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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

Braving the Thin Places: Celtic Wisdom to Create a Space for Grace

by Julianne Stanz

The “thin places” that give this book its title exist in Irish mythology as thresholds or portals to the other side; sites where the veil between this world and the next is most porous. Known to locals through oral stories passed down the generations, they are vestiges of an older, stranger Ireland, their resonance still palpable, Kerri ní Dochartaigh suggests, to those attuned to their otherness. “They are places that make us feel something larger than ourselves,” she writes, “as though we are held in a place between worlds, beyond experience.”

We stand at the threshold of a thin place. We are gatekeepers to a sacred chamber of the inner world. We can open the door and welcome others into this inner space, or we can close ourselves off to the world around us. Sometimes we close the door so tightly on these space to our lives that they have to be broken completely open to let the light on. Time seems to stand still, there is a discernable sense of sacredness and the world around us speaks its own story to those who are listening. The concept of a thin place is an ancient one, arising from the Celtic tradition, but it holds real meaning for each of us today as we try to make sense of the world around us and indeed, within us.

The Celts, known for their love of thresholds places at the edge of life, such as Sceilg Mhtchil, a crag off the coast of County Kerry, were never afraid to explore God in the known or in the wild, barren edges of life. We should not be afraid either. The Celts imagination considers sacred places to be “thin” or places where the veil between the worlds of heaven and earth seem especially permeable, and the worlds discernibly close to each other. Thin spaces exist between the new and the not-yet. Entering this space is an opportunity that we don’t normally have—to slow down, to pause, to look with fresh eyes, to recover a sense of wonder about the world. The pace of life moves too fast for many of us over concrete ab dub hospitable ground, and we are searching—for joy, forgiveness, healing, completion and peace. God is all around if only we recognize his presence. And for those who do, that thin space is one of rejuvenation and renewal.

Thin spaces exist not only outside us but also within us. Each of us stands at the threshold of our own pain or wonder, our own thin place. In each person’s life are thin places where that person experiences God’s presence in a way that stirs the soul. In these thin spaces we are broken open, and we encounter ourselves, our relationship with others and with God, in a deeper and more authentic way. Truth makes its home in these broken-open places, and we often receive the gift of new insights and memories. As we become more understanding, compassionate, and authentic, we open up to new ways of seeing, fresh avenues of thinking, and ultimately transformed ways of being. Thin places are often associated with specific ancient or significant historical sites, such as Newgrange on the eastern coast of Ireland or Iona in Scotland. Growing up in Ireland, I frequented many tin places, and among my favorites are Glendalough in CountyWicklow and Browneshill Dolmen in County Carlow. I have experienced the owner of then spaces-outside of myself and also within myself. A few years ago, I brought a group of pilgrims from the United States to Ireland many for the first time, and witnessed the power of such thin spaces to affect people. Allison who had no Irish heritage or background, upon arriving in Glendalough, suddenly knelt on the ground and wept. When I asked her why, she said with tears rolling down her face, I can’t explain it, but I feel the presence of God here as I have never felt God before. I feel like a part of me belongs here. “How can this be home to me although I have never been here before?” What she was experiencing was the edge of her own thin place.

The Celts did not live as if God were far away, and neither should we. God who was near and dear to the Celts is the same God who can be near to us. One of my favorite thin spaces is the first time that I held my new born son, my first child. As I held him skin to skin I felt his heartbeat against my own heartbeat, our hearts beating together. To this day, it stands out as a moment in which I felt closest to God. In thin spaces we get a glimpse of heaven right here on earth. And, God knows, we need a little bit of heaven on earth these days! The year 2020 was a defining one for many of us. A pandemic raced across the world, and phrases such as “social distancing” and “cocooning” became part and parcel of everyday conversations. Fear gave way to anger as physical unrest spread like wildfire throughout the world, and especially in the United States as voices called for an end to racial injustice, inequality and disparity. The world seemed to be turning upside down world became a battleground on which the divide and conquer, and conversations about spiritual health were downplayed and set on the back burner. It became clear that underneath the anger and pain, the raw anguish of dispiritedness ws and iss still longing for a voice. We cry out for justice without really knowing exactly what a just society looks like. We break free of and push against all kinds of barriers such as gender, race, and sex, and we find that walls that once seemed impenetrable are more permeable and porous than we expected.

Thin places do displace us—from our comfort zones, from the way we think life should be and they invite us to consider what to do with our pain and our longings. And if we step back and ask ourselves three questions, it came clear that we are living through a time of intense spiritual displacement.

 What are people doing with their pain today?

 How is that pain being expressed?

 How might we respond to their pain?

This is a book that should be read by everyone as every word pertains to our experiences. Each one of us needs to read the book as it brings us closer to understanding our own thin places.

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