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Issue No.117
22 January 2019

Finding a thin place

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Sylvia Hope and Seumus Stuart are both members of the Small Pilgrim Places Network.

For more information about the network, see w:


Seumas Stewart reflects on the 'presence' among us

DO YOU HAVE YOUR 'THIN PLACES', where slender divisions separate heaven and earth, past and present? That sense is strong in Celtic societies. Celtic Spirituality has its roots in remote parts of Scotland and Ireland. Modern thin places are part of that heritage. Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912) in his Carmina Gadelica (1900) collected many old Gaelic prayers and rituals threatened with extinction. I find their ancient wisdom inspiring. They have shadows of pre-Christian cultures. The thin margin between material and spiritual is present in most of them. Creation is a thin place.

In 'thin places' I experience the numinous, a 'Presence' beyond the material world but hidden within it. Our desire to recapture this probably comes from unease with where materialistic philosophy has taken Western civilisation. Alongside this spiritual vision, in the scientific world, ecology and cosmology excite me with the interdependent and interactive nature of living systems. I see complexities not understood when the Western scientific paradigm was first laid down. We know now 'living systems' are 'auto-poesic' or 'self creating'. Creation is ongoing.

A Gaelic prayer reflects the sense of awe: "Lord, the sea is so large, and my boat is so small!" Prayers covered every aspect of life, kindling the fire, milking the cow, blessing the boat, guarding the family: daily rituals of communities dependent on nature at first hand.

I seldom experience this in our urbanised society. For the Gaels, separation of material and spiritual did not exist. "Heaven is about two feet above my head." Those face to face with nature, in fishing, farming and mining, still experience the power of creation. But that is a small percentage in a modern Western population.

How do we find thin places? Where do we look? Jim Cotter, founder of the Small Pilgrim Places Network asks: "A holy place? A sacred place? I am uneasy!" Are other places "unholy, profane?" Formal sanctification is unnecessary and possibly a distraction. Requirements for Small Pilgrim Places are close to those of thin places. "Places to focus your awareness where 'another world' reveals itself" - quiet, simple, retreats in town or country.

Celtic spirituality was animistic; everything in nature is possessed of soul (anima). In Christianity, everything is imbued with the Spirit of God. Ancient special places were 'converted' and adopted by missionary saints, whose names became attached to them. From such places, new ideas have changed our world. But quite simple places will serve today.

While working five years at Llandecwyn, the church in the hills became a thin place for me. Sometimes Tecwyn of Brittany felt very close. Neolithic monuments spoke of earlier peoples too. It was a place for creating, for writing:

"Heaven lies not far - Look not beyond the star But here at hand, in tree, in flower, in grass, In whispers of the winds that pass..."
Llandecwyn's day © Seumus Stewart, 2005

If we recaptured this sense of 'Presence', could it change the way we manage our planet? Today everything is a 'resource', nearly everything is for sale. In that direction lies the death of everything, including us. This is a concern for all who live on this earth.


Sylvia Hope shares her own experience

THE GLOBE THEATRE 2017 PROGRAMME, with a comment from Emma Rice, artistic Director, arrives in my inbox:

"Love. I celebrate it, practise it, mourn it and fight for it. Love is the centre of our human experience. It provides us with the best of times and worst of times and reminds us that we are alive, connected and part of something greater than ourselves. Here's to love, imagination, freedom, bravery, endurance, celebration and hope."

This is Emma's theatre life, and I wonder if Small Pilgrim Places are hidden theatres, to be searched out, but with the script created by each traveller?

My journey has been a local adventure exploring prayer and hospitality. I discovered St. Laurence Church as a young mother, over 30 years ago. It wasn't just the quiet Sunday morning ten-minute walk there, or its fine landscape, or the ancient bare stone interior. It was the welcome, the mystery of the 'housekeeping', the pattern of quiet reliable hospitality, inspiring clergy, the repetition of music and words, in dark and cold or summer sunshine. It was the most generous of places.

I had grown up as a 'townie', enjoying community facilities without much commitment to a particular group. Now in a new role as a young working parent in a small village, life was more complex, and this church began to help me find my place. I took our small children, knowing that there was no children's group but feeling that this church family, in its peaceful space was better than any direct teaching. They did listen and sing and watch, and acted some of the services at home - more 'theatre'. Their script was part familiar and part changing.

A thin place is not cold, old, isolated and 'romantically neglected'. It can be a people place, even if no one is there when you visit. St. Laurence's building marks over 1000 years of local life and today's people will mark it by their hospitality and care.

Twenty years ago, Jim Cotter opened the church at Llandecwyn and 'loved it into life' for folk to stop and slow down. This prayer, found there, seems to echo Emma Rice's new year message:

The Prayer for Solidarity…
Here Comes Everybody

I let the spirit well up within me.
I let the spirit spin the threads
that connect me with other.
We let the Spirit move beyond
us in the waves to reach those
we now bring into our minds
eye and heart's care.
We breathe out towards each
other the Spirit of Love

My journey or pilgrimage has been long and slow. If a thin place has only a tissue paper between heaven and earth, that paper has a spiritual richness, recognised by its local community. Over 50 hidden theatres, with a stage and a quiet voice that, in Emma Rice's words, remind us "we are alive, connected and part of something greater than ourselves".