The Rev. Alison Cornish
Sunday, October 30, 2005 –
Insulated in cities by bricks and concrete, pampered by science and confused by the impatient and intricate demands of the practical world … our mystical vision has atrophied.
– Leslie Shepard, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries
“The Thin Places” The Rev. Alison Cornish
Today we gather on the brink of several related holidays. This time has become best known to us for its pragmatism and entertainment – the week we set our clocks back one hour, and children don Halloween costumes for the rites of trick or treating. We might also notice the changing angles of light as the autumn deepens, and spend an afternoon raking fallen leaves.
But other cultures – both ancient and modern – have chosen this time of year to honor transitions of season and of life, and it is well worth our time to pause and to ponder their rites as well. The “grandmother” of all these celebrations, coming from the ancient Celtic traditions, is Samhain, the Celtic New Year, celebrated on November 1st. Samhain is one of the two great doorways of the Celtic year, for the Celts divided the year into two seasons: the light and the dark. While Beltane marks the beginning of the light on May 1st, Samhain, possibly meaning “summer’s end,” marks the beginning of the dark. The Celts lived close to the earth, and they listened to it. In the country year, Samhain marked the first day of winter, when the herders led the cattle and sheep down from their summer hillside pastures to the shelter of stable and byre. All the harvest was gathered, and fuel for the winter was laid in. This was a time to honor the coming of the seeds, the fruits of the past season, the turning of the year from light to dark. Not only does the world start to die in this season, but it no longer grows to replace death.
According to Irish mythology, during the night of Samhain the great shield of Scathach was lowered, allowing the barriers between worlds to fade and the forces of chaos to invade the realm of order. It’s understandable – the old year dying, and the new one not yet in place – a time of chaos unleashed. It was also a time that people believed that the veil was thin between the world of the living and the world of the dead – a time that the ancestors could return to visit, to give help and advice. Divine beings and the spirits of the dead moved freely among humans and interfered in people’s affairs. No wonder then that, on the night of Samhain, bonfires were lit on hilltops, feasts were held, and rituals to both honor the harvest and the dead were performed.
As Christianity moved across northern Europe, and particularly the British Isles, we know that it appropriated native customs, absorbing them into its own set of beliefs and liturgical calendar. Thus we have All Saints Day – November 1st – commemorating all Christian saints and martyrs – and All Souls Day, November 2nd, honoring all the faithful believers who have departed this life. And then these holidays, too, were also transformed, reinfused with native spirit and custom – as with El Dia de Muertos – the Mexican Day of the Dead – another holiday devoted to the interaction between the worlds of the living and the dead. Even the most secular of Halloween festivities borrows heavily from both religious and native customs, freely mixing ideas of the spirit world with the fruits of the season – jack-o-lanterns are perfect examples. It’s easy to see how pagan and Christian beliefs intertwined to both challenge the ascendancy of the dark and also revel in its mystery.
What all these celebrations have in common is this – an awareness of “thinness,” when the boundaries of separate worlds of existence are easily traversed. Samhain was identified as a time when the veil between worlds was the thinnest. It’s this idea – that there places, times, even states of being which are “thin,” that allow us a glimpse into something other than what is right before us – this is what I take from Samhain. For it is just this glimmer, the shimmering of something beyond, that I believe holds the key to the mystery and imagination we are so desperately in need of in our times. For I do worry, along with the writer quoted at the top of your Order of Service, that our mystical vision has atrophied, and, as a result, we are the poorer.
“Thin places” have a strong presence in Celtic thought. When a thin place is understood in geographic terms, it is a transition zone. Thin places are what might be called the numinous in the landscape. They are places that feel as if they are filled with a presence of divinity, or where one might encounter the divine. These “thin places” are often found on the edge of something – a mountaintop, where the earth meets the sky; or the shoreline, where the land meets the ocean; or a spring, where things beneath the earth come to the surface; or where the wilderness meets domesticated land. Folklore and scripture are both full of references to such spots. And yet, these places are not necessarily distant or exotic or foreign. For example, Molly Wolf writes of finding them in the ordinariness of Ontario. She says:
The road turns right almost as soon as it leaves the village, and twists again in the other direction at a place where a bit of lake-edge swamp comes up close to the pavement. That’s where something changes, at that spot. I don’t know what it is: but each time I come here, I get that same feeling whenever I pass that stand of reeds: that I have left one part of this particular world and stepped into
Perhaps you have had a similar feeling about a place. A place that seems ordinary, and yet, every time you pass or visit it, it seems to hold something more. There’s just such a spot for me on nearby Clam Island, where the woods come close to the water’s edge. I sit on a big log, my back to a grove of cedars, and when the wind comes from the west, I hear the lapping waves because of the way the shoreline juts out there. And the combination of all the sensory elements somehow transports me … to someplace that no longer feels like Clam Island just around the corner from my house. For some reason I find it easier to meditate here, and when I do, I come away with a feeling of being refreshed, of having taken a longer journey than just a 10-minute walk.
What is this place? Who can really know? Molly Wolf speculates about the thin places she finds – she writes:
There are spots where this world and the realm of the spirit come close together, some claim.
That may be; or it may be that there are some places, like some chords in music, that evoke
something spiritual in people, as the smell of burning leaves can bring back childhood to many of us;
and that some places have more of that power of evocation than others.
Whether or not we have a particular spot that moves us in this way, the notion of “holy places” in the natural world should give us pause when we strive to bulldoze more farms, pave more fields, cut more forests. Our voracious appetite for domesticating and developing our planet is erasing more and more of our geographic “thin places.”
As beings that have the means to experience place, it makes sense that the concept of “thin places” has perhaps its earliest, or most concrete, expression in natural world. But Samhain uses this idea of a thin place to connect the world of the living with the realm of the underworld. In Celtic literature, the afterlife is described as a set of islands located far to the west of contemporary Ireland, a land occupied by ghosts of human beings and Celtic gods and a race of “otherworld peoples” – the fairefolk or Sidhe. The afterlife, for the Celts, was a rich mix of many realms, “an afterlife of magical otherworld beings who interact with mortals while also irreversibly affecting the fates of humans who respond to their calls.” No wonder that Samhan, when the veil between worlds was thin, brought a time of chaos as the otherworld became more accessible.
As western, modern, and scientifically educated people, we tend not to engage in much speculation about the mysteries of the afterlife. We lean towards pragmatism, “dust to dust” sort of folks. But I wonder if there is more to say on this subject than emerges in our steeped-in-reason conversations. A couple of years ago, I taught an Adult Religious Education course at another UU congregation. The curriculum asked participants to share their beliefs on several “big” religious questions – God, the Bible, Jesus, Prayer – and Life After Death. When we got to death, I asked people to share their personal beliefs, and to see if we could come up with any sort of “universal” Unitarian Universalist statement about what happens after we die. Well, the only concept the group completely ruled out was “bodily resurrection.” Just about every other idea – from death is the end, to reincarnation, to survival of a spirit being – was represented by someone in that small group. More than the variety of responses, I took special delight that people felt safe and free enough to talk openly about their beliefs.
Several folks spoke movingly of personal experiences, and no one attempted to “explain” away another’s thoughts. This is not an easy thing to do in the context of a religion such as ours that lays such emphasis on rationality. But I, too, have experienced “unexplained phenomena,” enough to place doubt in my mind that I have anything near a full understanding of such things as the afterlife. And since it is nearly Halloween, I’ll share with you my own “ghost” story. When I was the caretaker of a house museum, a building nearly 200 years old, I lived in the third floor apartment, above the furnished rooms. It was my job to give house tours to the public, care for the collection and property, and do the housekeeping. Shortly after I moved in – by myself – I had a strong sense that I was not alone. But I wasn’t spooked by the feeling. In fact, I found it oddly comforting. There was a lot of unexplainable activity in that house, particularly in the kitchen and bathroom where the water would suddenly come on, full blast. I took to calling whatever was responsible “Ralph,” naming it after the last owner of the house. Friends and family who came to visit were less than comforted by the idea of Ralph. Once my brother asked crossly, “what were you doing running up and down the stairs all night?” When I told him I had slept soundly (and I’m not known for walking in my sleep) he declined to stay again. Others similarly begged off after another water incident, or midnight stair-climbing. Personally, I was always pleased that Ralph’s old bedroom never seemed to need dusting.
What’s the value in these stories about the unexplained or mysterious? For me, they challenge the hard-edged certainty that comprises so much of everyday life. They offer a moment to contemplate the realm of the mysterious, the magical and eternal. And, perhaps most importantly, they remind me that those who have died are not beyond our remembering – whether we think a spirit is rattling around the house or not. You see, I think that one of the consequences of having the afterlife “off limits” to our conversation and imagination is that we often stop talking about those who we knew – and loved – who have died. And that’s another role of Samhain and the other holidays of this season, like All Souls and El Dia de Muertos. These holidays – these holy days – keep those who have gone from our lives in our lives. These holidays are unabashed in their rituals of decorating graves, speaking the names of those who have died, and remembering who came before us. Here’s a contemporary Pagan poem that speaks to this –
We are not the first
We will not be the last
We are not the river’s source nor are we its end
Life flows on from the ancestors through us and beyond.
Daily we are carried on.
Tonight we remember our ancestors.
Gone but remembered.
Left but revered.
Away but near our hearts.
That which is remembered is still alive.
Those we remember are with us still.
And finally, beyond the geographic “thin places,” the thin places between worlds, there are the thin places in our own beings. These are constituted of moments that allow us a glimpse into some other way of seeing, or thinking. Our opening words this morning spoke to just such a moment – “The dawn is not and then is. Sleep is and then is not. In between is the awakening.” Perhaps you have had that experience of just waking, or catching yourself just before sleep comes when a thought breaks through from the unconscious mind to consciousness.
For me, if I can grab hold of the moment, it is often one of creativity, an awareness of an idea that had been hovering out of reach that suddenly comes clear. If we were to speak in religious rather than psychological terms, moments such as these might be mystical experiences, and they wouldn’t be limited to the border between sleep and wakefulness. William James wrote about the qualities of these moments in his “Varieties of Religious Experience.” James said that authentic mystical experiences are ineffable – they can be explained only in the language of metaphor and symbol. We cannot say exactly what happened, only that is was like … something else. These moments are transient – they come and go quickly. And they are passive – the moment happens to us, we don’t create it. We might prepare to be sensitive to such moments through prayer, meditation and spiritual exercise, but we don’t control the experiences themselves. Finally, the experiences are noetic. They connect with our intellect and leave us with the sense that we know something we did not know before.
These are not moments that can be planned or orchestrated – they come unbidden, and are usually welcome.
But if these moments cannot be produced on demand, I do know what keeps them at bay – a life so full of “the impatient and intricate demands of the practical world” that the gift of these moments doesn’t have a chance to break in to the chatter and clatter of a daily routine.
I began these thoughts by saying that this is a season we think of first as one of pragmatism and entertainment – of raking leaves, turning back clocks, carving pumpkins, going trick or treating – and there’s nothing wrong with any of these seasonal tasks and diversions. But like so much in our contemporary world, Samhain, a celebration that once expressed something lodged deep in the human spirit, has been domesticated, made the object of consumerism, become a two-dimensional shadow of its former glorious self. Certainly we could go on living, as contemporary beings, ignoring the “thin places” – in the landscape, between the worlds of the living and the dead, even in our own beings. We could see the world around us primarily as the source of tasks and entertainment.
But in so doing, I believe we miss something elemental – the mysteries and magic, the ineffable and awesome, the depth of all that has come before us – of which we are a part – and that will continue long past our leaving. I take Samhain as a reminder that there is more to this world than can be seen by my limited vision, known by my limited experience – and more than my limited imagination can conjure. And a reminder that there is a place for chaos in life – the stirring up of the old in anticipation of a new order. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is in the thin places that we might find the promise of a future more real, more hopeful, more attuned to the rhythms and turnings of this place we call our home.