The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral. "The common French word for labyrinth is dedale, from Daedalus, the Greek inventor of the first labyrinth, the one that housed the Minotaur." [o]
"Some parts of space are qualitatively different from others."
— Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane
The term “thin place” has become a popular phrase that refers to a location where two worlds, two planes of existence, seem to converge. Heaven and earth, time and eternity, the sacred and profane. In a thin place, you feel the customary barriers that separate these different worlds have thinned out or worn away. Suddenly, your awareness shifts, and like the narrator in Jack Finney’s old gem of a story, “Of Missing Persons,” you stand on the threshold of something unspeakably strange: a world that is just like ours, but completely different from it too.
I say it has become popular because over the past several years, more and more articles on thin places have appeared in newspapers and magazines and in online forums. Eric Weiner wrote an essay, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer,” for the travel section of the New York Times (9 March 2012), and a similarly titled piece, “Where Heaven and Earth Collide,” by Oliver Burkeman, appeared in the Guardian (22 March 2014). Both of these writers identify the term as a concept rooted in Celtic spiritual traditions. Weiner says it refers to “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent.” Burkeman believes there is always something “ineffable” about our experience of a thin place — that it’s impossible to translate into words the feeling that comes over us in such a location.
I admitted to having second thoughts. “Well,” she said in a stern voice, “you can’t back out now.”
Although some thin places are connected with overtly religious sites — a church where the faithful have gathered for centuries, or the end point of a pilgrimage — others have little to do with religion. A thin place might consist of nothing more exotic than a garden or a beautiful landscape that seems to concentrate certain forces within its boundaries. City parks can qualify as thin places, as can points of transit, such as a well-designed airport or train station. According to Weiner, even a congenial bar can function as a thin place. Some bookstores also have the ability to inspire in their patrons this sense of a parallel reality.
But for the most part, we don’t go looking for thin places; rather, they find us. The unexpected “click” at the moment our perception shifts and we become aware of something different is part of the experience of discovering a thin place. You might call it an “in-between land,” a spot where we don’t so much pass from one world to another, as we would in death, but where we inhabit both worlds simultaneously.
Two such places I can identify from my own travels are Croagh Patrick, which is often referred to as “the holiest mountain in Ireland,” and the miraculously well-preserved gothic cathedral at Chartres in France. I climbed Croagh Patrick less than a year after having open-heart surgery at the age of 65. The August day was unseasonably cold and wet. In the coffee shop at the base of the mountain, I ran into a middle-aged Irish woman who’d done the climb several times. I admitted to having second thoughts. “Well,” she said in a stern voice, “you can’t back out now.” So I went up the mountain and found her at the top, standing by the white-washed chapel there, eating an apple. I had the feeling she’d been waiting for me. “So,” she said in the same inflexible tone, “you made it.”
Croagh Patrick and its white chapel at the top. "This is what I would have missed on another mountain: the residue of the millions dead." Photo by Chris Hood.
But it wasn’t just mon ange guardien du jour who pulled me to the top. All the way up I felt sustained by the presence of the countless pilgrims who’d done the climb before me. The ascent was hard, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But buoyed by the sense of companionship that enveloped me, I never doubted I would make it. I’m convinced I wouldn’t have had the same experience on a different mountain. Burkeman refers to the “emotional residue” associated with thin places, a feeling so pronounced that it can obliterate our sense of time. This is what I would have missed on another mountain: the residue of the millions dead.
In contrast with Croagh Patrick’s natural, open-air environment, Chartres Cathedral is a completely enclosed and artificial space. I came to the cathedral thinking I knew the basics about its stained glass and sculpture, and at least something of the mechanics involved in its architectural achievement. As soon as I stepped inside, I realized I knew nothing. The first thing I saw when I came into the nave or central aisle was a massive labyrinth laid into the paving stones of the floor. The common French word for labyrinth is dedale, from Daedalus, the Greek inventor of the first labyrinth, the one that housed the Minotaur. What was this remnant of pagan mythology doing here in a Catholic church, and why was it displayed so prominently? Was its purpose merely ornamental, or did it have a more profound significance for the people who created it? At the moment I admitted I had no idea, I felt a certain click of dissociation. I realized I’d entered a world that — with its blue light, faint scent of incense, and perfect acoustics — was completely mysterious to me. This feeling, of what I might call free-floating ignorance, presented itself as a liberating force. I felt I’d been freed from the gravity of my preconceptions and granted the one thing necessary for any kind of genuine learning or devotion: humility rooted in wonder.
In both of these locations — the one a natural formation and the other a superb example of human artifice — I experienced the feeling described by T.S. Eliot in “Little Gidding,” that I’d arrived at a place “where prayer had been valid.” “Little Gidding” is the last of Eliot’s Four Quartets, but in one sense, the entire long poem serves as a meditation on thin places and the way they alter our perception of time. Each quartet deals with a different location — a New England seascape, an English manor house, and two obscure villages in rural England — where the poet experienced what he called “the point of intersection of the timeless / With time.”
Jean, Marcel (1900–1993). Armoire surréaliste (Surrealist Wardrobe). 1941, oil on wood panel, 180.5 × 211 × 90 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art. [o]
Each quartet is also grounded, so to speak, in one of the four material elements and one of the four seasons. A schematic representation of Four Quartets and its associations would look like this:
|A manor house in the Cotswolds
|A village in Somerset
|The Dry Salvages
|A rock formation of Cape Ann, Massachusetts
|An Anglican community in Huntingdonshire, est. 1626
Eliot built his poem upon the foundation of the four places listed here, but he also acknowledged the existence of many other locations that could qualify as what we might call thin places:
There are other places
Which are at the world’s end, some at the sea’s jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place or time,
Now and in England….
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
As to what one experiences in such a place, Eliot would agree with Burkeman that the feeling is “something that is probably quite ineffable.” But that didn’t stop him from trying to put it into words. A passage from the first quartet, “Burnt Norton,” serves as a fine description of the sense of freedom that overcomes us in a thin place:
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded by a grace of sense, a white light still and moving….
To put it succinctly, the heady freedom we experience in a thin place is a release from the demands of time, from regrets associated with the past and from fears inspired by the future. We live entirely in the present where we feel, as Eric Weiner felt in a Sikh temple he visited in New Delhi, “awash in time.” Or, as Eliot puts it in “Burnt Norton,” that “all time is eternally present… And all is always now.”
It is an optical device that humanity applies to the Infinite.
Eliot frames this preoccupation with time not just through references to the four seasons, but also to specific times of day, especially dawn and dusk. If we can describe a thin place as an in-between land, then the best part of the day to experience one is probably at an in-between time, when day is turning to night or night is turning to day. In this sense, it’s not surprising that the culmination point of the Four Quartets, the imposing 72-line passage near the end of “Little Gidding” — when the narrator meets his “dead master” walking the deserted streets of London — should occur “In the uncertain hour before the morning,” just as dawn is breaking.
In fact, it’s a common assumption in occult literature that people are more receptive to subtle influences at dawn and at dusk than at any other time of day. Swami Vivekananda, in his book on Raja Yoga, recommends these times for the practice of meditation, if only because the body tends to be more relaxed:
… the best times to practice are towards the morning and the evening. When night passes into day, and day into night, a state of relative calmness ensues. The early morning and the early evening are the two periods of calmness. Your body will have a like tendency to become calm at those times. (Raja Yoga, p. 30)
And Patrick Modiano, the French Nobel laureate whose characters often gravitate towards or actually work in the occult bookstores of Paris, is especially attached to the hour of dusk as a period of détente. It is at this time that his narrator can forget whatever problems are plaguing him and simply enjoy his surroundings.
When I left the bar … the sun had disappeared but the sky was still blue. Before the streetlights switched on, I decided to enjoy this moment, the one I like best of the whole day. No longer daylight, but not quite night. A feeling of emptiness and calm suffuses you, and this is the time to open your ears to echoes that come from afar. (Voyage de noces, p. 100)
Some of those far-off echoes would prompt one or another of Modiano’s narrators (see, for example, Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue) to formulate a theory of zones libres, so-called free zones in Paris that don’t seem to belong to any particular neighborhood. They are undefined areas in which unaccountable events take place — strange meetings, suicides, disappearances. To this extent, they resemble what I’ve been calling thin places, but thin places contaminated by a sense of menace or tragedy.
These free zones "are undefined areas in which unaccountable events take place — strange meetings, suicides, disappearances." From the cover of Patrick Modiano's book, Missing Person. [o]
The truth may be that there is always a tragic aspect to our experience of thin places, if only because they impress upon us the existence of another world. This in turn serves as a reminder that at some point we’ll enter that unknown world for good. What do we really know of what awaits us there?
About 500 pages into Les Miserables, Victor Hugo takes one of his many detours from the story line to meditate on the meaning of convents and monasteries in human history. (It’s in a convent that Jean Valjean and Cosette find refuge for several years from Inspector Javert’s implacable pursuit.) Hugo begins his digression by clarifying the subject matter of the novel as a whole, then explains how the convent applies to it. “This book,” he says, “is a drama in which the lead actor is the Infinite. Humanity plays a secondary role…. The convent…is an optical device that humanity applies to the Infinite.” Even though Hugo believed that the convent was an anachronism in the modern world and often a source of terrible abuse in medieval times, he admired its reason for being: that through prayer and meditation, people could put themselves in contact with the Infinite. Further on he writes, “The lower ego is the soul, the higher ego is God. When, through the process of thought, we place the lower ego in contact with the higher, that’s called prayer.”
Hugo waits till the end of this digression to give his fullest description of what occurs in the ideal convent. The passage could also serve as a remarkably accurate account of what we experience when we discover a thin place. Or, perhaps more accurately, when a thin place discovers us:
It’s the strange locale where one sees, as if standing on the peak of a towering mountain, on one side the abyss where we all live at present, and on the other the abyss where we are all going to. It’s the narrow, misty borderline that separates two worlds, and it is illuminated and obscured by both at the same time. It is the place where the feeble ray of life mingles with the vague ray of death; it’s the very shadow of the tomb. ≈ç
EDWARD O'CONNOR is an editor and writer who has published stories and critical pieces in magazines and newspapers across Canada, including the Globe and Mail, Quill and Quire, Grain, The Fiddlehead, Canadian Notes and Queries, and The Journey Prize Anthology. He is also the author of the novel Astral Projection. He lives in Toronto. View Edward's website.
Thanks for this. You’ve stirred my memory and desire for more thin experiences. Going to have a few today, because I am going to look for them. One thin place is when you get to the stream from going through the woods. Excellent article.
Thank you, Ed, for, like T.S.Eliot, you’ve tried to put into words the ineffable concept of thin places and you’ve achieved your goal. You’ve combined, like thin places themselves, concrete, this-world examples such as the mountain top and the cathedral, and shown us how these varied spaces offer a glimpse into the world that is both here, and not here. Beautiful how you’ve woven throughout the words of the poets and sacred guides and shown how not only space, but also time are telescoped into one joyful and peaceful experience. I must explore more this idea of emotional residue, for I’ve always had such experiences of peacefulness in densely built, ancient places that have housed many generations of people, where the stones seem to resonate with the souls who are still eager to be acknowledged! Thank you for a refreshing trip away from the mundane into the extraordinary. Bravo!