…only a bit of tissue paper between things spiritual and things material…”

On Sunday I went wandering on the web, ambling about as I sometimes do.

I should go to a bookbinding workshop!”, I thought to myself. “In Stockholm!”

Post-COVID thoughts were afoot!

So I Googled stockholm bookbinding school.

Top search result: The Travelling Bookbinder’s Guide to Stockholm.

Well that’s interesting.

But who’s The Travelling Bookbinder?

There’s an excellent video on The Travelling Bookbinder’s website that answers exactly that: she is Rachel Hazell.

As teacher, author and traveller, books, words and the power of imagination have always been central to Rachel’s life. She believes that everyone has a book inside them, and loves sharing the satisfying experience of creating unique artwork, in the most inspiring places.

Hazell is a part time resident of the Scottish island of Iona, and in the video there’s a quote that caught my ear:

The thing about islands is there’s less space between Heaven and Earth.

Living on an island as I do, I feel that to be intuitively true.

I emailed her to ask her more about this idea; she quickly replied, pointing me to George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community, who, she related, she had paraphrased.

Here’s a passage, oft-quoted, from Ron Ferguson’s biography of MacLeod, George MacLeod (emphasis mine):

The cattle were certainly lowing in the ruins, but they were moved out of the choir as the rebuilding proceeded. By 1910, the Abbey church had been beautifully restored. A communion table of genuine Iona marble was placed in the sanctuary. The island continued to attract pilgrims, and students came for retreat. The first principal of St Colm’s College, Annie Hunter Small, dearly loved Iona and brought students to the island at least as early as 1913. George was to say later that Miss Small turned his attention to Iona. The Reports of the Schemes of the Church of Scotland for 1921 refers to a retreat held by divinity students the previous year.

The retreats had been started and funded in 1920 by Dr David Russell, who had enlisted the enthusiastic help of George MacLeod from the beginning. George was a popular lecturer at the annual Iona events. The potential of Iona for retreat, renewal and ministerial formation was obvious to him. The history of Iona and its special atmosphere – he described it as a ‘thin place – only a tissue paper separating earth from heaven’ – greatly appealed to him.

I went looking on YouTube to see if I could find any evidence of MacLeod discussing this, and found this excerpt of the 1960s film Sermon in Stone, narrated by MacLeod himself:

We began to ask,” says MacLeod in the film, “could we make a permanent experiment of cooperation between Sunday and Weekday? ‘Come to Iona,’ a spirit seemed to say, ‘and do it in the large.’ Iona’s a very thin place, only a bit of tissue paper between things spiritual and things material.”

My relationship with the spiritual realm is weak, and so perhaps the tissue paper is more opaque for me than for others; but for reasons I do not completely understand, I am drawn the the notion of islands as portals between Heaven and Earth, and of MacLeod’s “thin places.”

Hazell finished her email pointing me to a review she’d posted of the book Thin Places, by Kerri ní Dochartaigh; here’s a video introduction to the book. Reading it is my next project.

I should still go to Stockholm–or better yet Iona–to take a bookbinding course, but I’m happy for the diversion that my search inspired.


Chris Corrigan's picture
Chris Corrigan on June 7, 2021 - 20:07 Permalink

I have been to Iona - Ben Wolfe and I went there together on a pilgrimage three years ago. It is indeed amazing and the archetypal "thin place" of Celtic spirituality. Highly recommended especially in the winter when there is hardly anyone there.

James's picture
James on June 8, 2021 - 07:59 Permalink

Lots to ruminate on there. Sounds like a day well spent. Bravo!

Hamish MacDonald's picture
Hamish MacDonald on June 8, 2021 - 13:36 Permalink

I’ve been savouring your blog in my morning RSS feeds since moving back to the Island, enjoying its great wit and deep heart, but it’s getting laughable, the number of overlaps there are in our interests.

I was content to keep lurking in silence — even when your recent playlist contained all sorts of obscure artists who I’ve got in rotation, too — but now you’re talking about someone I took a bookbinding workshop from in Edinburgh before I went on to hold a number of my own classes there. Clearly it’s time to say hello again.

At first I thought you were talking about The Wandering Book Artists (http://www2.cruzio.com/~peteranddonna/), Peter and Donna Thomas, whose “Making Books by Hand” was one of my first reads about bookbinding and is probably still my favourite.

At any rate, thank you so much for all that you put into this blog.

Ian Scott's picture
Ian Scott on June 12, 2021 - 13:24 Permalink

A great blog post with many connecting threads. When one finds oneself interested in Iona (be that the Scottish island or the community in PEI of the same name) then possibly one might find the work of John Philip Newell of interest. A wonderful spiritual writer who once served as the warden at the Iona Abbey, he worked with the Iona Community founded by George Macleod, and tells the grandest stories about George who had the vision to rebuilt the abbey in the 20th century. John Philip, provides several workshops/pilgrimages each year on Iona. The one scheduled to start today was cancelled due to Covid but they have dates set for Sept. He and his wife Allie are based in Edinburgh where they raised their family but as a travelling teacher in the Celtic tradition he travels extensively in Canada and the US to lecture and conduct workshops. I greatly enjoyed a workshop he gave in Nova Scotia in 2013. His books are widely available with his latest due to launch next month.
Newell quotes someone - possibly George Macleod himself - that the wonderful thing about thin places is that they help one realize that every place is a thin place.