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The Land of David
by Brendan O’Malley

Bishops House - St Davids - Wales

Remotely situated near the western extremity of Wales, where the land stretches out to the Irish sea; and where a narrow river runs through a valley: is Dewisland, the land of David.

As into the sea all rivers go, and yet the sea is never filled, and still to their goal the rivers go, so too do pilgrims journey to St. David’s and to the cathedral dedicated to his name.

St David’s Cathedral equals any in the British Isles for beauty and interest, and is rivaled by only a very few. Its situation is unique: visitors, unless forewarned, would not know that it was there. They come first to the winding streets of St David’s City, which is little more than a small town. Then, as they pass through an old gateway, there is spread before them a valley and a scene of vast medieval splendor: a cathedral built from the local purple-colored Caer Bwdy stone, harmonizing with the windswept natural surroundings. To the north lie the ruins of St Mary’s College, and to the west, across the little River Alun, are the magnificent ruins of the Bishop’s Palace.

This little city was once a place of considerable activity. St David, the patron saint of Wales, was held in such veneration that his shrine ranked with the holiest in the land as a place of pilgrimage. In fact, in medieval times two pilgrimages to St David’s were counted as equal to one to Rome, but pilgrims were not by any means the only travelers to St David, as the city lay on the old main road westward to Ireland. Among those who came were kings and nobles, who, having paid their reverence and made their offerings at the shrine, could rest awhile in the Bishop's Palace.

This remote corner of the British Isles became a place of pilgrimage purely as a result of the saintly reputation of David. His contemporaries called him Aquaticus ('The Waterman'), doubtless on account of his asceticism (he would allow no alcohol past his lips). It is said in the ancient chronicles that his birth was miraculously foretold to St Patrick thirty years before the event.

The earliest life of David was written by Rhygyfarch, Bishop of St David from 1088 to 1096. Legend tells that the Saint's parents were Sant, the son or grandson of Ceredig (from whom Cardigan takes its name), and Non, the daughter of Cynir and the granddaughter of King Brychan of Brecknock. David was born around the year 520. Legend says there was a great storm: his birthplace glistened as though the sun was visible and God brought it in front of the clouds!

Photos of St. David's - city in Wales

At his baptism at Porthclais, David was held by a blind monk named Movi. A spring had burst from the ground at that place to supply the water for his baptism. Some of the water splashed into Movi's eyes, and he recovered his sight. The child was baptized by an accompanying Irish Monk, Ailbe or Elvis, who later became Bishop of Munster.

The young David was brought up at Hen Fynyw (Old Menevia) and was educated by St Peulin (Paulinus), who also regained his sight through the intercession of his student. When his education was complete, the newly ordained David set out on his travels, founding monastic settlements and churches. He is credited with the founding of twelve monasteries scattered as far apart as Glastonbury and Leominster. But his most important one was the establishment of the monastic foundation where St David's Cathedral now stands.

The monastery was founded in the face of fierce opposition from Boia, the chieftain of a local Irish settlement. He did his best to drive St David and his monks away, but eventually, through the prayer and example of David, Boia was converted to Christianity. He and his whole family were baptized.

The way of life at St David's monastery was similar to that of the Egyptian monasteries of the Desert Fathers, and although the regime was strict, there was no shortage of recruits.

Tradition says that the death of David was foretold not only by himself, but also by a company of angels. It is generally accepted that he died in the year 589. His age at his death is unknown. His last words to his brethren were, “Do the little things that you have heard and seen through me.”

The beautiful Norman Cathedral, which stands in the ‘Vallis Rosina’ (Glyn Rhosyn in Welsh), 'the valley of the little marsh', bears little resemblance to the original monastic settlement of David. His embryonic Cathedral would have been a small mud and timber church surrounded by a defensive earth work or wall, which would have included a small group of wattle and daub huts. A guest house, store house and preaching cross were essential to such an early Celtic monastic community.

When the cult of David grew in the Middle Ages, a number of little chapels were built around the St David's Headland, where pilgrim travelers would climb up from the point of landing on the coast and offer thanksgiving for a safe journey, or when embarking on an outward voyage, a prayer for protection on the seas. The chapels were all on pilgrim routes to the Cathedral.

To this day, the seas around the St David's Peninsula can be treacherous, so many such chapels may be found emphasizing the need for numerous landing places. The chapels are named after St Non, St Patrick and St Justinian. There was also a chapel at the place of St David’s baptism, Capel-y-Pistyll. Whitewell, a hospice for pilgrims was there too, as were Cwmwdig, Hen Fynwent and Y Gwrhyd, all testifying to the importance of St David’s as a place of pilgrimage.

“The David Stream”

Dewi Ty Ddewi
Tegwch bro yn wir wyt ti
Dewi Ty Ddewi
Ti yw’m cartref i

David St David's
Your are in truth so fair a land
David St David's
You are my home

David Evans (1866)

To enter the land of David is to enter into the ‘David Stream’, that process of consciousness, which connects with the presence of otherness.

The Celtic saints were imbued with this mysterious reality of the continuing presence of God. They were 'grace-filled' through the practice of constant prayer, open-hearted hospitality to God; to his presence in the little everyday moments of their lives. Today, pilgrims seek the nectar of spiritual and physical enlightenment at the very same places where dwelt the holy ones of long ago. As with the early followers of saints, the modern pilgrim seeks spiritual nectar or grace when visiting a holy place. They are spiritual bees in search of the word…

'Weaving a psalm
to the unutterable Word
which dwells in the dewdrop and the rock...'

as the Welsh poet Rhydwen Williams said.

The Holy Spirit has made thin the canvas of these places so that the visitor may, as George Herbert wrote:
'look on glass' and 'on it may stay his eye; or, if he pleaseth, through it pass, and then the heaven espy.’
The pilgrim is on holy ground, perhaps at first only dimly aware of the imminent presence of God. St David’s settlement is such a Celtic holy ground and, in common with other holy places, attractive to people very close to nature. It is both mystical and very down to earth, reflecting the Celtic saints who dwelt in such a sacral environment and for whom every well-spring, wood and stone took on a mystical significance. No doubt, this proceeded from their pagan past, but that was transformed. Its numinous properties spiritualized by Christian prayer. The Scottish Gaelic language has a phrase, "Are you going to church?” which when literally translated, says, "Are you going to the stones?"

The awareness of the whole world as Incarnational, was linked into a tremendous ‘spirit of place'. St. David’s locates for us this long and deep, spiritual and cultural tradition. It is older than Iona, Lindisfarne or Canterbury as a Christian settlement and, I feel, equally impressive.

To enter into Dewisland is to arrive at a place of choice. We may choose to visit the Cathedral, the Bishop’s Palace or St Non's Chapel and Holy Well with guide book in hand, noting their beautiful location and history, to depart in happy memory, never to return again. Or we may choose to wander about the area for a while, stay on for a few days, and allow ourselves time to realize we are lodging on 'holy- ground'.

The divine life is the pervading Presence of the Holy Spirit in everything that has being in this holy, Celtic land. This life is welling up within us, in the innermost recesses of our heart, as we become open to the presence of God not only within ourselves but perceived and sensed in the unfolding of creation. It is 'thin', the divine veil between human being, Creation, and the God of Being, who is present in the core of the whole matter and spirit. He is our ceaseless call and longing. He is the sounding wave, the voice of the sea...

‘It swims with the seal in his laughter.
The sacrament of being you share with me.'
Ray Howard Jones.

To enter beyond this ‘thin veil’ is to enter into a felt experience of the Kingdom of God, both created and uncreated. It is to go beyond time and space, as God is beyond time and space. As we experience the drawing of the veil, subject-object distinction disappears. God is within us and the whole of God's creation is in God; the whole of creation is in us too. He is the pulsing life of all, the ceaseless call and longing, the unquenchable thirst, the One Thing Who Matters.

I am talking about an experience where there is only the divine Now. We are all eternally created in the uncreated womb of our Mother God. In God, we already possess and enjoy the things-to-come, for all things to come are already present in the eternity of God.

In St David’s, the veil is thin. The ‘thin place’ is an archetypal symbol, the parting of the veil on holy ground, breaking through time and space into the imminent Presence of God within the self and creation.

Pilgrim Ways and Holy Wells

For some time, I was Chaplain and Succentor of St David's Cathedral. I conducted innumerable groups of pilgrims around the shrine of St David and the holy places nearby. I suppose you could say that I took for granted the evident beauty of the place and its surroundings. Celtic Spirituality or Christianity was not an interest or ‘hobby’ for me, so much as something lived and experienced in everyday living in the West of Wales.

Several years later, I found myself as parish priest of The Havens - three parishes situated in St Brides Bay, only a few miles or so south of the St David’s Peninsula. Pilgrimage walks on the routes to St David’s were a form of regular exercise and prayer, as were expeditions in search of the ancient holy wells. The liturgy in the parish church reflected the seasons; both of the local saints and the coming and going of spring, summer, autumn and winter.

The elements are a very important factor in Celtic countries, and great respect is paid to the Lord of the Elements, as well as to the Lord of the Harvest. In countryside such as that bordering the western ocean off Pembrokeshire, God is held as central to his creation and to all human endeavor, especially to that of food production. The earth is seen as the creation of the Lord God, and made for all his creatures to enjoy. We know that we have the stewardship of it.

Yes, God has given us this world to use, to love and to care for. How easily we forget what a wonderful treasure this world of ours (and His) is. We must think carefully about what we should be doing to keep this gift in right order, to keep it safe and protected, living and growing.

To wander along the coast path of St Bride’s Bay to St David’s is, for me, the most natural way to pray. To walk in the footsteps of love, body and soul moving in rhythm to the Jesus Prayer and aware of

'The Maker of all things,
The Lord God worship we:
Heaven white with angels' wings,
Earth and the white-waved sea.'

(Early Irish Poem)

Wherever I looked I saw the Cosmic Christ. In everything and for everything I offered Christ; finding Him in everything. There was a saying circulated among the early Christians attributed to Christ, though not found in the Gospels:

'Lift the stone and you will find me,
cut the wood in two and there am I.’

It is this sense of God's presence and power that is so great. God's presence within everything. And so through the walked rhythm of prayer, I saw Him in everything, and turned to him for aid and guidance for everything.

Among the pre-Christian dwellers of this land of David, perhaps it was believed that a God, or Gods, was actually present in the wells, in the stone. The seeds of Christianity in Celtic lands had fallen into earth fertilized by centuries of natural worship. The pre-Christians believed in tree Gods and water goddesses, in mountains and animals and sunlight. When combined, the new faith and the old belief gave Celtic Christianity a unique flavor.

We Christians today cannot believe in a multiplicity of Gods, but we still believe in the same indwelling presence. Wellsprings are holy places, not just by virtue of the fact that a holy saint lived there and prayed there, but by virtue of the fact of what they are, living waters springing up from the earth and the gift of God. The waters springing from mother earth were also sacramentalized in the rite of Baptism as well as quenching the thirst of the weary pilgrim. That is what makes for a holy place.

It is perhaps a good thing to remember that the early Celtic Christians recognized that every fountain had its own particular Guardian Angel who was the symbol of the living embodiment of God's presence in that place. They loved all creatures for what they were.

Water, for example, is loved for itself, not because it is full of sprites and ethereal things, but because it is a creature like us. As a creature, water is my sister; and it is hardly normal to pour toxic acid into your sister! We are inter-related with all Creation. We not only pour forth from the Hand of God, our Father Creator, but in common with all creation, are brought forth out of our Mother, the Earth, by the action of the love of the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit.

'He breathes through all Creation,
He is love, eternal love.'
(Bishop Timothy Rees)

Photos of St. David's - city in Wales

We find the hand of God in all things. The whole approach of Celtic Spirituality is familial, simple and mystical. Mysticism is not merely visions and ecstasy, Christian mysticism consists in living the Christian mysteries and being transformed by it. For me, the mystical approach is to find the extraordinary in the ordinary; to find eternity in the familiar object we handle and use every day.

My Chief of generous heroes, bless
my loom and all things near to me,
bless me in all my busy-ness,
keep me for life safe-dear to Thee.
(Trad. Gaelic)

This is completely in the tradition of practicing the presence of God; i.e. experiencing the 'thinness' of our presence to Him and His working through us for the building up of the Kingdom. In common with the Celtic Christians we are to have a double value towards the world round about us, we are to value each thing for its specific vastness or 'isness'. We are to become aware that we are in each particular thing: and then in each thing and through each thing we are to apprehend the presence of the living God.

Things that are solid, with sharp outline and distinct relief, are at the same time transparent sacraments of God’s presence, and means of communion with Him.

The whole universe is interrelated and interdependent. All matter is connected, a fact acknowledged by both Mystic and Scientist. All movement, sound, and vibration has a repercussion and effect throughout the whole of the created order. The most important heritage which Celtic Christianity received from the old religion was the profound sense of the immanence of God in the world.

The Celtic Christians remained very much aware of the divine presence in all nature, and it is this sense of an all pervading presence that is characteristic of their Christian piety. Through prayer, these Celts experienced their relationship with the whole creation. Entering into harmony with the universe they Journeyed towards the ultimate destiny of God's world. Seeking the Lord of the Elements and journeying through life for the love of God, they achieved a state of grace.

'Up to the present, as we know, the whole created universe in all it parts groans as if in the pangs of childbirth, waiting for the children of God to appear.'

(Romans 8:22)

The Dewisland Coastal Walk

The chapels of St Non with its Holy Well, St Justinian and St Patrick are worth a visit. The thirteen mile round trip from the Cathedral (eight, by a shorter route) makes a good day’s walk and may be used as a pilgrimage if the chapels and other stopping places on the way are treated as stations for prayer and thought.

St. Non’s Chapel marks the site of St David's birthplace and is dedicated to his mother, St Non. In common with many early Christian churches, the Chapel may have been built on a Druidical site. The stones of a Bronze Age stone circle can be seen in the field around it. There is a legend which says that to relieve the agony of her labor pains, Non supported herself on a stone that lay near her and that it retained the prints of her fingers. It is said that when the Chapel was later built on that spot, the stone was introduced as an altar table.

Every little chapel had its Holy Well, many taken over from the Druids and Christianised; the waters used for Baptism and the needs of the Chapel. St Non's Holy Well was also a healing well, used for rheumatism and eye maladies.

The ruins overlooking Ramsey Sound are those of a Chapel built in the sixteenth century on the site of an older building, possibly a Celtic oratory. St Justinian was a hermit, born in Brittany, and a friend of Saint David. He was murdered on Ramsey Island; walked across the Sound with his head in his arms and laid himself to rest on the spot marked by his Chapel. His remains were later taken into the Cathedral where they are reported to have been interred with the relics of Saint David.

One other chapel site is the one now sadly laid bare, which legend says marked the place of St Patrick's home, from which he was stolen by pirates and taken to Ireland. It has also been suggested that it marks the spot in Porth Mawr from which he later sailed to unify the Irish Church, There is also the 'Seat', Eisteddfa Badrig, from which the mountains of Ireland are visible. Whatever the occasion, it most certainly was a holy station for early pilgrims on their way to and from Ireland and the settlement of St David’s.

Ireland returned the compliment later, for there are churches dedicated to St. David in the Irish dioceses of Cloyne, Ferns and Kildare. St Maedoc of Ferns was a disciple of Saint David.

When I walk this coastland of Saints Bride and David I am always aware that through and beyond this most beautiful and whole landscape is the holy inscape, the wholly 'other' world for which the physically seen is an overlay.

Ye saints of Wales
by love of God led
with heavenly power incarnate.
Great ones entrusted with the leadership
of many Celtic peoples.

Ye, O David, Dragon-
Saint of the western shores;
Teilo mighty in the music
of the word.

Padarn, bearer of the staff of light
and Illtud of the healing bell.
Samson, Brynach, Dogwell, Dyfrig
of misty mountain, Holy Well;
Pilgrims through earth , air, fire, and water,
seeking the love and power of God.

Flow within our hearts
and lighten our path
as we journey onward
through the shadows of the veil.


Thinness is Oneness

In the ancient Celtic journeys or voyages in search of the underworld, we find that the specified entrances or crossing-places into the Otherworld were not 'up-there’ but through a fluid, ambiguous place, which cut across spatial boundaries.

In the Voyage of Bran, it was perceived as being located on an Island in the western sea. Such a site is 'Gwales in Penvro’; reputedly Grassholm Island which lies on the westerly seascape beyond St David's Peninsula. This magical island is the 'fair and noble spot overlooking the ocean' mentioned in the Welsh Mabinogion story of 'Branwen, daughter of Llyr’.

Sacred Springs such as St Non’s, and Blessed Islands such as Grassholm, are gateways through which the timeless Underworld was reached. The Irish voyages, or immrama ,at a later date reflected the same inner need to travel through the realm of the liminal into a supernatural experience. At a later date the holy wells of the Celtic Christian can be understood as an adaptation of the belief that springs are places of supernatural power.

All around St David’s are liquid images of ancient subliminal entrances into the holy Otherworld. It has Sacred Sites, Holy Wells and Blessed Islands , poetic inspiration for the questing pilgrim.

The spiritual atmosphere here is deeply affected by what I would call the ‘David Stream': a process initiated centuries ago and of which St David was a luminous part. To tap into the David Stream is to become a participant in an architypical experience which has the power; which shakes forth from all Creation, to draw one closer to the Creator. I am speaking here of the incarnated presence of the Cosmic Christ; sensed, felt, experienced as an Open Door into a higher dimension. The Door is the entrance to the Kingdom of God. The door is Christ.

At a 'thin place' such as St David’s, we realise that the Kingdom of God is at hand within us. We are to repent, break through into the otherworld of our self and then understand that God is living in the depths of our heart. We enter into Him or allow Him to enter into us. It is a question of being wholly present, to being within and without, letting go and 1etting God into the well of the heart like a flood. In this, way we access pure mind not thought, we become aware that what makes the ground holy and the place 'thin' is the cumulative mirrored effect of what is happening within ourselves - a personal encounter with God; the moment of conversion. We discover that thinness is oneness and oneness is God.

"Moses, Moses!" God said. "Here I am," he answered. "Come no, nearer. Take off your shoes, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I am the God of your ancestors. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
At this Moses covered his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:4)

Photos of St. David's - city in Wales

Copyright  1997 by Brendan O'Malley.  All rights Reserved.  Used with permission.


Brendan O'Malley is Chaplain of the University of Wales, Lampeter and Officer for Pastoral Development and Renewal in the Diocese of St David's, Wales. He is of Irish descent, Scottish birth and education, Welsh adoption, and is a former Cistercian monk.

He has a Master's Degree in Celtic Christianity and is a Retreat and Workshop leader in Celtic Spirituality.

His previous publications include:
The Animals of St Gregory (Paulinus Press, 1981)
A Pilgrim's Manual, St David’s (Paulinus Press, 1985)
A Welsh Pilgrim's Manual (Gomer Press, 1989)
Celtic Spirituality (Church in Wales Publications, 1992)
God at Every Gate (Canterbury Press, 1997)
Pilgrim Guide to St David's (Canterbury Press,1997)
Celtic Blessings (Canterbury Press, 1998)



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