Defining “Thin Places” for the Traveler in Search of Transcendence
What is a “Thin Place”?
Despite having travelled extensively for a variety of purposes, the idea of a “thin place” was entirely new to me when I came across Eric Weiner’s article “Thin Places, Where We Are Jolted Out of Old Ways of Seeing the World,” in The New York Times.
The term “thin place” derives from the Celtic Christians. Initially, the Celtic Christians believed that there was a significant distance, or border, between Heaven and Earth. At certain places, this border was significantly thinner, allowing people to feel closer to God. Weiner’s article puts a more secular spin on this idea. He references philosophies of groups ranging from the Apaches to Australian Aborigines to show that there appears to be a universal appeal for places where transcendence takes place.
The Bund in Shanghai, China
This transcendence is easiest to explain through the lens of religion, but “thin places” are not confined to religious sites. One such secular place that Weiner uses in his article, and that I can personally vouch for, is the view from The Bund in Shanghai, China. Looking across the harbor you see buildings reaching straight for the heavens, glass paneling reflecting the sun like winking stars. As it stands, there may be few countries as outwardly secular as most of China, and yet this view continues to take the breath away from any tourists lucky enough to visit this highly-modernized city.
Shanghai characterizes another of the inexplicable ironies of “thin places.” While it is almost impossible not to be wrapped up in the soaring skyscrapers, Shanghai’s Old City will take you back several centuries. The beautiful swooping corners of the roofs seem to usher you into the bustling crowd that bounces between the different stores and restaurants. The Old City provides a certain sensory overload – the intricate architecture, piercing calls of merchants to inspect their wares, sultry aromas weaving their way through the crowd – without making you feel overburdened.
“Thin places” are very subjective. For some, they are about spirituality, and indeed, places of worship are often considered “thin places.” Weiner’s examples include St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. These structures are certainly awe-inspiring architecturally and, for many of devout faith they hold untold significance as tributes to the Divine. With cathedrals and architectural wonders such as these, it is easy to get lost in the grandeur.
However, “Thin places” are often also small places with a more subtle effect than a towering structure. A place that springs to mind from my travel experience is the Waverley Abbey ruins in Farnham, Surrey in the United Kingdom. The lush tranquility of the English countryside, complete with emerald beds of grass and weeping willows gently swaying over a small gurgling brook puts visitors into a comforted lull, but as you walk among the few, decaying remains the stones seem to speak to you. As I stepped into the remainders of the lay brothers’ dining hall, the remaining vaulted ceiling seemed to glow, and I could feel warmth around me that dispelled the English damp of late fall.
Reflecting on that experience after reading Weiner’s article, I found myself wondering what exactly it was that had stirred a fairly non-religious individual like me to feel something so alive emanating from the ruins. It was nothing short of companionship, although I walked into the dining hall completely alone. I began to think that maybe it is history that drives us towards these places. Perhaps it is the vision of one of the steps of civilization that led to the experience that we have here and now, or a step we’ve taken towards the future in the case of upward-reaching architecture.
Instead of being exclusive to human endeavor, “thin places” can be naturally occurring as well. We often experience a slight euphoria when peering down from a mountain, looking out at the ocean, or across a rolling meadow. Sometimes these landscapes seem to just put us in our place as human beings. Part of the joy of traveling is remembering just how big and diverse the world truly is, whether you’re talking about landscape, biodiversity, or cultural diversity. This is why I regard these natural “thin places” as some of the most stirring. It is a real challenge trying to think too much of yourself while you are standing atop a white Rocky Mountain peak surrounded by similar looming giants in every direction as far as the eye can see. Perhaps this is what the title of Weiner’s article is about. In these places we truly are “jolted out of old ways of seeing the world” because they remind us that there is a vast and mysterious world beyond our own experience.