Today is St. Kevin’s Day, so I thought I would post a piece I shared in 2008 after I got back from my Celtic pilgrimage. For those who have time for quite a bit of reading, enjoy!
One Sunday at our meeting I met a nice woman who said that she used to live in South Philly but felt that God released her to go live in the burbs. Now she just loves going out her kitchen door and hearing the creek running through her backyard.
That’s nice. When she meditates out there and meets God, she’s probably having the same kind of experience as the writer of Psalm 104.
God’s trees are well-watered—
the Lebanon cedars he planted.
Birds build their nests in those trees;
look—the stork at home in the treetop.
Mountain goats climb about the cliffs;
badgers burrow among the rocks.
The moon keeps track of the seasons,
the sun is in charge of each day.
When it’s dark and night takes over,
all the forest creatures come out.
The young lions roar for their prey,
clamoring to God for their supper.
When the sun comes up, they vanish,
lazily stretched out in their dens.
Meanwhile, men and women go out to work,
busy at their jobs until evening.
What a wildly wonderful world, God!
You made it all, with Wisdom at your side,
made earth overflow with your wonderful creations. (Psalm 104:14-24, The Message)
What a wildly wonderful world! I honor all the people, past and present, who want to preserve it! I don’t have a creek in my backyard, but I know many places that have made praise well up in me, too.
Finding a thin place
The desert has been a wildly wonderful place where I have seen God revealed in memorable ways during my life. I often talk about the first time I ever went to the Anza Borrego area in the California desert as a young teen. I had one unforgettable night under the stars. …
I was terrified of the snakes in the desert to begin with, and then they told me not to get out of my cot if I wanted to sleep outside with my friend. If I put my foot down there might be a rattler, because they came out at night. So I was shivering alone in my bed from fear and from the desert cold. Then I looked up and felt an even deeper kind of shiver. I was alone in the universe staring up into a crystal clear sky with huge stars, huge moon and utter silence. I began to feel what I later named the glory of God in an inarticulate, visceral way. I felt some kind of excitement and joy well up in me to meet whatever was calling to me. Something that had always been in me was meeting something that had always been calling me. You have probably had experiences like that when you found yourself surprised by God being revealed in creation.
Our ancestors in faith among the Celts were especially good at finding the “thin places” in creation where so many of us meet God. Some places in the world seem like there is a thinner gap or thinner barrier between heaven and earth. The so-called New Age people talk about spiritual vortexes all the time, I’m not going with their interpretation of the power they feel, but they might be on to something. One of John McCain’s houses is in Sedona, Arizona, where we discovered a lot of pilgrims to such a vortex on one of our trips. Go figure. The Celtic believers thought and many other people have thought that there seem to be natural places where God’s dimension and ours meet.
Turning toward a thin place
In some places people might even create a thin place because they have gone to a particular place to seek God repeatedly – it’s almost like they’ve been digging through the walls of the prison and now the wall is so thin you can hear through it.
We do things like that, here. For instance, a Celtic Christian would often light a fire, like we do, and expect people to let the fire mark a time and place as a sacred, thin place where we would meet God. They would expect seekers to see and feel God in the fire, to assume the fire to have some kind of spiritual life in it, to receive the fire as full of some gift from God. The place where Circle of Hope meets is just a wilderness of chairs and walls before we come in and name it a place where we will meet God — then it has the possibility of being a thin place — like we called the place away from being folding chairs and drywall and it repented and became a place where God dwells — like we repented of seeing the room as just another room and saw it as a place to meet God. That’s how thin places — where God’s dimension and ours meet — are shaped.
To go searching for God in the thin places that seem built into nature is a repentant thing to do. It is an act of turning away from the suppression of God’s glory under human-made things, and turning back to the Creator. Like the woman who fled to the suburbs wanted to escape the suppression of creation under the asphalt and hear God in the creek, sometimes we are given that very luxurious choice. Sometimes, of course, we just bump into these places instead of finding them when we are seeking God and they are just as transforming.
The Apostle Paul says that everyone has a soul equipped with and for these feelings of knowing God as a creature who is part of creation. Everyone has some kind of knowledge of God somewhere inside, or at least we have to have a very hard heart not to have some of instinct for meeting the Creator in creation somewhere. The Celts assumed that everyone has a place in them that could make a connection with God and was in fact connected, if only by breathing the air God made. Our wanton disregard for creation, seeing it as a means to our own ends, would seem like blasphemy to them. For instance, I’m sure they could not fathom anyone being so committed to automobiles that they would rather poison the air and change the climate than walk.
Polluted places of connection
It think Paul is similarly appalled in the following piece of the scripture. He sounds kind of tough. But He is not just mad about godlessness. He is feeling it. His tone is more prophetic, than merely angry. He’s trying to excite that place in us where God is or can be known, but which is quite polluted — the spiritual trees have been uprooted, the relationship has been eroded, and the spiritual landscape needs to be restored.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that everyone is are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:18-21)
This is my paraphrase of that, with some help from Eugene Peterson:
Acts of human mistrust, wrongdoing and lying accumulate, as people try to put a shroud over truth. That grieves God and makes him justifiably angry — like you get mad at your beloved dog because he never seems to be able to stop chewing up your throw pillows.
One would think that people would be aware and respectful of God, since his presence and value are as presented rather clearly in the world around us. By taking a long, thoughtful, and unself-centered look at what God has created, people have always been able to see beyond what their physical eyes can see. The power and mystery of God are behind the power and mystery of that lightning or any light. Nobody has a good excuse for ignoring God.
There is no good excuse, but there is a good reason behind not recognizing and honoring God. People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn’t treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into dishonor and confusion so that the light of sense and direction in their lives went dark.
What the Celtic Jesus followers and I think is that this darkness Paul is talking about, that you probably know about quite intimately, can be dispelled in the thin places. There is no magic about thin places like Irish people became known for thinking — like fairies live there and some magical thing will happen if you stumble across one. But the thin places can be used to seek God and you might even make one for yourself to use.
The spirit behind what I am saying is in this prayer from the collection of prayers and sayings of the old school Celts that were collected in Carmina Gadelica. This prayer may be is a bit much for some of you, so let’s not say it aloud, because then you might feel coerced to pray it. Just move your lips in silence or make the faintest whisper if you want to take part in it. I’ll read it out loud. When we get to the part about our warp, that is a term from weaving, like God is knitting us.
I believe, O God of all
That You are the Father of life;
I believe O God of all.
That You are the eternal Father of love.
I believe, O Lord and God of all the peoples,
That you are the creator of the high heavens,
That You are the creator of the skies above,
That You are the creator of the ocean below.
I believe , O Lord and God of all the peoples,
That You are the One who created my being and set its warp.
Who created my body from dust and from ashes,
Who gave to my body breath, and to my being consciousness.
I am giving You worship with my whole life…
I am giving You honor with my whole utterance
I am giving You reverence with my whole understanding
I am giving You humility in the blood of the Lamb.
I am giving You love with my whole devotion
I am giving You affection with my whole sense
I am giving You my existence with my whole mind
I am giving You my soul O God of all.
Kevin in his thin place
The person English speakers call St. Kevin may have prayed this very prayer in the place he found called Glendalough, the Glen of the two lakes. He was especially good among the notable Celtic ancestors in the faith at using the thin places. They say he lived for 120 years, all the way through the 500s. He was a son of the aristocracy who fled the power and wealth of his family to seek God as a hermit in this place that came to be known as Glendalough, which is just south of present-day Dublin. We don’t have a lot of factual evidence about him, just a few stories and the elaborate ruins of the city that grew up when people came to follow his example and live with him, until he felt obligated to lead them.
Gwen thought this was a pretty shot of the place when we visited. The big round tower is just visible over the hill. This would have been the view a lot of pilgrims saw to let them know they were almost at this famous thin place called Glendalough.
Probably the most famous story about Kevin is about the time a bird made a nest in his hand. If you ever see a statue of him, it will probably look like the picture below. Kevin was known for spreading himself out flat on his back on some big rock in the middle of nowhere. He was all about being one with the rest of creation and experiencing God from the sky down and from the ground up. One time he spent such a long time in this contemplation that a blackbird made a nest in his hand. When he came out of his reverie he realized what the bird had done. Despite the pain of doing so, he kept his hand still for mother blackbird until her children were hatched and gone.
You’ve got to wonder how these stories get going! I would say this one got going because we all have a yearning in us to be so still, so in touch, that life would be given into our hands, and we would be able to handle it without wrecking it.
In his later years Kevin went off to his desert again. He’d interrupted being a hermit to lead the community, but then he went off again. The lower lake, where the main compound is, is pretty lush. But the upper lake is quite a bit higher in elevation and starts getting kind of scrubby at the top. Kevin went and lived in a small cave up there to be alone. At one point Kevin did go back for a while to straighten some things out, especially when he heard about the otter.
Here’s the story about the otter. One day Kevin was praying on the porch of his cave, and he dropped his precious psalter into the water. While he was lamenting his great loss, an otter he had befriended retrieved the book from the bottom of the lake. Miraculously none of the pages were ruined, or even smudged.
As the story goes, this same otter also helped feed the brothers and sisters in Kevin’s community and brought salmon to them from time to time. One of the monks got the idea that this otter would be easy to catch and he could use his pelt. The otter saw that he was going to be trapped and stopped delivering salmon. Some monks went hungry and some left the monastery altogether because they were hungry. When Kevin noticed that his otter friend was gone, he prayed to discern the disappearance. Before long he was visited by the brother who had plotted to kill the animal. That sent him back to exercise some direct leadership of the community for a while.
Find the everyday thin places
Is this story too simple for you? Maybe you have never had an animal who was a friend. That is to your loss. The Celtic church had a very lively sense of the interdependence of humans and nature, animals and trees and air and such. Long before we had to convince people that “Drill baby drill” might not solve all the ruin we had visited on the planet, the Celtic Christians thought that living in respectful symbiosis with the rest of creation was a basic act of faith. We have to teach people, even convince them, that the body of Christ is an organism, not just an organization of thoughts and pieces of data and material. But Kevin had a oneness with creation and thus with the Creator.
It is hard for a lot of us, like it was my suburban friend, to find a thin place in the city. But it is possible. I have tried to refine this art over the years. Here is what I did lately, maybe it will give you some ideas for how to practice the discipline:
I was running along Kelly Drive the other day and I was irritated by the wind making my run harder. Then I felt guilty about being irritated by the wind and decided to feel it instead. The wind teaches me, to push through, sometimes it blows things in me away, sometimes it delivers the Spirit of God.
Kelly Drive is a great resource. It is always good for becoming one with the river. Letting it take you somewhere, wash things away, be as ever-changing as you are.
The other night when I came up out of the subway at City Hall the birds were in Dilworth Plaza again. Quite often there is a whole mess of birds that roost in the branches of the trees there. I stopped and listened. I like their joy. I like how they are always keeping track of each other and protecting each other with their songs. Stop for birds.
The other day I had a minute to check in on the news, which I like, and which I can hardly wait to be over. I went into my den and the autumn sun was warming a section on my couch. My cat knows all about these sun places. Before I flipped on the TV I decided to spend a minute having a Sabbath in that sun and let it warm me. The sun made me feel better. The heat somehow made be feel more secure.
A week or so ago I was tempted to just dash through my backyard to the car, but I decided to stop and enjoy this lonely rose that caught my eye. It was the last rose of summer. I had to make a detour from my schedule and make a special event of bringing in that final blessing. I like how beautiful and fragrant roses are. So I put it in a vase. It is encouraging to see the roses who have some last strength stored up to bloom before the cold comes. It is expected in spring, but not so expected in fall.
Kevin seems to have been more interested in otters and blackbirds and roses than with people. Nonetheless, God drew together a vibrant community around him. Apparently, God rarely calls people to retreat to the boondocks and contemplate in the bosom of untrammeled creation. Even if you do, a city might build itself around you. So we need to bring respect for creation with us as we go — notice every bit that keeps popping into view. By doing so much to honor it, we encourage people to be hopeful with us that it will be all be restored. Let’s give thanks for it, so our hearts don’t go dark.