Finding a Thin Place
Today’s post is by Bill Stone
People come to Scotland looking for all sorts of things. When I first moved to Scotland six years ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had traveled here twice on vacation and fallen in love with both the people and the place itself. But I also knew that living here would be much different from visiting for a week. There were a lot of unanswered questions floating through my head as I boarded a one-way flight into Edinburgh that August, but I was sure that this was where I was called to be.
The weeks that followed were a whirlwind of activity as I began a new job, moved into a new home, and obtained (after several failed attempts) a new bank account and mobile phone. In those early and hectic days I would often head up into the hills surrounding the town for some peace and quiet. Here I could rest. Here I could (literally) get a new perspective on things. Here, amidst the gorse bushes and the rowan trees, I had found my thin place—where the boundary between heaven and earth was especially transparent. Hill walking became a habit for me, and I came to regard my time there as sacred.
The Celtic notion of thin places—locations where the divine presence is more readily encountered—is well known. From the hills of the highlands, to the shores of Iona, there are many locations in Britain that feel set-apart in time and space. In the Middle Ages these places became sites of pilgrimage. Inspired by stories of the saints who once lived in and around these sites, pilgrims would come seeking a profound religious experience.
Ian Bradley in Pilgrimage: A Spiritual and Cultural Journey suggests that, “the prevailing view in Irish monastic circles about the benefits to be gained from visiting holy places was profoundly skeptical.” As evidence of this he offers a verse attributed to a ninth-century Irish abbot:
Who to Rome goes
Much labour, little profit knows;
For God, on earth though long you’ve sought him,
You’ll miss in Rome unless you’ve brought him.
For some, pilgrimage to a sacred or thin place was—and still today is—a truly moving and spiritually transforming experience. For others, though, their travel amounted to little more than religious tourism. If you did not begin your pilgrimage with the right intentions, you could travel for miles looking high and low for something that would forever remain elusive.
There is a certain cynicism in that rhyme, but there is also the profound insight that you don’t need to go to Rome to encounter God—for the divine presence is already there, within you, and all around you. It’s possible to connect with something greater than yourself not just on a remote isle or in the solitude of the hills. You can approach everyday life with the intention of being truly present and discover thin places right in your own back yard. One of the great benefits of pilgrimage to more distant places like Rome and Iona is that, when you do encounter the holy along the way, you are much more prepared to notice it once you return home. Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s much easier to spot.
When I first boarded a plane for Scotland in 2009, I never expected that six years later I would still be here. Here in Edinburgh I find more and more frequently that everywhere I turn there is a new invitation to encounter God. It is easy to feel connected to the past as you walk down the city’s ancient streets. There is a rich history of thinkers, writers, and theologians, and a culture that today still celebrates their contributions. The city is also a place where urban and nature meet—enclosing seven hills within its boundaries. In such a place, with such a vibrant community, I have been pleasantly surprised to discover that all of Edinburgh has become a thin place for me.
Bill Stone is an ordained Presbyterian minister from the United States who has served in the Edinburgh area for the past five years. He and his wife Hayley O’Connor co-lead Shalem’s Young Adult Contemplative Life and Leadership Initiative and have provided leadership for multiple Shalem pilgrimages. He and Hayley, along with Leah Rampy, will be leading Shalem’s young adult pilgrimage to Edinburgh, October 18-24, 2015.
Bill Stone and his wife Hayley are leading a pilgrimage to Edinburgh this October! Today’s chaotic and hurting world urgently needs the inspired leadership of young adults. This pilgrimage to Edinburgh, Scotland, will offer a spacious time for young adult leaders to listen within for the invitation to leadership by walking the ancient hills of this beautiful city and opening to the wisdom of the earth. Space is limited to 12 participants in this inaugural pilgrimage for young professionals. We encourage your early application.
To find out more or to apply, click here.