Friday, April 5, 2013

"Thin Places"

Recently my church celebrated a "Celtic lent".  When I was told about this I rolled my eyes and thought "let the white people have their voodoo too."  Next year I hope we have a "Santeria Lent" or an "Afro-Cuban Lent".  That being said, the pastor defended Celtic beliefs and described the concept of "Thin Places". 
Now I know you thought this was going to be another rant about the morbidly obese.  Somehow the concept of "Thin Places" stuck in my head.  In Celtic spirituality, "Thin Places" are places where the wall between heaven and earth are blurred. Where you feel a sense of spirituality, of magic.
I try to be a pragmatic spiritualist. I mean I go to church every Sunday, I have just a bare mustard seed of faith, but it's enough to keep me going to church with a healthy dose of skepticism. Yet I wanted to be a geography major in college because of a love of maps and places. So the concept of "Thin Places" stayed with me.  I knew in my memory that I had experienced such places but couldn't quite remember where.
For Holy Week this year I chose to go to Guatemala. I chose this place because my husband is a devout ex-catholic (like a guy who still loves his ex-wife) and despite being an avowed main-line protestant, the siren call of the mother church still beckons him.  New Pope and all I thought I'd go to the most medieval, über-catholic place I could think of for Holy Week: Antigua Guatemala.
Full disclosure: I lived in Guatemala for several years as a little boy. We arrived in "Guate" as the locals call it with my entire family in tow...2 brothers, mother, niece, husband. I won't get into family dynamics here, but it turned out fine.
Yavin 4, Rebel Base

Our first stop was Tikal.  You might recognize Tikal as the fictional moon of Yavin 4 in Star Wars. Tikal is an ancient Mayan City.....and a Thin Place. Even George Lucas could understand that the "Force" is strong here.  Nestled in a deep jungle with gigantic Ceiba trees which my niece compared to the "Home Tree in Avatar." You trek for a few kilometers through the Jungle and come up to these amazing ancient ruins that were uncovered in the last century and the magic is palpable. Monkeys are the full time residents now but it's not hard to imagine why the Maya picked this place as their capital.  My husband claimed that taking his shoes off in the temple courtyard cured his gout as proof the spiritual power of the place. I think the concept of "Thin Places" best describes the locale. Beyond the majesty of the temples and jungle, a feeling here, a tingling...who knows. But it felt nice.
Tikal circa 2013
Flew back to Antigua, Guatemala for the second part of the vacation. Antigua is the old capital of Guatemala. It was abandoned in the 1500s after a series of earthquakes rocked the city.  Also I think the Guatemalans realized that the valley was going to be too small for a capital city. Yet they managed to build 35 churches, monasteries and convents.  Antigua's Holy Week is famous for its "carpets".  Every day during holy week there is a procession of Jesus. Passion Plays are acted out across the town. Celebrants come from around region to participate. Antiguans lay out amazingly detailed "carpets" made from colored sawdust, flowers, and fruits for the processions to cross upon.  During this time, I believe, Antigua becomes a "Thin Place." Tens of thousands of indigenous people come to celebrate their faith. 
I don't think so many religious sites concentrated in a such a small area is an accident.  A lush valley in the shadow of three volcanoes, one named "Fuego" which belches smoke and lava on a daily basis, how can it not be a "Thin Place"?  Spiritual centers must be drawn to some type of feeling or energy or beauty. There must be something in the geography that tells humans....this is a special place. This is a place of worship.  This is a little piece of heaven. I'm happy to say Thin Places exist. I found mine in the Jungles, mountains and volcanoes of Guatemala.

Ceiba or "home tree"?