In October I went on a tour of the “thin places” in Ireland. I’ve heard the term “thin places” before but never actually understood what they are. Generally speaking, in Celtic spirituality, a thin place is where the veil between heaven and earth is lifted. It is a place where time and eternity seem to blend together and where the Holy is palpable. I was intrigued and hoped to experience for myself what the thin places were all about.
I discovered that it was different for each of us on the tour. For my friend and traveling companion, the thin place was the hidden burial site of newborn babies from hundreds of years ago up until as late as the 1950’s. The babies that were buried in that secluded place, for some reason, were not baptized. They were laid there because the church would not allow anyone unbaptized to be buried in its blessed cemeteries. It moved my friend to tears as she recalled her stillborn grandson. She related that she could feel his presence with her.
For another fellow pilgrim, the well of St. Brigid, with its water bubbling up through the ground, was a thin place. Hundreds of people come to be blessed by the water and many receive healings as evidenced by the tokens left behind on the small stones of the grotto. She felt the sacredness and holiness of that particular place.
For me, I was surprised to experience the thin places at three ancient stone circles scattered throughout the land – Grange Stone Circle, which is the largest, Uragh Stone Circle and the stone circle at a place called Kealkill. These are all very old sites dating back to 2000-4000 BC, constructed by people who were, in our modern estimation, very primitive, very earthy and very pagan. The circles were made of various sizes of rocks, some weighing several tons and standing in tall, upright positions. In the Grange Stone Circle in particular, the rocks were positioned to align with the sun on the summer and winter solstices. No one knows for sure how these rocks were set in place or why these circles were built. Most likely they were sites of worship and ritual and burial in some cases.
None of these places were easily accessible. We hiked a mile or two up gradual inclines, passed small flowing streams, climbed through narrow openings in stone fences and trekked across muddy pastures. As I walked I tried to imagine what these ancient people who wore down this path before me were like. What were their thoughts, their hopes, their dreams? Why did they choose a spot so far into the terrain, so high on a hill and so hard to reach? I was beginning to feel the veil parting. I was beginning to enter that space where my footsteps today started to blend into theirs of 4000 years ago.
When I reached the stone circles at the tops of the hills at any of those three places, the most incredible views opened up before me. It is no wonder why these ancient peoples picked these spots. The Holy was palpable here, surrounding each circle of stone by a vast sky, mountains, lush green valleys, and cascading waterfalls. I personally believe these were sacred places of worship for them. They worshiped the only god they knew – the god of the sun, the god of the mountains, the god of waterfalls, the god of the elements. I realized that, essentially, they worshiped the same God you and I do today. We just call this God by different names and have a little different understanding.
I’m not sure if these thin places exist because the Eternal Living God chooses to manifest in some way there or if they are worn thin by the many people who come to honor and revere these places with prayers, rituals and blessings. I don’t think it really matters though. What is important is that there is a thread present that connects the eternal with the earthly, the sacred with the simple and that the Holy Presence can be felt in those places. It leaves me wondering if there are thin places right here in northern Wisconsin where I live that I am not even aware of. What thin places might we discover if we paid more attention to the history of our land and the stories of our more recent ancestors?