Finding God in the Thin Places (On my Pilgrimage to Ireland)

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On his travels to Alaska, naturalist John Muir marveled at the gigantic glaciers, awestruck by their power and grandeur.  You can tell in his writing that he struggled to find words to match the majesty before him. Eventually, as if unable to contain himself, he wrote this,

“And here, too, one learns that the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation; that mountains long conceived are now being born, channels traced for coming rivers, basins hollowed for lakes; that moraine soil is being ground and outspread for coming plants,–coarse boulders and gravel for forests, finer soil for grasses and flowers,–while the finest part of the grist, seen hastening out to sea in the draining streams, is being stored away in darkness and builded particle on particle, cementing and crystallizing, to make the mountains and valleys and plains of other predestined landscapes, to be followed by still others in endless rhythm and beauty.” Travels in Alaska, ch. 5

The enchantment so eloquently expressed by Muir in this paragraph is a major theme found in Celtic spirituality. From the very early days, they understood that this world and the next was so inextricably woven together that sometimes it was hard to tell the two apart. One can see this idea artistically portrayed in the “everlasting patterns” decorating manuscript pages of ancient Celtic works like the Book of Kells.  For in their minds, the Word is as much in this world as it is in next.

Folio 34r

In nature, such connections can be found in what the Celts called “thin places.” George MacLeod describes these locations as “the eternal seeping through the physical.” And as a veil dividing heaven and earth as “thin as a gossamer” (The Book of Creation by J. Philip Newell, p. 24). It was not only what John Muir experienced at the foot of the glacier, but also what we all experience at moments when we gasp at the fingerprints of God found in the splendor of nature.

In Ireland, there is a place outside Dublin called Glendalough where I regularly experience a thin place. Tradition has it that Saint Kevin settled there in a cave in the sixth century. It overlooks a lake as black as a moonless and starless night. A forest surrounds it, with ancient trees covered in moss and dark green leaves. Early in the morning a mist hovers above ground, like out of a fairy tale. It’s no wonder that Kevin chose this place for his home.

I would too if I was given the chance.

The most famous story about Saint Kevin has him standing at the mouth of the cave one morning, where he extended his arms with palms up for prayer. Apparently, he became so connected with nature and God that he remained this way long enough for a blackbird to land in his hand and build a nest. When Kevin noticed the young mother settled in, he was so sensitive to the life in his hand that he decided to remain perfectly still, continuing to pray.  Eventually, the bird laid an egg. She nestled above it to keep it warm until it hatched. Kevin remained like a statue while the blackbird brought food to the hatchling. And then one day the chick was big enough and strong enough to fly away on its own.

Only then did Saint Kevin lower his arms.

Our guide, Father Michael Rodgers, explained to us that the stories of Irish Saints were typically exaggerated, and in the exaggeration was the truth.

What kind of person prays perfectly still at the mouth of a cave surrounded by a mystic landscape long enough to allow a blackbird to raise its young?

I wanted to find out.

So I found a secluded stump on the shore and sat. I closed my eyes. I willed myself to be still and silent, trying to pay attention to whatever it was that Saint Kevin found. And then it happened. I felt on my face the bright sunlight low on the horizon from across the lake. A heard the sound of a creek trickling nearby–and the echoes of birds in the valley. A frigid breeze wrapped my body in a way that felt surprisingly blanket-like. And then I experienced a joy well up from deep within. A nostalgic-joy, as C.S. Lewis described in his autobiography.  I imagined Saint Kevin himself behind a gossamer thin veil greeting me, and it felt like that moment when you are welcomed home by your family after a long trip away.

No wonder this monk resided here.

This thin place.

This open window into heaven.

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