In May, I was fortunate to have some holiday time, interspersed with a Minister’s Retreat on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne – and as I’ve reflected on my experiences since then, I realise how blessed I have been in coming into contact with some of Earth’s ‘Thin Places’.
‘What is a thin place?’ you may ask! Well, it’s not this week’s meeting of ‘Slimmer’s World’, that’s for sure!! In the Celtic tradition it is place that gives us an opening into the magnificence and wonder of God – and there is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.
A thin place, then, is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God. Contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge gives this description:
“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.
It is no wonder that thin places are most often associated with wild landscapes – and one such place I found was at the top of Helm Crag at Grasmere. We were staying in Ambleside, thanks to a Christmas gift from our eldest son and daughter-in-law, Dan and Lowri. After a particularly ‘full’ English Lakeland Breakfast, Colin and I agreed that we should go out for a walk. It was a lovely day – so with guide map duly purchased – we set out on one of the ‘short’ walks suggested – only 3 miles! The trouble was that most of it was vertical! Despite the fact that my body may have indicated otherwise, I did not succumb to a coronary – and though it may have taken us a couple of hours, we did reach ‘The Lion and The Lamb’ (a rock formation at the summit). Once I had got my breath back, I sat amazed at the wonderful view, and contemplated the forces of nature which had shaped the landscape. This truly was a ‘thin place’.
Coming down was possibly more difficult than going up – and the muscles in my legs certainly made their presence known the following morning, when I tried to get out of bed.
Other ‘thin places’ were found on the route between Ambleside and Ravenglass, when we took the Wrynose Pass and Hardknott Pass – a car journey I will not forget for some time! As Colin commented – ‘we should come up here more often’ – to which I agreed. How about we all meet up there for worship one Sunday morning!!!
The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is another of those ‘thin places’, but not because of the sweeping grandeur of the mountains. A first time visitor to the island, and staying at the Lindisfarne Hotel, I found that once the tide came in and the causeway was closed, there existed a sense of solitude and quietness in which you could palpably feel the presence of God.
Even the multitude of birds and seals which love to make their presence known, didn’t detract from this. Sadly didn’t see any of the puffins which are very cutely represented in all the gift shops! There is also something to be said about living in a place where life is determined by the incoming and outgoing tide!
Lindisfarne is, of course, where you find the ‘Gospels’ – the legacy of an artist monk living in Northumbria in the early eighth century. They are the precious testament to the tenacity of Christian belief during one of the most turbulent periods of British history. Costly in time and materials, superb in design, the manuscript is among our greatest artistic and religious treasures. It was made and used at Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island, a major religious community that housed the shrine of St Cuthbert, who died in 687.
The Island is also home to St. Aidan’s Winery, where one can purchase the ‘nectar of the gods’ – no, not a good cup of tea, but the uniquely produced ‘Lindisfarne Mead’ – just as good, but perhaps not drunk in quite the same quantities!
As I write this, I am preparing to visit perhaps another of the ‘thin places’, as part of a Ministers group from North Western Synod, travelling to Italy for our annual Summer School. We will be engaging with the people and history of the Waldensian Church, with whom our Synod has links, in the areas of Torre Pellice and Turin. More of this, perhaps, in my next musings from the manse!
The ‘thin places’ of our world can often be found where we least expect them and I suppose the challenge for me now, and for all of us for that matter, is to find the ‘thin places’ that exist in my day to day life! Happy searching!