Poulnabrone Portal Dolmen, 4200 BCE and 2900 BCE, County Clare, Ireland
“Thin places”—places where whatever it is that separates the living from the dead feels almost porous. Places where the supernatural world seems palpable and where the natural and the divine seem mysteriously and tightly woven together. Places where visitors feel a mystical sense of communion with whatever or whomever lies beyond this mortal sphere.
Ireland, with its rich Celtic and even earlier sense of a world mystically inhabited by spiritual forces beyond this mortal sphere, has numerous thin places widely scattered across the Irish countryside. Sometimes, as is true of the Poulnabrone dolmen above, these thin places are ancient burial sites with a single entrance. Sometimes they are very early monuments built around openings that highlight the winter solstice. And sometimes, like the Hill of Uisneach at the very center of Ireland, they are sacred hillsides where ancient heroes or even divine creatures are said once to have lived and where, some believe, the spirits of those ancients continue to dwell.
I’ve never visited any of these hallowed Irish sites, but when I read recently about some of them, I found myself intrigued by the whole idea of “thinness.” A closeness to those who have gone before. An intimate sense of the Divine, powerfully reaching from Beyond into our Here and Now. And I realized that, while I don’t have any thin places to visit, I do experience thin times now and again. Moments at the altar rail when I sip the Eucharistic wine and feel a Presence holding me. Evenings when I step into a glorious sunset or bright moon rise and feel the distant closeness of a Power so vast it takes my breath away. Moments when I see the intricately detailed pattern on a small butterfly and sense a profound Love that cares for tiny things like butterflies and me.
Thin times. Precious times. Intense and almost haunting times. But I believe the thinnest of all thin times for me is the annual celebration of All Saints’ Day in church worship. The somber reading of the names of those who have entered the nearer presence of God in the previous year. The organ chime that solemnly and respectfully rings a final tribute to each life now gone from us. And then the majestic singing of that most triumphant of hymns, “For All the Saints.”
As the organ swells and voices all around me sing exultantly, recalling those “who from their labors rest,” I feel myself joining hands with so many of those now gone from this world. I have a strong sense that I am no longer “here” and they “there.” We are, for one brief shining musical moment, together as one—one in “blest communion,” one in “fellowship divine.” Heaven and earth are joined. We sing and dance together. And for that one brief shining moment, as one people—the living and the dead—we look forward to that coming day when separation will be no more, when tears will all be wiped away, when we will hymn as one the harmony of life together in God’s Nearer Presence.
Thin places. Thin times. Places and times when the veil that falls between the Here and the There seems so thin it’s almost as though it is not there at all. Places and times when our hearts become a little braver, our arms a little stronger, because we sense that we are not alone. Places and times which cause us to bow in deep and reverent gratitude for all of life—life in this world and life in the next.