The following is an excerpt from Sally Z. Hare’s introduction to a new book, Thin Places: Seeking the Courage to Live in a Divided World, gathered by Sally Z. Hare and Megan LeBoutillier. As facilitators of Circles of Trust®, the writers have grown to understand that thin places are best found in nature AND are created with careful attention and intention to safe and trustworthy space. They share their stories with the hope that you’ll find some pieces of your own story, that you will discover portals to your own thin places.  

Thin places have become, for me, a way of naming the space where I have the best chance of nurturing the courage to seek the undivided life I want to live. In a thin place, I see my connectedness to everything around me. I see the wholeness that is my birthright gift. So our new book, Thin Places: Seeking the Courage to Live in a Divided World, a collaboration between 25 CCR facilitators, has offered the chance for me to go even deeper in that topic.

The idea of thin places goes back to the ancient Irish people, before the Celts arrived sometime after 500 BC, before Christianity came to Ireland. Researchers have uncovered signs and symbols of the beliefs that there was another world, a parallel world, and that thin places were the portals between the two worlds.

For that earliest Irish community, a thin place was an actual physical place. Over the next several thousand years, the definition of thin places expanded to include particular times of seasonal shifts, such as Samhain, the Celtic holiday when the boundaries between the material and spiritual worlds were transparent. Some thin places became known for their energy, rather than for being an opening between the worlds; people would go to these places to absorb their power.

Thin places are places of mystery, holy places that allow humans to connect more easily to their spiritual selves. In thin places, we have easier access to Mahatma Gandhi’s “indefinite mysterious power that pervades everything.” In a thin place we have a better chance of seeing what Thomas Merton called a hidden wholeness in Hagia Sophia:

There is in all things an invisible fecundity,

a dimmed light,

a meek namelessness,

a hidden wholeness.

This mysterious Unity, and Integrity, is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans.

Harvard theologian Peter Gomes writes:

There is in Celtic mythology the notion of “thin places” in the universe where the visible and the invisible world come into their closest proximity. To seek such places is the vocation of the wise and the good — and for those that find them, the clearest communication between the temporal and eternal. Mountains and rivers are particularly favored as thin places marking invariably as they do, the horizontal and perpendicular frontiers. But perhaps the ultimate of these thin places in the human condition are the experiences people are likely to have as they encounter suffering, joy, and mystery.

The writers in this book have come to understand that thin places can be created with careful attention to safe and trustworthy space. These authors are all Kirkridge Courage Fellows, which, by prerequisite, means that they are facilitators prepared by the Center for Courage & Renewal. The Center was founded by Parker J. Palmer – and what has come to be called Courage Work (it started as The Courage to Teach® – and over the past 20 years, is also The Courage to Lead® and Circles of Trust®) is grounded in Parker’s writing and philosophy.

Throughout our book, thanks to Parker’s generosity, you will find insights from his writing. We begin here with Parker’s insight on creating space from A Hidden Wholeness:

  • We know how to create spaces that invite the intellect to show up, analyzing reality, parsing logic and arguing its case: such spaces can be found, for example, in universities.
  • We know how to create spaces that invite the emotions into play, reacting to injury, expressing anger and celebrating joy: they can be found in therapy groups.
  • We know how to create spaces that invite the will to emerge, consolidating energy and effort on behalf of a shared goal: they can be found in task forces and committees.
  • We certainly know how to invite the ego to put in an appearance, polishing its image, protecting its turf and demanding its rights: they can be found wherever we go!
  • But we know very little about creating spaces that invite the soul to make itself known. Apart from the natural world, such spaces are hard to find – and we seem to place little value on preserving the soul spaces in nature.

So thin places are places where the soul can show up. The poet Mary Oliver says “Nobody knows what the soul is”; nevertheless, we share with you what we mean by the word in our book’s glossary! We began the Kirkridge Courage Fellowship Program (KCFP) out of our yearning to create for ourselves that kind of space Parker writes about, the space we were committed to creating for others. We took to heart Parker’s admonition that the natural world was the best place to begin – and we chose the Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center for five retreats over two years from 2014-2016.

As you read Parker’s writing about The Movement Way, you’ll get a sense of our path. This book represents, for us, the step of going public. After all, we are the ones who have been facilitating this Courage Work, who have embedded the principles and practices into our lives.

Now we want to share our stories with you. We do so because of our belief in this idea from Frederick Buechner:

My story is important not because it is mine…but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is yours.

We hope you’ll find some of your own story in our stories, that you will find portals to your own thin places.

Dr. Sally Z. Hare, Singleton Distinguished Professor Emerita at Coastal Carolina University, is president of still learning, inc. (www.stilllearning.org), and one of the pilot facilitators of Courage work. She lives in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, where she is happy to share her ocean with her husband Jim R. Rogers, and dog, TBO. She can be contacted through e-mail: couragetoteach@sc.rr.com

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