I have been places where I feel that my heart is being cleaved open so that pain can escape and joy flood in. The sensation can come to me on a long walk in the mountains or in the forest, or standing on a deserted beach and feeling the tide roll over my feet, and can even appear under the harsh lights of a hospital room watching someone dear stoically take his last breath. I was reading an article yesterday, when I came across a Celtic expression that beautifully encapsulates what I’ve always thought to be true.
The Celtic Christians believed that there were mystical spaces, called “thin places”, where the veil between the holy and the human is traversed—A place in which the physical and spiritual worlds are knit together, and if we are so attuned, we can transcend the ordinary for a glimpse of the infinite. I’m sure you’ve been in such places jarring with kinetic energy, and simply by your presence, you are in someway changed.
Thin Places are not necessarily sacred places, or peaceful places. I consider them to be places of dissonance, or transformational plateaus. The energy that flows through me is an experience that leaves my heart open—more grateful, more empathetic, and less alone. It’s a disarming feeling of being brought to your own attention, knowing that you are forever changed by the experience.
The moment you walk into any hospital, it is hard not to be reminded of how thin the veil is that separates the physical from the holy. I’ll never forget spending the night sleeping beside my father as he lay in a palliative care hospital—The once stocky frame, now wasted away from the cancer consuming him. At 22, I had little space in my life for religion or thoughts of the hereafter, but holding on to his frail hand, I felt something enter me, and it has stayed with me all these years. Ironically, just three short months later, I would find myself in a delivery room at the hospital holding onto to my wife’s hand as we looked into the squinty eyes of our newborn son laying across her chest. Something flooded into my heart that early morning too—a simultaneous flutter of unquenchable joy tempered by a sense of powerlessness in the midst of the frailty of this innocent newborn.
Barely twenty years old, my wife and I went over to England to get married, and while we were there, we had the opportunity to go for lots of daylong hikes through the rolling fields of Devon and along the cliffs of Cornwall. On one of these walks, we had just finished descending a long embankment, when we came across this magical field of bluebells as far as the eye could see. It was just the two of us out there, but if you asked either one of us, we would tell you something else was present that field. Looking across that vast radiant meadow, I was struck by how big my world had become, but at the same time, I felt completely enveloped by the presence of my new bride’s unconditional love.
As a long distance runner, I spend countless hours crisscrossing the dark deserted city streets and dodging rocks and roots on off-road trails. On a four-hour training run, my mind often wanders to places deep within my soul, and I tap into a deep reserve of strength I believe lingers in all of us. I’ve encountered the mysticism of thin places on a few occasions when I’ve been alone on a run, but for me, the most memorable took place two years ago in the cool morning darkness of rural South Africa. I was taking part in the prestigious Comrades Marathon, an 89km race up and down some of the most unforgiving terrain through the pastoral province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. The atmosphere at the starting corrals was electric, and unlike every North American race I’ve competed in, the mood was relaxed, as runners seemed to be soaking up every gorgeous second. Fifteen minutes before the start, the entire field of 18,000 runners started singing the national anthem followed by the most moving rendition of Shosholoza, the iconic folk song that speaks to the hardships endured by the native South Africans and the migrant peoples. Standing in the darkness, and feeling the vibration inside of me brought on by the haunting melody of 18,000 singers, I was moved to tears. I was overwhelmed by a sense of community, an impassioned plea of hope, and the resiliency of the human spirit. The veil separating the mundane and the transcendent had been pushed aside for the briefest of moments—And I will be forever changed by that glimpse of the divine.
Here is the poem I wrote for my wife about our mystical field of bluebells