of thin places and the deep soul of my ancient peoples
i remember perfectly the first time i heard mention of a “thin place.” i was on holy ground, a farm smack dab in the middle of abe lincoln’s homeland. beau’s farm was the name of the farm, an organic farm, an organic farm that rose from an almost impenetrable shadow of grief. deep grief. beau was a marine, a strapping handsome fellow, who died down the road from the farm, home on leave from iraq, when he drowned. his mother, a woman i’ve come to love dearly, once told me that losing beau was “just like being hung, that moment when they pull that thing out from under you,” when the sheriff comes to the door, rings the bell at just past dawn to break the news.
beau’s mama was lost to grief for two long years. but then, she told me, she started to notice little beauties. she’d toss an old dried plant to the ground; and it’d grow.
“it dawned on me, after all those months, i was noticing beauty,” she once told me as we walked the gravel drive to where the peacocks pecked and strutted in their pen. and as i once wrote in the pages of the chicago tribune, “that’s when she realized. realized maybe the one place where she could plant her sorrow, turn it into something beautiful, something lasting, was the almost seven acres that surrounded her old white resurrected farmhouse. . .”
terry starks is beau’s mama’s name; she lives up in maine now, where she still turns earth and life into something beautiful, something lasting.
terry starks was the first to tell me of thin places. she told me the hay loft in her barn was where she went to cry when the tears seemed to have no end. she told me she was drawn there because the loft was surely a thin place, a place where the veil between heaven and earth is lifted. where you can all but feel the arms of God reaching out toward you.
it’s the celts who see the world that way, who know that ours is a topography of the sacred. who live attuned to soulful rhythms most others miss.
i remember sitting on the porch swing at beau’s farm, as beau’s mama poured her hard-won wisdoms as if a pitcher without bottom. i absorbed more gospel that day on beau’s and beau’s mama’s farm than i’ve absorbed most days of my holy blessed life.
ever since, i’ve been drawn deeper and deeper into the wisdoms of the celts, a holy people who traipse the hills and vales and rocky shorelines of my ancient roots.
because today happens to be a day when plenty of folk haul out green beer and soda bread, i decided to haul out just one of many passages from The Book of Nature, my little book due to be birthed just the other side of the weekend, on the vernal equinox, day of equal light and shadow, when all of us might look upon each other’s faces for the very first time, reason to rejoice if you ask me. it’s a passage from a chapter on the dawn. and i picked the photo way up above because i took it on the day i drove to beau’s farm, and it fits blessedly with how the celts see the sun. and because i was thinking of thin places, i decided to tell terry’s tale as the long way in to how the celts have taught me so very many things. thin places, among the litany.
here tis. . . a passage from The Book of Nature…
God was considered “the Sun behind all suns,” as the author George MacLeod once wrote. The whole of creation was dappled with the light of the sun as it journeyed across the sky. Wherever its light fell, there was God filtering through, an earthly translation of the divine infusion. And the perpetual Celtic praise song rose up with the dawn. Celtic gentlemen—farmers and herders and fishermen, set off to work in the predawn darkness—doffed their hat at the first light of the sun, and bowed in blessing. The Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Gaelic prayers and chants, is filled with start-of-day blessings, as the Celts were wont to offer up benediction for every chore and implement and God-given element of every day, from milking to weaving to shearing the sheep, from fire to wind to sprinkling of water. And certainly for the miraculous return of the morning’s first light. Mystic and teacher Alexander Scott, who grew up in the west of Scotland and kept Celtic ways alive in his nineteenth-century books, wrote that his were a people “listening for God in all things, ‘in the growth of the tree, in the rising of the morning sun, in the stars at night, and in the moon.’”
–Barbara Mahany, The Book of Nature
of the many, many stories i wrote over the almost 30 years, the story of beau’s farm was one of the ones i hold closest to my heart. here’s a link, should you care to read it. with love, from terry’s scribe. (apologies if you need a subscription to open the link.)
thanks to a friend i love with my whole heart, i stumbled on another wise soul with buckets of beauty to grace the world. a poet-activist-performer named andrea gibson, now a cancer survivor whose words might take your breath away. andrea identifies as queer, and uses the pronoun “they;” and they are known for their trademark honesty and bare-naked vulnerability, traits i find irresistible and blessed beyond words. here are just a few lines i couldn’t keep from scribbling down:
when it comes to hearts i want always to be size queen…
i love you because we both showed up to kindness tryouts with notes from the school nurse that said we were too hurt to participate….
when your heart is broken, you plant seeds in the cracks and pray for rain.
before i die, i want to be somebody’s favorite hiding place, the place they can put everything they know they need to survive, every secret, every solitude, every nervous prayer, and be absolutely certain i will keep it safe. i will keep it safe.andrea gibson
one more morsel for this blessed day, a poem from billy collins, once poet laureate of the united states, and a poet with plenty o’ irish roots . . .
Questions About Angels
by Billy Collins
Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.
No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.
Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?
What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes,
their diet of unfiltered divine light?
What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall
these tall presences can look over and see hell?
If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole
in a river and would the hole float along endlessly
filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?
If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?
No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear is about
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.
It is designed to make us think in millions,
billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:
one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.
She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.
nothing would delight me more than to see some of you, or all of you, come tuesday night, when i am shoving aside my worries about stepping up to speak in front of a crowd any bigger than the one or two who might share this old maple table on any given morning. we’ll gather to mostly rejoice in what’s become a holy sacred bond, one woven over time, through shared wisdoms, devoted kindness, good grace and humor. and i promise to read one or two passages from The Book of Nature, and even talk a little bit about how it came to be. it’s the first of my five books that wasn’t first birthed here, but its pages are filled with wisdoms learned here, steeped here, refined here. so you all have a thread in the whole cloth it became. and i can imagine no finer benediction than to begin the book with you. so see you tuesday, march 21, the vernal equinox at 7 p.m. chicago time.
now, what celtic wisdoms fuel your every day? and where are the thin places in your life where the veil between heaven and earth is at its thinnest, and you too feel it lifted for a blessed glance of the sacred beyond?
when it comes to hearts, i always want to be known as size queen…
Wow, so many heart touching things packed into today’s post. I forgot how much I miss your Trib writings. Here’s my favorite line from that article:
The more I planted, the more I grew, the better I became.” Truly words we can all live by.
Looking forward to the book launch in Evanston next week.
Ohhhh, be still my heart! Cannnot wait to hug you! ❤️❤️❤️
Same here! 🍀🍀
Barb, you hit it out of the park today! I remember that column so well. Wrenching story of her grief, and so uplifted by what she made of it. The thin places, for me, all reside in the woods–the place I can visit and always find respite. So looking forward to Tuesday. Pray I can figure out Zoom before then!
We’ll walk you through zoom! Praying my half-ailing laptop makes it too. You know Beau’s mama ended up finding her beloved because somehow he found this story in a lunchroom in Maine and wrote a letter with only her town in the address. They met, married, happily ever after…..
Talk about miracles…..❤️❤️
Those are the stories that keep me going.See you Tuesday!
“when it comes to hearts I want always to be size queen.” WOW! Amazing words that I will carry with me forever. Thanks for the introduction to this fabulous poet. Celtic or not, that will be the wisdom that I hope to carry wtih me every day. . . Looking forward to Tuesday night!
JACK!!! i cannot cannot wait to meet you! you are among the ones who’ve been pulling up chairs forever and ever and how could we never have been sitting across from each other, looking eye to eye!?!?
i LOVED andrea gibson at first sight (or sound, really)! and that line, the one you love too, oh, yes, blanket me in size queen!
see you tuesday. xoxoxoxo happy paddy’s day.
Well, I always love Billy Collins…and am truly touched with this from Andrea Gibson – my hope as well:
“before i die, i want to be somebody’s favorite hiding place, the place they can put everything they know they need to survive, every secret, every solitude, every nervous prayer, and be absolutely certain i will keep it safe. i will keep it safe.”
See you all on Tuesday! 🎉
oh! yes yes yes. i melted into that. what a prayer. let me etch it on the doorframe of my heart….
see you tuesday! xoxox
From all of this, I can add little more- it’s true and memorized in deep complete places that go with the soul, wherever it goes. I never dripped with wisdom but was saturated with such sadness -I could not express it. You, perfect kind stranger asked all the right questions, cared all the right ways- I was able to tell the story without fear because my listener cared so much, not just to hear it- but to heal it.
So! I cannot wait for your book, I am on a list. Celtic wisdom was sprinkled upon me since birth as those ways often were only whispered in our family- and accepted but only if in secret. I had and still have the finest teachers- did you know a sunset echoes with our loved ones light, or that trees listen when the world won’t, that moving water will carry your prayers and cares further and faster away from you, unburdening your soul to carry on? It should have been no surprise to me whatsoever- that the earth called to me in my sorrow and with great empathy for what other element knows more of change?
(The swing still swings, winter spring summer or fall, always with birds near by…)
Ohhhhh my Terry, True Wonder. Finding you here this holy morning…pure heaven. I could sit beside you forever and listen and listen and learn and learn. We were blessed that day, that glorious summer’s day, and it lives in us both forever. I miss you, and I love you. I do. If you write a book, I’ll be first in line to trumpet it to the world. ❤️❤️❤️
I got chills reading the inscription over your photo of the sunrise, Barbie! It makes me hungry to tear into your book. Can’t wait for tomorrow evening! ❤️☘️❤️☘️
(And you heard from Beau’s mama! Chills, chills and more chills!)