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  Mysticism Where can I touch the edge of heaven?


by Sylvia Maddox

Yet I have glimpsed the bright mountain behind the mountain,
Knowledge under the leaves, tasted the bitter berries red,
Drunk cold water and clear from an inexhaustible hidden fountain.

Kathleen Raine 1

“We need to go to Bowden Springs,” my grandmother would say when there was no running water at her rural home in East Texas. “Bowden Springs.” Just saying the words filled my heart with joy and delight. Bowden Springs had a luminous quality that extended beyond the water we would gather in our tall metal milking cans. There was the journey of climbing slowly up the winding dirt road to the Springs. There was the surprise of finding the overflowing water that seemed to come from nowhere. Most of all, there was the joy of drinking and splashing in the abundant water bubbling over the rocks. As a child I did not have the words “sacred landscape,” or “holy site,” but I had an intense experience of an actual place that vividly revealed the Presence of God. The Scriptural words of “living water” were echoed daily in that place.

In the Celtic tradition such places that give us an opening into the magnificence and wonder of that Presence are called “Thin Places.” There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God. A contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge gives this description.

“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.

It is no wonder that thin places are most often associated with wild landscapes. A thin place requires us to step from one world to another and that often means traveling to a place where we have less control and where the unpredictable becomes the means of discovery. Rugged seacoast like the Cliffs of St. David’s, windswept Islands like Iona, and rocky mountain peaks like Croagh Patrick were thin places in ancient times and still call out to pilgrims today. These sanctuaries of creation help us as John O’donohue writes, “to anchor our longing in the ancient longing of Nature.”3

Once I was on such a pilgrim to the Island of Iona. As I set out on a solitary journey for Columba’s Beach, I could feel the presence of all those who had gone before me in their quest for a greater vision of God. Wandering over the mountains and the valleys, I suddenly realized I was lost and a long way from my destination. The mystery of the thin place was already revealing itself to me. The outward journey was mirroring my inner journey. I was lost but not afraid. There was a peaceful presence in the eternal rocks that seemed to offer me shelter and guidance. As I stood on the pebbled beach, the waves of the ocean seemed to whisper Jesus’ words,” I am with you.” These words could be said in a book, in a classroom, in a sermon, but in a thin place there is an immediacy of experience where words of faith become words of life. In this hallowed space and time heaven and earth for a moment are one. I wanted to sing the song of an anonymous 9th century Welsh poet:

Almighty Creator, it is you who have made the land and the sea…
All your wonders, O true Lord!
The Father created the world by a miracle;
It is difficult to express its measure.
Letters cannot contain it, letters cannot contain it

We return from thin places refreshed and renewed. We are graced with a new awareness of the thin places in all of life. Having seen the glimpses of glory in those sacred landscapes, we begin to see glimpses all around us. Soon the birds outside our window sing of the mystery we might have passed over in our busyness. Suddenly we see the holiness of places like Bowden Springs and we understand the awe and wonder of the Welsh minister Thomas Jones who exclaimed:

Our Lord is great, and great His praise
From just this one small part of earth,
Then what of the image of His greatness
Which comes from the whole of His fine work?
…What of the greatness and pure loveliness,
Of God Himself?

The prayerfulness of this “one small part of earth” encourages us to seek out thin places from time to time on our spiritual journey. One of the beautiful gifts of our understanding of eternal time and space is that when we cannot physically go to these places, we can return to them in our memory and in our imagination. When I have felt dryness in my prayers and meditations, I often imagine that I am climbing the hill to Bowden Springs and filling my spiritual milking bucket with living water. When I am overcome with small tedious details and endless tasks, I close my eyes and return to Iona. Sitting on Columba’s pebbled beach, I hear the silent music and feel the divine rhythm of the ebb and flow of God’s love.

I invite you to reflect on the thin places in your own life. Where is a place that refreshes your spirit and opens the door to the threshold of the sacred? You, too, can return to this place in your imagination and once again experience God’s Presence and receive the peace of this Celtic blessing.

Deep peace of the running wave
Deep peace of the flowing air
Deep peace of the quiet earth
Deep peace of the shining stars
Deep peace of the Son of Peace.

Copyright ©2004 Sylvia Maddox

1 Kathleen Raine, Collected Poems (Dublin: Allen and Unwin, 1981) 107.
2 Sharlande Sledge, “Thin Places.” Nonpublished
3 John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes (New York:Harper Collins, 1999) 15.
4 Studies by Sir lfor Williams, ed. Rachel Bromwich, The Beginnings of Welsh Poetry
(Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1980) 102.
5 Thomas Parry, ed. The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse (Oxford, 1962) 332-339.

O God, when work and responsibility wrap around my life like a woolen cloak, and wonder is closed off from my life, throw aside my protection. Guide me back to those places where my soul lies open to the cool breath of mystery from your Spirit. I ask this for the sake of Your great love. Amen.




>How can I explore
the Mystery?

>What can I know for certain?

>What shows me that
God cares?

>How can Jesus help
me understand?

>Where can I touch
the edge of heaven?


> What makes
someone a Mystic?

> How do I find the
Mystic Path?

> What can I learn
from Mystic Poets?

> How can I nurture
my connection to the Sacred?


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