I recently stumbled across a bit of old Celtic wisdom: the existence of thin places. Thin places are spaces in this world where heaven and earth don’t quite collide but almost touch. Places where time is suspended and you could live forever in the moment. Like in the photo that accompanies this Musing: a selfie taken a few years ago on an unseasonably warm day on the southern shore of Iona, a small island off a slightly larger island (Mull) off the west coast of Scotland. It captures a moment that captured me; an idyllic afternoon I will treasure forever.
As far as I know, there is no roadmap to, or listing of, thin places. They’re not in any London cabbie’s A to Zed. As I did on that day ten years ago—and again just yesterday in an article from a few years back on the Travel Page of the New York Times—you have to stumble upon a thin place. Better yet, perhaps it has to find you. Thin places may be natural or man-made. They may be encountered in the most unexpected of settings or at the least expected moment. Maybe it’s that place an athlete calls “the zone” although I happen to think a thin place is more than that. It’s where a window opens, a gauzy thin curtain parts, and suddenly, quietly, you are one with time and space. Maybe thin places are portals to another dimension, grander than wonder, greater than awe. The word ‘rapture’ might best express what I’m talking about if it hadn’t been hijacked by evangelicals. I’ll just say this: you’ll know a thin place when you are in it.
Thin places are both old as time and new as now. That’s part of their beauty but not all of it. They may be hidden or right in front of our noses. Like stars in the daylight, they are always present—we just can’t see them. They’re both mysterious and wonderful, sacred and profane, ephemeral and everlasting. I’ve often encountered thin places in areas surrounded by water, but I’ve experienced them in sere places, too. They are often announced by a subtle quality of light that seems to almost radiate or glow. I’ve tried to photograph thin places but it’s difficult; in the time it takes me to reach for my camera, they may already be gone.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I believe deeply in the cosmology of thin places. If I could, I would inhabit one at every waking moment. But I know that while life can be supremely blissful in a thin place, it’s only a transitory space, a safe pathway we are lucky enough to cross to get from one side of life’s busy street to the other. Sigh. The good news is that while we may come and go, thin places will always be within reach.
I hope I haven’t lost you. I promise I haven’t been eating mushrooms. If you thought this Musing was about a new fad diet, I apologize. I just think that my Celtic ancestors knew something wise and ancient that maybe we’ve forgotten and that deserves remembering.
I also think that over here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, we live in a thin place—or very close to one—so we should always keep our eyes and hearts open. Whether it’s something as spectacular as the annual arrival of the tall ships or as simple as sitting on the porch surrounded by friends, I have felt heaven and earth meet here. I have always felt I didn’t find this town, that it found me. Now I’ve been given a name by which to call this phenomenon.
In times like these—times of turmoil, times of division—we need to know there are still thin places where we can find a measure of peace and comfort and stillness. A thin place of unity.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com