigh us down, but more importantly the emotional weight that comes from being human. The anxiety. The stress. The selfish desires. The unhealthy comparisons. The fear of failure. The passive attitudes. The unconscious decisions. Scott discovered that the physical things, the ones which we hide behind and decorate ourselves with, mask the real issues we struggle with, and distract us from what’s important in life: an abundance of gratitude, love, and hope strengthened by faith. These things and thoughts diminish our ability to love ourselves as God intends, and to take that love and share it with others.
To learn how to live simply, is to learn how to love intentionally. And when we learn how to live with less baggage, emotional and physical, we are able to open ourselves to other people without fear. Without stress. Without anxiety. We can meet people where they are with love, grace, and understanding. We can look for the divine, where heaven meets earth in humanity.
Another reading from the Iona pilgrimage: “. . .Setting out is not covering miles of land or sea, or travelling faster than the speed of sound. It is first and foremost opening ourselves to other people, trying to get to know them, going out to meet them.” – Dom Helder Camara
Coming to Iona, different to the last two retreats, was a journey meant to take off the weight of worry and anxiety about our world and its people. It echoed Dannemiller’s journey to live a simpler life. To take away the shiny distractions and let faith be the center stage. To be encouraged and energized with the ability to love intentionally and wholeheartedly. To make heaven meet earth in our own communities, our own relationships, our own cities.
These next four weeks I’m challenging myself to focus on the ministry of presence, relishing in the relationships I’ve made here in Belfast, with co-workers, church members, fellow YAVs and friends of friends. I hope to find joy and peace in the goodness I’ve discovered in Belfast, and encourage others with my love for them and this city.
Iona is a reminder that Heaven is already here on earth if we’re willing to seek it.
For those interested in checking out the book by Scott Dannemiller, here’s a link to Amazon! A Year Without A Purchase