While visiting Barcelona we bowed to the tourist cliche and hopped onto a tour bus to visit Montserrat. Montserrat is famous for its unusual appearance and the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat. After driving for almost an hour we stepped off the bus to the most spectacular mountain views of Catalunya. It was a misty morning and the sun’s rays were just breaking through the mist giving the monastery and surrounds an otherworldly atmosphere. After spending some time wandering around, we entered the basilica to get a glimpse of the famous Black Madonna. It is difficult, impossible, to explain exactly what I experienced that morning. I felt a divine presence and nearness. I felt connected to God in a way I have very rarely felt. I left Montserrat wondering what it was about this place that had stirred such intense emotions in me.
Later I learnt there is a name for spaces such as this: thin places. In the Celtic tradition thin places are places where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin. In his spirituality travelogue, Mans Seeks God, Eric Weiner defines thin places as ‘those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses.’ Some describe thin places as ports in the storms of life, where for a moment one leaves that which is familiar and experiences something that is divine. They are stopping places where we are given pause to wonder about what lies beyond the mundane, grief and boredom of our day-to-day lives. Through the years I have visited many places I would describe as thin. Some of them were traditional religious spots like Montserrat and others were not. Here are four other of my most memorable thin places and what I experienced there.
For our tenth wedding anniversary we stayed at the beautiful Pafuri Camp in Northern Kruger. The lodge is situated on the banks of the winding Luvuvhu River which affords you amazing view of elephants strolling along the riverbank. On the day of our anniversary we took a short drive followed by an even shorter hike up to Lanner Gorge. The gorge forms the boundary between the Kruger National Park to the South and the Makuleke Concession to the North. The gorge is truly breath-taking. We stood watching the sun slowly slip over the horizon bathing the gorge in hues of orange and pink. It was beautiful – that type of beauty you cannot capture with a photograph or describe in words. As we stood mesmerized, I was reminded of a sentence I had read sometime ago, ‘Beauty is manna for the soul’. I left Lanner Gorge filled with a sense of wonder and contentment.
On a layover in Istanbul we had the opportunity to visit the Hagia Sophia. From the moment I stepped foot into this place of worship I was in awe. Walking through the crossed shaped building is like walking through history. I am not sure if it was the sheer volume and size of this beautiful building or the large mosaic of the virgin Mary with a young Jesus Christ on her lap, but I left the Hagia Sophia feeling small, small in a good way. Being in this iconic building I could not help but wonder how many people had lost their lives for what they believed. Which in turn reminded me of my own mortality. Reflecting on my own impermanence ended up being a deep spiritual experience I never will forget.
It was late afternoon and we had been driving for many hours. Just as I started wondering if we were ever going to reach our campsite for the night there it was – the ancient-looking Baobabs of Kubu Island. Kubu island is a dry granite rock island located in the Makgadikgadi saltpans. Standing beneath a Baobab tree on a rocky outcrop watching the sun set I understood why this place is considered sacred by the indigenous people. We awoke early the next morning to watch the sun creep over the horizon painting the saltpans a beautiful pink colour. Before leaving Kubu island we ventured out onto the saltpans surrounding the island. The silence was tangible. Walking out onto this vast expanse of nothingness I felt a deep sense of peace I had never experienced anywhere else before.
My list of thin places would be incomplete if I did not mention Taizé. The Taizé community was founded by Brother Roger in 1940 and has become one of the world’s most important sites of Christian pilgrimage. Over 100 000 people, young and old, from around the world make the pilgrimage to Taizé, Saône-et-Loire, Burgundy each year. Life is simple at Taizé. The lodgings are straightforward and humble meals are eaten from plastic bowls. Everyone is asked to take responsibility for a chore while visiting the monastery. I found this simplicity very meaningful and left Taizé with a deep need to simplify my life. Taizé is vastly different to the other thin places I have shared. There is a peacefulness amidst the bustle. There is a sense of community and something deeply spiritual about thousands of people gathering in the community’s church, the Church of Reconciliation, to chant songs in different languages, meditate on scripture and sit in silence. This is truly a place where the veil between heaven and earth is very thin.
Traveling to me is more than just seeing places. It has a deep spiritual dimension. Traveling invites us to connect to the earth, people, and different cultures. It gifts us with the opportunity to discover a profound sense of peace, joy, and appreciation.fay