Thin Places

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Some friends just came back from a holiday in Cornwall.  Somehow or other they managed to have mainly good weather so they got out and about to enjoy the beautiful coast and countryside.

They were struck by the beauty and peace of the ancient holy sites that they visited.  All around Britain, but especially in Cornwall and Wales there very ancient churches and chapels.  The ones that have a reputation for being holy sites almost always have a story of a man or woman who lived and prayed there, often as a hermit, but sometimes with one or two other companions in.  Their life of prayer seems to have changed the atmosphere of the place, leaving a deep sense of peace and a special quality of beauty.

Prayer changes things.  Many of us can give many, many examples of how prayer has changed situations in our daily lives.  But I believe that deep, committed prayer that goes on for a long time in a particular place also changes the environment of that place.  It is as if the prayer sinks into the walls and stones and earth, and blesses and sanctifies them.

The result is that after these people of prayer sanctified a place by the lives, others who come there sense the legacy that has been left, and are themselves helped to pray.  The special atmosphere of the place speaks to the souls of later generations and draws them closer to God.

But of course, these special places are almost always outstandingly beautiful already, even before the sanctification they receive through prayer.  Hermitages are almost always built in beautiful, remote places.  Probably the hermit chose the place because its beauty lifted her mind and heart to God.  God’s creation has the power to communicate to us about who God is.

But can we imagine the hermit treating that environment in a way that is brutal, exploitative or careless?  Surely not!  If a person sees the natural world as full of God’s beauty and power they are bound to respond to it with respect and love.  We have a virtuous circle here.  A person who sees the beauty and power of God in the world around them will want to offer it back to God in love and thanksgiving.  That offering in turn hallows and sanctifies the world around the person and fills it with a sense of the immanence of God.

As one writer put it:  Through heaven and earth and sea, through wood and stone, through all creation visible and invisible, I offer veneration to the Master and Maker of all things.  …..[T]hrough me the heavens declare the glory of God, through me the moon worships God, through me the stars glorify him, through me the waters and showers of rain the dews and all creation, venerate God and give him glory.[1]

Special places that have been sanctified by prayer are sometimes described as thin places – places where the boundary between heaven and earth have got especially thin or porous.  I’ve often heard Iona and Lindisfarne described in this way.  There are many others.

An example is the valley associated with St Melangell in Powys, Wales.  The story is that many years ago, (in the 7th Century) a woman called Melangell lived there as a hermit.  A hare, escaping from a hunt ran to her for refuge and when the hunters arrived on the spot, they found the hare sheltering at her side and protected from the dogs by a mysterious power.  Awed by the event, the young prince who headed the party gave her the land on which she had been living and it has been a place of prayer and worship ever since.

So, if you are out and about this summer why not look up and visit the ancient holy sites?  Who knows what you may discover?!

Mother Sarah


[1] St Leontius of Cyprus. Quoted in The Orthodox Way p 55

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