“So, you entered one of our thin places.”

These words emerged from my Jesuit friend Fergus’ mouth with delight, but his demeanor changed to disbelief when I had to ask what the “thin places” are.

I had just returned to Dublin from the west of Ireland, where I had hiked Croagh Patrick, or St. Patrick’s mountain: an over four-mile trek up nearly half a mile through fields of loose rock and dense fog. After finally reaching the summit, I was greeted by clear skies, allowing me the transcendent experience of gazing upon the hundreds of tiny islands in Clew Bay.

“The thin places,” Fergus repeated.

According to ancient Celtic belief, Fergus informed me, thin places are those physical places where earth seems to draw closer to heaven.

All faith traditions have such thin places — the birthplaces of the Buddha and Muhammad, the Western Wall in Jerusalem and the Badrinath Temple in India. These sites are surely sacred places, but I could not place my finger on what precisely made them thin.

In search of an explanation, I returned to the original Celtic notion that thin places are not limited to religious locales, but to any locale or experience where we find ourselves amid something far greater and, in doing so, we become our more authentic selves.

If we are to take St. Ignatius of Loyola at his word when he invites us to “find God in all things,” such opportunities for experiencing the sacred in our daily lives expand the possibility of transcendent encounters.

Writing about the classic song “London Calling” by The Clash, journalist Sasha Frere-Jones states, “If you can listen to [“London Calling”] without getting a chilly burst of immortality, there is a layer between you and the world.” Such a statement regarding a punk song from 1979 attests to the notion of thin place experiences in our day-to-day lives.

I often joke that when I am not here on campus worshipping at Dahlgren Chapel or Copley Crypt, I can be found at other “houses of worship” in Washington, D.C., such as the 9:30 Club or the Black Cat on 14th Street. Of course, behind every joke is a certain truth.

The places where I have experienced and felt a part of something greater than myself have been, time and again, in the transcendent experience of music — most often, I recognize this feeling in the liturgical experience of live music.

Having grown up with a passion for literature, I have often found bookstores to be remarkable thin places as well, particularly in the awe-inspiring and vast mosaic they provide into the human condition.

The Seminary Co-op Bookstore at the University of Chicago and San Francisco’s City Lights Books, home of the Beat Generation’s West Coast incarnation, are such places to me. One can find authors as diverse as Søren Kierkegaard and Hans Urs von Balthasar rubbing shoulders with Allen Ginsberg and Lester Bangs among the stacks. One can I have get lost among the stacks of such bookstores, where time fades away into something far greater.

Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wrote: “It follows, rather surprisingly, that even an image that does not have a specifically religious theme can be a religious image, when viewing it helps bring about, through a sensory experience of […] that properly religious experience of transcendence.”

Be it music or literature, be it mountaintop or theater, thin places are all around us, inviting us deeper into our true selves by placing us ever-so-close to the wonder and awe of the transcendent. Just look and listen.

Fr. Gregory Schenden, S.J., is the Catholic chaplain at Georgetown University. As This Jesuit Sees It appears online every other Monday.

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