There it is. I was looking for it. I was starting to wonder if I'd find it at all, after coming all this way. A plane over the Atlantic, a train from London, another from Edinburgh, another from Glasgow. Then a ferry, another ferry, a nearly empty bus across the Isle of Mull, another ferry to Iona. Then the long walk here, to the abbey.
Where I started looking for it.
They told me it was here. They told me this island, this abbey, was a "thin place," a holy site where the membrane that separates this life from the next is as thin as tissue. Where you don't have to strain your eyes as hard to see God.
They didn't say where I should look, specifically, once I got to the abbey. Was it on the hill out front, where St. Columba sat writing 1,400 years ago? Was it in the cemetery where the countable monuments embody the countless saints who have passed through? Or was it right out there, where the cold bright blue sky meets the deep black water with a knife-sharp resolution that even my aging eyes can see clearly?
Where did I need to walk, where did I need to look, where would this wall -- the one I've lived behind all my life -- suddenly become a window?
Standing on the hill I could see the ferry racing across the strait toward our island, in the far distance to my right. We had been there an hour before. Precisely an hour, I knew without looking at my watch. Because that ferry would be the one o'clock. We arrived on the noon, and we would need to be back at the terminal in time to make the three, or all our plans for connections back to the mainland would collapse. The walk to the ferry would take us about forty minutes from here with the four kids, because they have a hard time focusing and walking in a straight line. I wish they could focus. It's exhausting sometimes. So we would need to leave the Abbey no later than 2:20. Make it 2:10, just in case there's a line to get on the ferry. No, let's just say 2:00, because of potty breaks. So we had an hour. I had an hour to find this portal.
I needed to tell Steve this. That whatever he and his boys were going to do, we would need to meet back here at 2:00. If not, we'd be screwed.
We are here on Iona together, Steve's family and mine. But we aren't here looking for the same things, not exactly. I'm here looking for that window, having lost God, sadly, somewhere along the road. But Steve and his boys are here looking for whatever Alicia had seen twenty years before. Whatever it was that made her talk so much about her time living at the Abbey of Iona. She told her husband, and then later her sons, that she wanted to bring them here someday. I guess, in a way, she's doing that now.
Looking all around I didn't see them, so I went inside to look. The heavy wooden door opened into a chapel of centuries-old stonework. Off too the right I found my son lighting a prayer candle.
"Who is that for, Grampa Bill?" I asked.
"No," he said, "it's for Alicia."
Which made sense. Miles had known her well. He didn't really know my dad, who died when he was just a few months old. I stood still for a moment. Was this it? This place, this moment? In this ancient holy sanctuary, watching my boy light a prayer for the soul of our dear friend? Was this where the membrane gets thin?
I needed to find Steve. He needed to know about our time crunch. There was an unthinkable amount of stress and confusion coming our way if we didn't make that three o'clock ferry. We'd miss the bus back across Mull, then the ferry back to Oban, then...I can't even think about it.
I looked out a small window next to the altar, maybe he and his sons were out there, on the other side of the abbey where I couldn't see him before. No luck.
Before moving on my inner craftsman made me stop and notice the window itself. Such a simple set of shapes, some Celtic, created by stones and panes that must have been anything-but-simple to make centuries ago.
Architects and designers, stone carvers, masons, metal workers, glass makers and glass setters had no doubt come together to imagine and craft this small wonder. And they must have done it for love. For the love of art, of craft, of community, but mostly for the love of God. Was this window...the window? If I stood here long enough and imagined all these people working together, in love, toward a common goal, would I finally see God?
I remembered times, years before, when I led a church toward a few common goals. I remembered the joy that came from working together as a family, but also the pain. There was often as much tension as there was love, as much fighting as there was cooperating. I bet the makers of this window, now that I think about it, weren't singing Kumbaya from start to finish. I bet they had their own disagreements and misunderstandings and resentments of one another, even back then. I bet they stressed about materials and labor and timelines just like we do. Which reminds me, where is Steve?
I moved out the side door and into the cloister, looking for him. Intricately carved stone columns framed the greenest-green-grass I'd ever seen. In the center of this holy courtyard was a bronze sculpture, crafted by a post-war Lithuanian Jew, of a holy spirit dove gathering the four corners of the universe, like a sheet, into its beak. A plaque told me all this. This, I thought, might be the thin place. You can't look at this strong, sweeping figure for long, knowing its origin, without tasting notes of forgiveness, redemption, healing, grief-turned-to-joy. Without wondering if there is a God, after all, who will at long last, someday, gather it all up by four corners and lift it into perfect eternity. Where all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
To my left, something moved slightly. Someone. It was Steve, looking out into the courtyard, at the sculpture. I started to speak, then stopped. I know what he believes about God, about eternal life. And I know what she believed. Maybe this sculpture is what she saw, and maybe he's seeing it now too. Maybe this is why he's here.
I turned to the right and walked away, as quietly as I could. I looked at my watch. 1:47. I needed to find a time to tell him about the schedule. We were getting close. I saw a dark wooden bench in the corner. I could wait there until he was done with whatever experience he was having, then talk to him.
As I approached the simple bench I saw that there were two words carved on its back, in all caps.
Tears. I still don't know why. Real tears.
But I saw it all in a single moment. I saw myself. I saw God. I saw me running. Running from, running at, running around. Running into, running out of. Running.
BE STILL Mark.
BE STILL and stop worrying about that ferry.
BE STILL and stop worrying about where Steve is and what he knows.
BE STILL and stop worrying.
BE STILL and know.
BE STILL and feel.
BE STILL and wonder, BE STILL and dream, BE STILL and pray.
BE STILL and look inside.
BE STILL and let your inside look back at you.
BE STILL and listen. To your own voice. To your kids. To your friends.
BE STILL and listen to whatever, whoever God is.
BE STILL, because there is no other way.
BE STILL, because there is no other window.
BE STILL, because there is no other God.
BE STILL, because everything you need is already inside you.
There it is. I was looking for it. I was starting to wonder if I'd find it at all, after coming all this way.
A simple wooden bench. I make wooden benches. There was nothing extraordinary about this bench, not really. Nothing impressive, from a furniture maker's perspective. Just a plain bench. Probably not even very old.
My dad used to say that God has a sense of humor. He said that a lot, I never knew exactly what he meant. But maybe he was talking about God's habit of appearing to people in very un-God-like ways. Maybe he meant the irony of the infinite-eternal-omnipotent taking the shape of the plain-boring-simple-temporary.
Maybe he would have loved the irony of a man traveling around the world, across islands and over seas to search for God among ancient holy buildings and sacred histories, only to give up looking. And then to find God, in the final minutes, in the words of a simple wooden bench. A bench he could have built himself, carved with words he already knew.
I knelt down in front of it. To take a picture. A picture of my window.
Steve walked up behind me. I was still kneeling, now perfectly still. "Nice bench," he said. I turned around and looked up at him. His eyes were red, maybe from looking through his own window minutes before. "When do we need to go?"
"I don't know," I said. "There's no hurry."