Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Thin Places

I believe there are certain places in the world where the line between the physical world and the spiritual world is very thin. I am not the first to think this way. The Celtic monastic orders were famous for doing the same thing in places like Innish Moore and Glendaloch. They, however, forgot to bring women. So they all died out. Oops.

Considered a Thin Place by
the monastic order of St. Kevin.

The idea of so called 'Thin Places' is a concept that has arisen throughout Celtic history in both the pagan and the Christian religions up to and shortly past the fourth century. Several places in Ireland in particular are considered 'Thin Places'. Glendaloch, The Hill of Tara, and Innish Moore are some of the more obvious examples. But I've found some interesting places that I consider 'thin' within my own back yard.

I fail for not having pictures of this place, but I will later. There's a place at my dad's cabin in the mountains that I feel most at home. There's a rock staircase that goes down to a creek with a small beach. A dam made of stones that my brother, father, and myself put together still creates a little lake in the area. The sound of rushing water can be heard and there's greenery everywhere, including a tree whose roots do battle with erosion to hold up a six foot wall of dirt.

This place is far enough away from any structures that it is completely peaceful, and it's in it's own little canyon, so I can enjoy the stillness of life there. I remarked upon my feelings there in my copy of the Tao Te Ching.

Some of my notes
in my copy of the Tao Te Ching

Later in life, wherever I have lived, I've tried to find a sacred space that I can go to think. The creek at my Dad's cabin was my sacred space for some time. But I was often not there, and when I went to college, I had to find another one. During my year and a half at Piedmont, I would use the Baseball field at night, and a bridge that went out over a lake (at night as well) as my places to think and meditate. Since coming to UNCSA, however, I have not been able to find such a place.

Since becoming a much more international and worldly person, I've picked out a few sacred spaces in other countries. I have a few in Ireland, even though I've only been there twice. The Celts influence my way of thinking so much, that it's hard not to find beauty in the simplest of places there.

The first one is the Hill of Tara. I took a pilgrimage to this place some time ago. I took a series of buses from Dublin and made my way up the hill itself on foot. The place is fairly simple. A small Catholic church sits on top of the hill, converting what was a pagan fortress to Christian holy land. The hill is now simply a hill with a burial ground and a few man-made humps here and there, but they are arranged in a set of rings and trenches that make up what was an impenetrable palisade fortress.

The view.
Good luck invading without being noticed.
You can see 3/4th of Ireland from up here.

Call me crazy, but I stayed around this place for more than a couple hours, just soaking it in. I even took a nap under the ever gray sky of Ireland. I met a Bulgarian who was doing the same thing I was. He sat and I sat on top of the burial ground while he played a tune on his guitar-like instrument.

At Glendaloch, the Monastic Order of St. Kevin made their way into the wilderness and started a small all-male civilization in an incredibly secluded part of Ireland. The order only lasted a generation, as people lived their lives and died with no offspring, but according to legend, the people there gained control over nature. St. Kevin was known for hanging out waist deep in the lake with outstretched arms and a bird would come to perch on his arm.

Just being in this place is mysterious. Mountains surround an elevated lake with strange natural structures that make some of the most beautiful sights in nature I've ever seen. St. Kevin made this place a church, but he considered not only the buildings that were made, but the land itself as the house of God.

No shoes allowed

St. Kevin's monasteries are spread out among the area. One of them in particular the members of my class that I went with my first time to Ireland took off our shoes to walk inside. The simple act of being that much closer to nature was powerful. Our guide (a Catholic Priest who barely believed in Catholicism) noted on his tour/sermon:

If we picture God as a little man in the sky, we're chasing an illusion, I think.

-Father Michael

The lesson to be learned in this is that God is not a figurehead of a church, or some 'bean counter on cloud 9' as a friend of mine put it. God is everything and everywhere. He is the force of life and death, and he is inherent in his creation (regardless of whether or not it was created consciously or by some instinctive force).

St. Kevin's churches embody this as the ruins become more and more one with nature themselves. As you can see they are slowly wearing away into the past themselves, creating an ultimate piece of natural art. The roof is gone, bringing the person within the monastery closer to the sky. The stones have become weathered, and the weak ones have fallen away, making the monastery seem as if nature had built it herself.

A lot of the same weathered effects have happened to the monastery-fortress on top of the Hill of Slane, another of my personal Irish 'Thin Places'.

St. Patrick's Monastery-Fortress.
I broke some rules to get this.

The Hill of Slane is the second highest point in Ireland, and from it you can see all the places that you can't see from the Hill of Tara. In St. Patrick's battle with the non-Christian Druids, control of both these hills was key. He held Slane with this monastery-fortress. The tower would be used to signal the Hill of Tara if an army was attempting to come at them by hiding in one of the Hill's few blind spots.

Even though there's not really a huge religious significance to the Hill of Slane, there wound up being a huge personal significance for me. The aged effect here was similar to the effect on St. Kevin's Monastery. I can't quite explain the spiritual feeling that was here, I only felt like I had lived here before. This was probably the only real place that has made me seriously consider reincarnation.

This felt very much like home.

I spent more than a little time here. I nearly missed the last bus back home without realizing it. The above picture was taken inside the fortress portion of the Hill of Slane (not shown in the other picture, I actually took that picture from the top of the fortress).

I can't really explain a lot of what happened here. I felt both at home and I had a strange feeling of dejavu while I was there. Now that I'm gone from these places, I want to go back really badly. I was home.

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