Richard Rohr - The Celts Didn't Invent Thin Places

Janus figure - Caldragh Cemetery, Boa Island
Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest, author, speaker and spiritual leader I have long followed and respected. His insights into spirituality, prayer and contemplation are some of the best in today's world of faith leaders. However, his post, Life on the Edge: Understanding the Prophetic Position in the Huffington Post today disappoints me. He relates living on the "spiritual edge" as living in a thin place.

The post points out that thresholds, doorways, bridges and other entryways, have long been linked to guardians or helpers appointed to assist with crossing over. He then links the same concept to spiritual thresholds and calls them thin places.

I don't mind if he wants to use "thin place" as his personal, spiritual term for a threshold to a spiritual state state of contemplation.

However, in his post, Fr. Rohr links the term "thin places" to the the Celts. He states, "The edge is a holy place, or as the Celts called it, "a thin place" and you have to be taught how to live there."

The Celts were a culture of people that arrived in Ireland after 500 BC. The idea of thin places or doorways to the Otherworld were solidly a part of the Irish culture long before the Celts came. Newgrange passage tomb is 5200 years old and has entrance stones with large spirals carved into the surface, common symbols for the pre-Christian Irish - and linked to their concept of thin places.

Drombeg and other stone circles in Ireland date 800 - 1200 BC.  Tombs on the Hill of Tara date back to 3000 BC. The Poulnabrone dolmen in the Burren dates back 5000 years.  We know that sects of the pre-Christian Irish believed there was another world - and Underworld where a parallel civilization (often linked to enchantments) lived. They believed there were openings where the inhabitants of the other world came and went between worlds - thin places. Legends of fairy forts or nodes where passage between worlds was possible were known as thin places or enchanted places.

The Hill of Uisneach was believed to be a thin place, not so much because of its being an opening for passing between worlds, but for the strong energy that comes to the through the earth from below - supernatural power that humans could draw from.

The thin places concept was a part of the pre-Christian or pagan charism and these beliefs or sensitivities - existed prior to the Celts.  The concept is rejected by many of the present day Christian communities, often being linked to "new age" heathenism.

Fr. Rohr also writes, "To take your position on the spiritual edge of things is to learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return. It is a prophetic position..." He uses this phrase not to relate that the place where you physically stand (on the edge) puts you in a prophetic position.  He's writing about something ephemeral or of the consciousness or mind. The physical place doesn't appear to have any significance in his definition.

These pre-Christian Irish people believed the thin place itself had the mystical or spiritual power. One didn't create a thin place simply by moving into a state of contemplation or spiritual trance. The site itself was thin and that made spiritual contemplation more powerful.

I have no issue with people who want to give their own definitions to the term thin place.  But I find it frustrating when writers recreate the pre-Christian Irish definition to suit whatever spiritual premise they happen to be writing about.

Considering Fr. Rohr is a scholar and has traveled much of the world, his "thin places" reference in this post appears to be reaching .... and sounds trite and sappy. It seems to be a feeble support to a lofty, contemplative concept.

15 comments:

  1. This is a very thin place indeed - positively flakey !
    Louise Mitchell

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  2. Mindie-
    I think you need to lighten up...give him some literary leeway...your post sounds like you have ownership of the term...

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  3. dieterk, thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

    Perhaps I did sound to harsh. It's just that I expected more from Richard who is very educated and well traveled.

    It's not that I feel I own the term (sorry it sounded that way). There are many definitions for thin places. Mary DeMuth has a book out entitled Thin Places, and her meaning for the term is that of a spiritual place - a place of awakening when God is especially close. Her definition has no link to a geographic place. I think that's a beautiful definition. But Mary isn't attributing her definition is to pre-Christian Ireland and Britain.

    Because I visit and write so much about thin places, I feel compelled to keep the original definition - as it relates to pre-Christian Ireland - clearly defined for what it is. That's what I was attempting to do in this post.

    Perhaps I was a little too personally hard on Richard and for that I'm sorry. Glad you read through it and am very glad you took the time to comment constructively.

    And .... I looked up your blog. It looks very interesting. Hope to see more writing from you.

    Best regards.

    mb

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  4. Where exactly is your definition of 'thin' places from ? These pre-christian, pre-celtic peoples ? Did they speak English then 5000+ years ago ? As dieterk says above....your post sounds like you have ownership of the term.... I have been to many of the places you mention in your blog but few Irish people would recognise this newly trendy term. I have walked in the Newgrange passage and felt the power. Whilst at Newgrange people working at the site said that many feel Newgrange is much older than the present calculation. Others even put forward the theory that it was built with instruction from an extra-terrestial civilisation. Who knows ? What Fr Rohr was talking about was 'the spiritual edge' where indeed the whole world is heading. You don't need to come expensively to Ireland. Be here now .

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  5. Louise - I first heard the term thin places from an Irishman - Fr. Dara Molloy, born in Dublin and now living on Inis Mor. I heard it many times from other great spiritual people - all from Irish - including Dolores Whelen, Sr. Mary Minihan (Kildare), Fr. Sean O'Duinn (Glenstal Abbey), Fr. Marcus Losack (Glendalough). I learned the most about the term from Fr. John O'Donohue, though I never met him personally, but I learned through his books. In fact, Fr. O'Donohue gave the old Irish term for thin places which I dare not attempt to spell here... but the phonetic sound is similar to fitz-e-fut-a meaning knitted together.

    So the Irish did have a term for thin places in their own language - the term "thin places" was translated from the Irish by Irish people.

    By the way, I know few Americans who are familiar with the term until I bring it up. Yet I have interviewed hundreds of Irish over the last twelve years specifically about thin places. Many knew the term - and if not the term, knew the concept. Up until your two posts on this blog, I have never had anyone criticize or berate me for my interest in the concept or my writing about it.

    I appreciate your sharing of your knowledge about Newgrange and taking the time to offer you opinion. I'm always interested in others' views on the concept.

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  6. All the people you mention who shared the term are from religious orders and I have read several of their works especially John O' Donohue R.I.P - yet you seemed to be annoyed that the highly esteemed Fr Rohr used the term to illustrate his vision of living 'on the spiritual edge'.Mary de Muth's definition didn't suit you either it seems being not linked to a specific geographic location. But really I think you are missing the point. There are many places of great power in Ireland - thin places is one term, sacred is another and they have great significance to many,many people. They go there to experience ' God as they understand Him', to experience 'The Spirit of the Place' and other terminology and believe me it is not ephemeral or trite or sappy. I suggest on your visit to Ireland you visit Belfast especially the North and West of the city where there has been an epidemic of suicide among young people in the last few years. They lived in a very 'thin place' indeed

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  7. Louise -
    A. All the people I mentioned are not from religious orders. Dolores Whelan is secular. I didn't mention Caitlin Mathews, who has also taught me a great deal. She is not with a religious order.

    B. Reread my comment about Mary DeMuth. You only skimmed it to see what you wanted. I end the comment with "I think that's a beautiful definition." Read it within the entire context of the comment. I'm commending Mary.

    C. I also indicated that I liked and respected Richard Rohr very much and have followed him for years. It is my familiarity with Richard that gives me a basis for disappointment on this matter.

    D. The north is very familiar to me. Have visited every county and have included the northern counties in many of the dozens of trips I've made to Ireland. Have been to Belfast many times. My father's people are from Derry.

    I'm not so sure we really disagree about thin places. And I'm not sure why you follow this blog.

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  8. You are still missing the point and why don't you learn Irish. It might lend some veracity to your 'research'. I too wonder why I follow this blog.

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  9. Hello, It's interesting that you talk about thin places from the Irish point of view. Have you been to Wales? There also people talk about thin places. Some people say that hermits used to settle there and were given (?) a circle of land around them called the Llan. Eventually many churches were built on them, so the churches ended up being calle Llan-something, often beautiful names like Llanfihangel Ystern Llewn, or Llandewi. I think an alternative meaning was that that the Llans were enclosed areas of land where tribes lived, but I suppose it was possible that they may have settled at places which had some spiritual meaning for them in their tribal religions? There are many thin places in Wales, one of the most special being Bardsey Island where many saints traveled on pilgrimage, and where it was said three pilgrimages were equal to one to Rome. It is said (though I find it difficult to believe) that 20,000 pilgrims are buried there.

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    1. I have been to Wales. And what a magical place. And yes, the Celtic tradition is very much alive there as it is in Scotland, England and Brittany (France). My husband and I ventured out to Bardsey Island when we visited Wales a few years back. We couldn't make the ferry schedule and ended up missing the opportunity. It must not have been meant to happen.

      But we visited many other mystical sites in Wales, including St. Davids which I've mentioned on this blog http://www.thinplace.net/2008/03/st-davids-wales.html

      Other sites in Wales include Nevern, Non's Well, Pentifan dolmen, Conwy, Snowdonia, Aber, Pennant Melangell, and Tintern.

      I should write about those places on this site. Thanks so much for your comment.

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  10. Hello Mindie,
    I have thrown the term Thin Places around to the point of naming my musical projects after it. I'm afraid I tend to view that thin edge of spirituality that Fr. Rohr speaks of to include the creative process as well...though I do understand that the origins of the term refer to physical spaces of sacredness. I enjoy your blog very much. My family came to America from Scotland with my great grandfather and as often happens most of the family has lost any sense of our origins. I have taken an interest over the years and traveled to Scotland a few years ago to make some sort of connection. I have been fascinated by the Celtic wisdom of those places where the "veil" between heaven and earth is very thin. Thank you for musing on the subject.

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    1. So good to hear from you. I've seen you on the Internet. Anything that brings us to the spiritual edge is good thing. I would love to see more of Scotland. My husband and I visited there but were only able to follow the trail on the English border - from Iona to Lindisfarne. Beautiful country, but I'd love to see the highlands. Did you feel that connection when you went?

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  11. Anonymous7:47 AM

    Mindy:

    You mention the antiquity of Newgrange. Are you familiar with the song "Newgrange" recorded by former Celtic Woman member Orla Fallon?? Here are the lyrics:

    There is a place on the east
    Mysterious ring, a magical ring of stones
    The druids lived here once, they said
    Forgotten is the race that no one knows

    The circled tomb of a different age
    Secret lines carved on ancient stones
    Heroic kings laid down to rest
    Forgotten is the race that no one knows

    Wait for the sun on a winter's day
    And a beam of light shines across the floor
    Mysterious ring, a magical ring
    Forgotten is the race that no one knows

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    1. I so love Orla Fallon. I have the Newgrange song on my ipod. Those words are so compelling. Now that you wrote them out here, I had to go research who wrote them. I see now that is was Ciaran Brennan of Clannad. What a gifted family. There's just something in the landscape of Donegal that sinks into those people. So much talent. So spiritual. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts and the Newgrange lyrics.

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    2. Anonymous6:48 AM

      Hi again, Mindie:

      Sorry I misspelled your name before. Thanks for the information about the writer of "Newgrange." It's amazing that one of the Brennans, Eithne (Enya), became a famous New Age singer and her sister, Maire (Moya), became a famous Christian singer.

      Peace.

      Roger

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