Our Wednesday night Lenten series at the church is about sacred journeys, from Bruce Feiler’s PBS series of the same name. The series shows Americans from all kinds of faith traditions making religious pilgrimages.
Our conversations about Jerusalem got me thinking about “thin places”, the tradition in Celtic spirituality that there are certain locations where the abyss between this world and the next is smaller, and we can more readily feel God’s presence. Some folks talked about feeling that presence at Civil War battlefields, or in places of great natural beauty, or at sites that were important in their family history.
The Bible is full of mentions of such places; Shechem, where the great covenant was made, Mount Sinai, site of Moses’ encounter with God and the Mount of Transfiguration (Tabor or Hermon) where Jesus appeared to Peter and John.
It is no accident that many holy places host shrines to more than one religion. Most of the places designated as holy by the Jewish community had been the locus of worship for the local indigenous community, and they were “baptized” so to speak, by the Christian church, and sometimes later re-interpreted by Islam.
Although some of these shrines have grown into or been absorbed into large cities, I think the awareness of thin places is a rural sensibility. In most country districts, there were places that are regarded as holy, even though that may not be the language used about them. Most small towns had a traditional place where young men got down on one knee with a ring in their hand. Choices for the placement of burial grounds were often made based on elders’ knowledge of “where was fitting”. Even traditional picnic places and fishing holes have this sense of wonder attached to them that is not just about a pretty vista or great sight lines.
I know that it is possible to make a spiritual pilgrimage in any location if your heart is ready for it. But sometimes it helps to go to a place that is acknowledged by local tradition to be a holy place, just to soak it in. Knowing that other people have been to this very spot looking for God may open up a spiritual dimension for you. I don’t understand why certain places seem more spiritual than others, or why people come generation after generation to one particular place to find God. But spiritual life is not just about understanding; sometimes we connect with God in ways that we cannot explain with words, but only with the joyous beating of our hearts.
For more about Celtic spirituality: http://www.northumbriacommunity.org/articles/celtic-spirituality-a-beginners-guide