Thin Places


I’m giving a talk about thin places Sunday. I realize it sounds a strange topic. Might I be talking to a group trying to lose weight or perhaps people crowded into small apartments with narrow hallways? (The answer is “no”}.

Actually I’m talking about two journeys to Wales and specifically to the historic site of Tintern Abbey, left deserted and in poor condition in the Sixteenth Century. Over the years very little was done to improve its outward appearance, but over the centuries people have been drawn to it. For what reason? It is sacred space, a place where you can feel the presence of the past but even more than that–the feeling that one is still in a special place, almost magical.

When I was there the first time, I walked early in the morning along a pathway above the abbey and sat under an old oak tree. Perhaps it’s one of those experiences you have to be there to understand, but it was one full of deep meaning and heightened awareness, a feeling almost out of time and space. It was after I came down from the path that I happened to run across a local man and told him about my experience. It was then he told me that what I had experienced was not uncommon, that the Welsh and other people of the Celtic tradition, call an experience of a thin place.

A thin place is where the veil which separates one dimension from another is lifted if only for a moment, to permit us to see through. Mystics have described such experiences for thousands of years, and I was later to discover along the same path I had climbed the English poet Wordsworth and his sister had walked, resulting in a famous poem written about this experience.

Like Wordsworth in London who kept returning to the feelings he had above the abbey, I return to my feelings along the same pathway. They are both puzzling and comforting at the same time. I remember during my second visit to the same village and staying in a cottage across the street, looking out one night at the abbey and feeling its power to remind me that there is more to life than appearances. After all, it was a deserted abbey, its walls crumbling, no roof, and only a few cows to be seen grazing on the lawn outside.

What was it that continues to draw me into the mysterious abbey? It was a moment frozen in time and space, when I felt the presence of more than the world around me, but a deeper mystery that lured me into its domain. The poet Coleridge called such moments “cosmic consciousness,” when we are temporarily lifted out of the moment into a region not ruled by time or space. Some call such regions “eternity,” so perhaps that is the best word I can find to describe what I felt. After all, eternity is a place without the ravages of time. And that ancient, human worn abbey spoke of eternity where neither time nor human hands might eliminate the spirit.

I have come to believe that most people, if they really think deeply about it, have a thin place to which they can return whenever they want. For some, the thin place is a literal location–by the ocean or a mountain–but for others beside a person or listening to music. What I have learned in retrospect is that a thin place is a region of the heart where nothing dies.

Woods in Wales

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Filed under Celtic, England and Wales, Living an dying, Nature, Poetry, Thin places, Time, Wales, wisdom

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