First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Celtic Wisdom

March 17, 2019
Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees
There is a resurgence of interest in Celtic wisdom today. And this year, St. Patrick’s Day falls on Sunday. So this Sunday we are exploring Celtic wisdom as a way to honor Irish history, traditions, and spirituality. It’s helpful to remember that the Celtic world includes Ireland but is not limited to Ireland. It also includes Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Brittany, and arguably a few other places.

Celtic wisdom has much to offer spiritual seekers. In his book, An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom, author and spiritual director Carl McColman says, “the Celts of old were so conscious of living at the end of the world, their wisdom and spirituality remain meaningful and useful for us, even today. Their way of seeing remains helpful to anyone today who seeks to enter the uncharted realms of mystery and Spirit.” (Carl McColman, An Invitation to Celtic Wisdom) As spiritual seekers, part of our quest is to enter those uncharted realms of mystery and Spirit.

For the Celts, material, physical places represent the edge of mystery and Spirit. In ancient times, Celtic lands themselves seemed to be literally at the edge of that mystery. In fact, they were considered to be at the end of the world.

Today these places may no longer be seen as literally on the edge in quite the same way. But they continue to symbolism that sense of being at the edge of mystery. These lands and particular places in them are steeped in the unknown and infused with a timelessness. They exist on the threshold between worlds—this world and an Otherworld. And we are drawn to such places.

These thin places, as they are called, aren’t merely beautiful or interesting. They are beguiling and allow us to breathe again. As Eric Weiner writes in a travel column in The New York Times, “I’m drawn to places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again. It turns out these destinations have a name: thin places.” (Eric Weiner, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Together,” The New York Times, March 2012)

The Celts offer us this name: “thin places.” Thin places are mystical and sacred places where the Otherworld seems more near. Some say this is where heaven and earth come closer. According to a Celtic saying, “heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even smaller.” The veil that separates heaven and earth is said to be lifted, enabling a glimpse of the divine.

There is an energy about these places that sets them apart. There is a certain kind of creativity, a depth of feeling, an ability to see more and hear more, to connect at a deeper level, and to experience the presence of the holy. And according to Carl McColman, “Thin Places can teach us much about spirituality in general, but also about the unique wisdom of Celtic mysticism in particular.”

Thin places teach us of presence, of what Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue describes as Awaken[ing] to the mystery of being here” and “[celebrating] the quiet miracles that seek no attention.” These thin places remind us of the “quiet immensity of [our] own presence” and open us to “the heart of wonder.” (John O’Donohue, “For Presence,” Blessing the Space Between Us)

Thin places afford an encounter with the sacred. Because these places served as catalysts for such profound experiences of presence, it’s no wonder that the Celts developed a special name for them. I can certainly relate this to my own experience traveling to Ireland.

I visited Ireland about 20 years ago. I was on a writer’s tour that took us to Galway, the Aran Islands, and to writerly spots like Thoor Ballylee. There I encountered the rugged coast, mountain peaks, unique rock formations, steep cliffs, monastic sites, rolling meadows, sweeping woodlands, vast lakes, castles, ring forts, and medieval architecture.

I was particularly mesmerized by the Aran Islands where Gaelic remains the primary language. This is one of those places where you feel like you’ve stepped back in time to something ancient and pure. To a thin place. The landscape has remained largely untouched by industry and development. On the island of Inis Moor, I visited a ring fort. Ring forts are circular fortified settlements. That was fascinating. But standing there looking out toward the Atlantic Ocean in the presence of all that history and beauty is what stays with me, what lets me breathe again.

Thoor Ballylee was another thin place for me. This castle is the 14th century tower house where William Butler Yeats lived and wrote. Located alongside a small river with a bridge leading up to it, it’s got a magical feel to it.  The upstairs is reached through a winding stairway. This really captured my imagination. It was that stairway in particular that let me breathe again. Some of you know I’m a writer, so there I was imagining what it might have been like to be Yeats winding up those stairs to write a poem that would live on and on.

Thoor Ballylee was a thin place for Yeats. This seems unmistakable. It’s evident in the names he gave his poetry collections. His 1928 collection was entitled “The Tower” and included his famous “Sailing to Byzantium.” Another collection was titled “The Winding Stair,” and, in it, he describes his enchantment with the tower. He writes:

Blessed be this place,
More blessed still this tower;

. . .
I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my
ancestral stair;

“Blessed be this space!”

Fortunately, thin places aren’t restricted to Ireland or historically Celtic lands. There are many places that can beguile and inspire us and let us breathe again. Celtic wisdom brings our awareness to those thin places, wherever they may be, where the distance between heaven and earth is smallest. This thin-place concept heightens our consciousness of place and divine presence.

Maybe we can’t live in a tower in a magical landscape or remove ourselves to an island that retains an ancient feel, but we can seek out thin places that refresh and renew, that lift the veil that separates heaven and earth. There we can attune our senses and catch a glimpse of the sacred. And take that experience back into our everyday lives. As Carl McColman writes:

if you don’t live in England or Ireland or Scotland or Wales, that doesn’t mean there are no Thin Places near you. They are there. You’ll have to go looking for them. With your heart open and your soul keeping watch. Just pay attention, with your eyes and ear, and most important of all, your awareness attuned to the possibility that a particular place on the earth, a material point in space and time, can bring you to where you can begin to gaze into the limitlessness, the vastness, the timelessness of silence and eternity. Where the beating heart of Love beats with such urgency and presence that you could hear it, if only you were silent enough. (Invitation)

We can go looking for thin places. Surely spirit and mystery are there if we but pay attention. They are, in fact, all around us, ever present. The Celts, though they recognized thin places, also believed that sacredness was present in the everyday. Thin places make that connection more visible, more noticeable.

This raises the question of whether mystery is more real or more present in thin places. Or are we simply more aware of the presence of the unknown in those places? Or are we simply somehow different in those places? We can’t be certain, I suppose. Maybe a little of all of these. But anyone who has had an experience of thin places is unlikely to doubt that there is indeed something magical, something mystical in certain places—for whatever reason. There the holy, by whatever name—beauty, spirit, magnificence, awe, and wonder—can be glimpsed. And anyone who begins to attune themselves to those experiences of mystery and wonder, begins to sharpen their gaze to the vast and timeless silence and eternity that animates the world.

I like what Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde has to say about this mystery. He says, “the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” What is right before us is what is truly mysterious, beautiful, and luminous—if we can only begin to tune ourselves to it. Celtic wisdom encourages us to seek mystery in the visible, to notice, to cherish, and to let those moments inspire and change us.

For John O’Donohue, moments that attune us to the landscape in turn create a shift within us. They are moments of prayer. He says,

One of the lovely ways to pray is to take your body out into the landscape and to be still in it. . . . What is happening is that the clay of your body is retrieving its own sense of [kinship] with the great clay of the landscape. . . . landscape is an incredible, mystical teacher, and when you begin to tune into its sacred presence, something shifts inside you.

The sacred presence of landscape and place is deep Celtic wisdom that also resonates with Unitarian Universalist values. Our first source draws on “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” Experience of wonder and mystery is fundamental to Unitarian Universalism. This is an important way we engage the world, encounter the divine, and learn about ourselves.

That experience, we believe, can happen anywhere and at any time. If we pay attention. If we tune our sense. If we see the mystery of the visible. If we learn to enter the silence and breathe again. If we glimpse eternity. If something shifts inside us.

Rev. Sara Moores Campbell, UU minister, writes that “we receive fragments of holiness, glimpse of eternity, brief moments of insight. Let us gather them up for the precious gifts that they are and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown.”

May we receive those fragments of holiness, those glimpses of eternity. May we ever seek out more of those moments of insight. And may we gather them as gifts. As O’Donohue says, “May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.”

May it be so. Amen.