Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 29, 2022

A "thin place"

We turned west onto the one-track road in the small North-Wales village of Llangynog. There are many such roads in the area, and most have wide places where vehicles can pass. But this road has few of those. In the unlikely event of a meeting, one person will likely be reversing for some distance. Here and there, the grass grows between the wheel ruts. The hedges are so close, a driver can't afford to let his mind wander.

Gray clouds and a light mist hung over the nearby Berwyn Mountains, adding a feeling of mystery. Knowing the Welsh are descendants of the Celtic tribes who once roamed much of Europe and Great Britain amplified the effect. Heading into the quiet valley on this road with no outlet made me understand what is meant by a Celtic �thin place.�

After 10 minutes and a two-mile trip that seemed longer, we arrived at a small parking area by the field-stone wall surrounding the shrine church of St. Melangell (pronounced Melan-geth). Husband Art and I had visited several years ago with our friend Deb. That visit prompted our return with daughters Katie and Mariya and spouses Matt and Miriam. Later, we'd visit again, with Art's daughter Karen and granddaughter Katrina.

The small church is named for a seventh-century woman who legend says fled her native Ireland because her father had arranged her marriage. She wanted to pursue a life of quiet prayer.

One day, Prince Brochwel was hunting, pursuing a hare. The rabbit took refuge under Melangell's cloak and for some reason, the hounds fled. The prince, struck by the odd behavior of his dogs and Melangell�s courage, gave her a portion of the valley as a place of sanctuary for those who needed spiritual or physical healing. For 37 years, Melangell led a small religious community as its abbess. After her death, she became the patron saint of hares and the church became a place of pilgrimage.

We entered the churchyard through the lych-gate. The covered arch is thought to date from the late 16th to the early 17th century. The enclosed yard is almost circular and has been used since ancient times. Bronze-age burial pits have been found with remains from somewhere between 1000 and 1500 B.C. The earliest gravestones are from the late 17th century.

When wandering through the churchyard, time seems to stand still. Many slate headstones have been worn smooth by weather or covered so thoroughly by moss that the inscriptions are illegible. The old ones are in Welsh, but the most recent are a mix, with many in English.

The original wooden church was replaced by one of stone in the second half of the 12th century. In the years since, it has undergone numerous restorations. It has a 12th century Norman font, a chancel and nave roof dating to the 14th/15th century, and a tower and belfry added in the 16th and 17th. The 1160-1170 Romanesque shrine of St. Melangell is the earliest in all of northern Europe. Bones, said to be those of the saint, were deposited within.

But there is something about the six ancient yew trees that capture my attention. I've always been drawn to old trees, perhaps because they seem to take on the shape of people or fantasy creatures. The old mulberry standing close to the windmill on my grandparents' farm was one of those. Sister Gaila and I pretended it was a king or a monster. We made �offerings� of mud and water. At St. Melangell, people had left flowers and small rocks in the shriveled hollowed-out trunks.

The gnarled old evergreens almost seem to form a protective ring around the site's perimeter. In places, their trunks are two-yards wide with some branches drooping over the gravestones to the ground.

The Conservation Foundation certified some of them to be around 2,000 years old, which means they pre-date any portion of the church building. Yews can grow upwards of 60 feet tall. Their reddish-brown peeling bark with purplish tones contrasts sharply with the green of their needle-like �leaves.� Because their needles are potently poisonous, because their branches can root and form new trunks if they touch the ground, and because they are long-lived, yews became symbols of death, rebirth, and immortality. In pre-Christian times, Druids considered them to be sacred - a connecting link between the land and their Celtic ancestors.

Some think yew trees were planted on the graves of plague victims to protect and purify the dead. In some places, yew boughs were used as "palms" during Easter season. Yew shoots were buried with the deceased on All Saints' Day.

In a March 9, 2012 New York Times piece titled "Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer," writer Eric Weiner said:

I'm drawn to places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again. It turns out these destinations have a name: thin places.

They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we're able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent ... .

Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a "spiritual breakthrough," ... but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. ... we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world.

The narrow lane, the remote churchyard on the valley's floor, the worn tombstones written with words I can't comprehend, the old yew trees, and the quiet, broken only by the occasional bleat of a sheep ... for me, this was one of those places. For me, this was a thin place.

Top (l-r): Lane to St. Melangell; lych-gate entrance; St. Melangell after passing through the lych gate. Bottom (l-r): one of the ancient yews "protecting" the churchyard perimeter; yew trunk; St. Melangell's shrine inside the church; a new tombstone. The upper portion of the stone translates as: In loving memory of Evan R Davies, Hill House, Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, he slept February 15, 1957, 76 years old, also Elizabeth, his wife, slept May 17, 1955, 75 years old. The quote at the bottom is from the first verse of the Welsh hymn "Resting in the Grave" by bard Ieuan Glan Geirionydd (1795-1873). It translates as: "Their names are sweet and their sleep is so quiet!"; eastern face of the church from under one of the yews. (Shrine image from britishpilgrimage.org.)

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