“Thin Places” by Jacqie Wallen

November 2, 2014

The Feast of All Saints

Today we are celebrating All Saints Day. All Saints Day is a part of a sequence: of days — Halloween, All Saint’s Day, and All Souls Day – that mark a special time of year. It’s the season when we become acutely aware that our days are getting cooler and our nights are getting longer. We stand between summer and winter, light and dark, life and death, the ordinary world and the world of spirits. These days, Jan Richardson says, are:

A sacred space in the turning of the year—what Celtic folk have long called a thin place,  where past, present, and future intertwine, and the veil between worlds becomes  permeable.”

About thin places, Eric Weiner, in a New York Times article, has said:

It’s not clear who first uttered the term ”thin places,” but they almost certainly spoke with an Irish brogue. … Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.

So what exactly makes a place thin? It’s easier to say what a thin place is not. A thin place is not necessarily a tranquil place, or a fun one, or even a beautiful one, though it may be all of those things too. Disney World is not a thin place. Nor is Cancun. Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.

Thin places are often sacred ones –St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul — but they need not be, at least not conventionally so.

Not too many years ago, I visited Oaxaca, Mexico, during the time when Mexicans and many Central and South Americans celebrate “El Día de los Muertos,” or the Day of the Dead. The Day of the Dead is specifically celebrated on November 1st and/or November 2nd which are All Saints Day and all Souls Day. But in most places, including Oaxaca, the preceding days involve a number of festivities as well. The Day of the Dead originated in pre-Colombian traditions that are at least 3000 years old. The Aztecs, for example, believed that life and death coexisted, more or less side-by-side, and that in the Fall, the dead could visit with the living. When Europeans arrived to convert and colonize the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, they imposed the Christian holidays. But the ancient indigenous traditions remained embedded in the culture are entwined with All Saints Day and All Souls day.

In Oaxaca, altars are one of the most important traditions in celebrating the Day of the Dead. Families build them in their homes, merchants build them in their stores, and school children build them at their schools. Many schools even hold competitions to see which class can build the best altar. Some people start building their altar weeks in advance and the very wealthy may even hire a professional to build theirs.
The traditional elements of a Day of the Dead altar are:

Marigolds, to symbolize death. The strong sweet smell of marigolds is also believed to help lead the dead to their altars.

Candles to welcome the spirits back to their altars.
Fresh fruit

Incense, also to guide the spirits to their altars

Salt, which represents immortality.

A framed photo of the deceased, prominently displayed on the altar

Pan de muerto, a special bread made for the Day of the Dead.

Sugar skulls, to symbolize death and the afterlife

In the villages outside the city of Oaxaca, families spend the day of November 1st at the local cemetery, cleaning and tending to their loved ones’ graves. In the evening, they spread out savory dishes, fruits, and sweet desserts on the grave. Then they laugh and talk and feast on the graves, including the spirits of their deceased loved ones in their festivities. It is a joyful time characterized by love and connection. Many families party through the night.

I was profoundly affected by my visit to a cemetery in a small village outside Oaxaca the evening of the Day of the Dead. I had always been a little frightened by cemeteries after dark and when I thought of spirits of the dead I thought, not of the welcome presence of loved ones, but of ghouls and ghosts, monsters and bogeymen (whatever they are).

The atmosphere in the Mexican cemetery on the Day of the Dead was completely different from my image of a cemetery at night. The cemetery was brightly lit by all the candles that had been placed on the graves. Families were engaged in animated conversations as they sat by the well-tended graves and ate the delicious food that they had carefully prepared. Children ran around and played with one another. It felt warm and comforting. Death and spirits of the dead didn’t feel at all frightening. It was a wonderful experience that I will always carry with me and it has had a permanent effect on my feelings about death. To me, the Seekers tradition of the Memory Wall feels very similar to the Day of the Dead traditions. Here we remember those loved ones who have died. It’s a thin place between the ordinary world and the spiritual world. I intend to memorialize some of my dead loved ones on the wall and, of course, to be there one day myself (not that I am in any hurry for that).

I was born on Halloween, in the sacred thin space marked by All Hallows Eve on one end and All Souls Day on the other. On Halloween children move back and forth between the shadows of the dark (and often chilly) night, on the one hand, and light-filled doorways, on the other. At the open doors they are welcomed with praise and candy. It is both joyful and other-worldly.

Along with the pumpkin, one of the most iconic images of Halloween is the witch, a caricature of a very powerful archetype – the crone or the wise woman.

In ancient societies, it was most often the older women who cared for the ill and dying and who helped women give birth to their babies. They were respected for their knowledge of the healing properties of local flora and fauna. They knew how to help with a difficult birth. And they had the wisdom that comes with a lifetime of experience. The fact that old women were so often in attendance when someone died made them a little frightening but, because of their wisdom and power to heal, people respected them as well. The old woman, or crone, is one of the key archetypes described by Carl Jung. She is associated with darkness, death, wisdom, power, healing, and spirituality. There is also a male counterpart, the wise old man or the sage. The wise old man archetype refers to the older man who uses his wisdom and power to lead, guide, and mentor.

This Halloween I turned 70. I am proud to be a wise women, a crone. My life experiences have given me much knowledge to put into the service of others, As a mother, teacher, friend, and therapist I have accumulated a certain amount of healing power, as well. At 70, I have a strong sense of being in a thin place. A place where the veils between the worlds are thin and sometimes transparent. The warmth and joys and struggles of my life are all very vivid yet I can also feel the world of spirits close by. The thought of being a part of the Seekers Memory Wall along with my loved ones after I am gone is comforting though, as I said before, there’s no rush as far as I’m concerned.

What about the saints, though? After all, we are observing All Saints Day today. How do they fit into all of this. Well, as far as I’m concerned, the saints are a thin place. Through them we touch the mysterious, eternal spirit world.

I was brought up an Episcopalian which means that I basically grew believing that saints were people canonized by the Catholic Church. If you hadn’t been canonized, you weren’t a saint. But my experience with folk saints in Mexico and the saints I have been fortunate enough to know in my own life tells me otherwise. I really loved Marjory’s sermon for last year’s observance of All Saints Day because she talked about this. Canonization by the church didn’t even exist until the the 10th century. But saints have been recognized since the earliest of societies and the most ancient of civilizations. They have always existed in parts of the world totally untouched by Catholicism. As humans, we hold up deceased loved ones, spiritual teachers, and mentors who have given much to us and, in doing so, have transformed our lives.

Moroccan Jews, for example have always venerated deceased rabbis of exceptional wisdom and piety, even though Judaism has no single central authority or formal process for declaring someone a saint. These saints are held up by the devotion of the people. Many Moroccan Jews observe an annual festival at the tombs of their saints. As in Mexico, many Moroccan Jews return to their home villages to care for the gravesites, pray, and celebrate the lives of those they honor by sharing in a feast.

Buddhism also has no single governing body or process for recognizing saints but there are many traditions in which sages, teachers, and holy people are viewed as saints after their death. Sometimes they are referred to as “bodhisattvas.” Bodhisattvas are people who attained enlightment as a result of their selflessness and compassion before they died but delayed their entry into Nirvana, or heaven, and were reincarnated in order to help people still on earth. These saints are venerated and their relics are considered holy. These relics are often enshrined in what are called stupas, mounds shaped vaguely like the Buddha, and people go to the shrines to meditate, pray, and receive blessings.
In the Muslim world, too, saints are honored by the people, though the practice is often frowned on by the religious orthodoxy. People visit the tombs of saints to pray, to seek blessings, and to ask for intercession. Annual festivals are held for particular Muslim saints. There may be a parade, prayers in the mosque, and various other festivities including special meals These and other thin places are often considered to possess what Arabs refer to as “baraka.” Baraka is an indwelling spiritual force that characterizes saints, their remains or relics, and many natural objects or locations. Where a place is thin, there is baraka.

The beatitudes, which you heard read a few minutes ago, reinforce the populist and grass-roots view of sainthood that I have been sharing. Canonize and bless are actually synonyms.
So who are the saints, according to the beatiudes? They are those who seek righteousness, who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who are peacemakers, and those who are persecuted and martyred for God and for righteousness. They are also those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, and who are meek. They are humans who do their best to serve God but they are not superhuman or even necessarily perfect. There are many saints, alive and dead, and most, if not all, of us know some. And today we honor all saints, humble and famous, recognized and unrecognized.

One of my saints was my grandfather. I want to close with a poem he wrote for me on my birthday. I don’t remember which birthday it was but I do know I was a child when he wrote it and that even then I recognized it as something special.

My grandfather had a lot of Irish in him and was a bit fey, or otherworldly, though he had a hearty appreciation of this world that he conveyed through his art, his words, and his humor. He was an avid reader of the best literature of his time and loved to quote (from memory) from his favorite poets: Carl Sandburg (especially the Rutabaga stories), e.e. cummings, Ogden Nash, and don Marquis’ Archie and Mehitabel, were among his favorites. When I was little, we used to go for long walks on a gravel road next to the woods that bordered a golf course near their house. We were always finding things along the road that we would bring home with us, to my mother’s and grandmother’s dismay, since they didn’t consider them the treasures that we did. A scarf, a cigarette holder, an unmatched earring, an empty bottle. We also found golf balls that had strayed into the woods from the golf course. These were actually useful because my grandfather and my two living uncles all played golf.

My grandfather would quote his poems and we would also play games as we walked. One game we played was Hansel and Gretel. We would pick up pieces of gravel from the road and use them to leave a trail in the grass beside the road so we could find our way home. My grandfather was my wise old man archetype and his poem, though it’s about our relationship, is also about thin places.

Two other things I need to tell you before I read the poem is that my grandparents’ oldest son,my uncle Bud, died in Word War II, leaving an empty space in the family that never went away. There was also a much more minor empty space for the family. As my mother explained it, they had once had a stand of birches in their back yard that became diseased and had to be cut down. The loss of the birches made them sad and left an empty space in the yard. But on certain nights, when the moonlight was just right, it seemed as if they could see that grove of birches and it gave them much joy. It was a thin place for them.
So here is the poem.

By Frederick William Baumann

On this night, especially, you’ll see them out there,
They flicker and fade in the light of the moon
Like the ghosts of the birches that died long ago.
(Ask your mother, she remembers how graceful they were.)
“You’re Hansel, I’m Gretel,” the little girl says.
We’ll drop pebbles behind us to lead us back home.
The white-haired old man tells poems by heart
To his Hallowe’en granddaughter’s delight as they walk
In the grass by the road with an eye out for treasure.
Trailing pebbles behind them, they whisper and giggle.
“Stay right here with me,” the little girl says
Watch out for the witch and hold my hand tight.
We’ll trust that our pebbles will lead us back home.

(Just follow the pebbles, you’ll see us out there.
Just follow the pebbles… they’ll lead you straight home.)

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