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Places Thin (and Not So Thin)

Today, June 28, is a day of preparation for me. Tomorrow, I’ll be leaving Dublin and heading down to Kildare, where my cycling tour of Ireland and Scotland will begin. As a result, I’m using most of today to get some laundry done and to see a few last sights in Dublin before I depart. Yesterday, however, was one of the highlights of my trip thus far—a highlight that included, strangely enough, both great expectations and expectations unmet.

Yesterday, you see, I took a day trip outside of Dublin to visit Glendalough, the site of an early Celtic monastic community that was founded by Saint Kevin in the sixth century. Based on what I’ve read about Celtic spirituality, Kevin probably settled in Glendalough because he discovered there what was often called “a thin place”—a place where the boundary between the world of “everyday, ordinary life” and “life enlivened by the presence of God’s Spirit” was exceptionally thin. And as a result, I confess, I wanted this place to be “a thin place” for me, too. I wanted to have a unique and powerful experience of God’s power and nearness. And yet, since the tour left time for only a brief visit, and since the entire area was crawling with other tourists like myself, it was difficult to settle in and to reflect on the history and the ambience of the place in a way that was very transformative. Nevertheless, I do have these reflections.

First, the valley in which the site is located really is beautiful. In fact, the name “Glendalough” means “valley of two lakes.” And not far from the steep mountain pass pictured here; there are, in fact, two lakes that feed a stream running down near the site of the monastic community. Although the circumstances of my visit didn’t give me much time to appreciate this beauty, it wasn’t hard to imagine how Kevin and other believers would have looked at the landscape around them and would have been constantly reminded of verses like these:

I lift my eyes to the hills;
from where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
Psalm 121:1-2

In addition, I think it’s worth noting that even though Kevin probably settled in Glendalough in the hope of living a solitary life of prayer and contemplation, there soon gathered around him a whole community of people seeking to grow closer to Christ. Scholars say that at the height of its influence, the settlement might have included several hundred monks and as many as a thousand farmers, craftsmen, and their families who lived nearby. And even though there clearly was a sense of separation between these two worlds—the “sacred” and the “secular”—there was also a lot of mutual exchange and influence.

In the picture on the left, you see the gateway to the monastic compound. and just inside this gateway is a “foundation stone,” on which is engraved the image of the cross. Since the monastic community was surrounded by a wall, the only way in and out would be through this gateway. And upon entering, both monks and visitors would be reminded that this was a sacred space, in which an alternate way of perceiving and responding to the world—a way shaped by devotion to God and His Kingdom—prevailed.

And yet, the influence of this “kingdom way” was not restricted to life within the walls. The picture on the left is Glendalough’s round tower, which stands almost 100 feet tall. Since a community like Glendalough frequently faced the prospect of attacks from outsiders, the tower undoubtedly provided a lookout and a place in which to protect the community’s treasures (which for a monastic community like this one would have included its copies of the scriptures). But since the name of these towers in Irish translates as “a house for the bell,” it seems clear that one of its most important functions was to call the entire valley—monks and laypeople alike—to daily times of prayer. In other words, part of the power of a place like Glendalough is the power of Christian community to “spill out” beyond itself in a way that reminds the world of God’s presence and of His constant invitation to enter that presence more fully.

The monastic community of Glendalough, with the Round Tower to the right and church built in honor of St. Kevin, the community’s founder, to the left.

In a funny way, that gets to the heart of why I’m taking the sabbatical in the first place. I want to become the kind of Christ follower—and I want my church to become the kind of community—whose devotion to God‘s kingdom allows His presence to “spill out” beyond us and into the world in a way that invites others to seek that presence, too.

So, does that make Glendalough a “thin place” for me? Probably not. But it does remind me that “thin places“ are all around us, if we are prepared to seek God and to live as those whose lives are set apart for Him. May such devotion on our part lead us to become a “thin place“ for those who are seeking abundant life. Amen.

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