The Celts said that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places the gap is even smaller.
Holy places and pilgrimages are a form of embodied spirituality that was once an ordinary part of what it meant to be a Christian. The British landscape is full of clues to where these places once stood. Ancient churches and abbeys are easy to find from books and maps but there are also, rock features, freshwater springs, ancient trees and woodland clearings that were hallowed as thin places, often long before Christianity came to these isles. Many early Christians lived in the wildest of places, like hermits in the desert. They were often drawn to places in the landscape that were already deemed holy. Pilgrims would travel to seek the prayers and advice of the holy men and women who lived in these places. I don’t know if the place becomes thin because people prayed there, or whether the places were already thin and so people came and prayed, but I do think we can benefit from making the connection between the act of being present in a place and the spiritual gift of receiving from God.
In late January of this year, I drove down to Wales in search of Melangell, an ancient Welsh saint, and a shrine church that bore her name deep in the Berwyn mountains.
Melangell was a sixth century hermit, who lived at the time of Columba and Aiden. The story tells of how a Welsh prince came upon her in a dense thicket whist out hunting hares. She had allowed the hunted animals to hide beneath her skirts and was fiercely defending them against the men and dogs. The Prince was so impressed with her bravery and her holiness that he bequeathed her a piece of land where she established a monastic community. At some time after her death this site became a place of pilgrimage and a shrine was built.
Long before you reach the hamlet of Pennant Melangell the road becomes a track and the wild countryside on either side threatens to swallow her up. The rise and fall of the track eventually levels along a valley bottom and the mountains seem to have opened up to let you through. Here, the trees grow crouched to the ground, their solace against bad weather and quiet sheep graze on long uncut grass.
When I pull up in front of the church the clouds are rolling in behind me and it has started to rain. The slate sign for the church is carved with a hare and the path under the lychgate is strewn with snowdrops. This place is very remote and the distance it puts between me and my everyday life is part of the peace that it brings. The singular act of leaving home and coming here is almost enough to bring the stillness which I seek.
I approach. The old wooden door is heavy and the air inside the church is thick, drawing just a little light from small windows cut into the deep stone walls. There’s an ancient carved rood screen and a floor of cobbled flags, more carved hares and some icons showing scenes from the life of Melangell. At the centre of the church behind a tiny altar set with fresh flowers is the shrine, the place where medieval and more recent pilgrims come to make their prayers. Maybe they ask Saint Melangell to pray for them or maybe they just breath in the sense of God and hope he hears. I stay a while and read some of the prayers that visitors have left.
I love it inside that small church but the sense of thinness that I’m looking for is more palpable outside under that stormy sky. Later, walking round the bronze age circle of a graveyard, I make my prayers. There are five ancient yews and each time I stop by a tree I pray. I walk, I listen, I pray. Up on the hillside the wind moves amongst the trees and a flock of geese graze amongst the bracken. I won’t come here again for a long time, but I will hold within me something of what is happening in me as I walk.
Travelling home I think of how some people experience the whole of their life as if it were a thin place, but most of us have to try a little harder. A pilgrimage like the one I made to Pennant Melangell is a privilege, a once in a lifetime occasion. Back at home I walk the lanes, woodland paths and a small stretch of local beach. I notice how these places speak to my soul. I’m listing to the ancient wisdom and I’m listening to the moments that are present to me now. I’m hearing how each generation and each person has a call to make the most of the places that they love, always watching and listening for the possibility of something thin; the ever-present hope of finding God a little less than three feet from where I walk.