The Thin Place
As you might imagine, I visit a lot of churches. For both work and pleasure, I visit at least two churches each week. They all have their own characteristics and you take away something different from each of them. As I complete my ‘Grand Tour’ of churches in the care of the Friends, I wanted to write a short blog on my personal experience of each of them. I visited Llanfaglan in late May and part of me has never left.
People talk about thin places - a Celtic term but an ancient idea of places where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and connection to the divine or to the past becomes profoundly close.
Thresholds, gateways, bridges to the divine or to another world have long held a place in religion and folklore. This idea has fascinated me since I read Philip Pullman’s, His Dark Materials as a child. I love the idea that parallel universes or “mirror-worlds” or centuries of history or even the future are being played out all around us - and that - if we could just find a tear in the fabric of our world, we could escape to, and explore, new worlds. Or at least get a glimpse through to or feel a different era, a different lifetime.
To me, this is a thin place and no place has impressed this on me more than St Baglan’s.
What makes this place special? Is it the sentient landscape? The ancient, shady mountains that watched humans arrive. The clump of gnarled trees stretching their branches protectively around the church. The ever-changing sea breathing rhythmically, slow and deep.
When I visited the atmosphere was soupy with sea mist, low cloud and veiled, looming mountains. It was marvellous, mysterious and otherworldly.
For me, no other author evokes this sense of place and landscape, past and the supernatural than MR James. His ghost stories are inspired by the East Anglian landscape: ancient, fertile and unforgiving and on the rich folklore which surrounds it.
Is it the physical reminders of the past that gives St Baglan’s its transcendency? The systems of pre-historic ditched enclosures. The siting of the church within a pre-Christian settlement. The pillar-stone, discovered in 1855 built into the fabric, marked the burial place of one Anatemor, son of Lovernius, an inscription in well-cut Roman capitals. Ffynnon Faglan – Baglan’s well – in the adjacent field with its healing powers. The medieval fishing traps. The ship graffiti and simple carved symbols that speak of meaning, values and beliefs. The polite, oiled woodwork of the 18th century families. The close interior. The damp walls.
‘In our world’, said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas’. ‘Even in your world, my son’, [Ramandu says,] ‘that is not what a star is but only what a star is made of’.1
Just so, St Baglan’s church is not simply the list of things I’ve rattled off above. My experience at the church was, as Roger Scruton describes, “… saturated with meaning, but whose meaning cannot be put in to words”.2
Some might say that the ineffable, otherworldly feeling at these places is to do with energy vortices, ley-lines or electromagnetic fields. Maybe they’re right.
Or maybe, it is due to the “thousands upon thousands of ideas over thousands of years: realisations, revelations, hopes, fears and actions…”3 and the “Landscape … [that is] an active and shaping force in our imagination, our ethics, and our relations with each other and the world.”4 And that we, as humans are “antennae, tuned to this Universe of meaning”.5
And perhaps, when we encounter something like this, the relationship is understood and explained through feeling, rather than reasoning.
Whichever way you choose to describe it, St Baglan’s is a place that offers a “rare glimpse into the soul of things”.6
2 Scruton, R., Effing the Ineffable
3 Conway-Morris, H., The Architecture of the Poetic Universe
4 MacFarlane, R., Landmarks
5 Conway-Morris, H., The Architecture of the Poetic Universe
6 Scruton, R., Spinoza
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