Graveyards, silence and the mystery of ‘thin places’

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Deep in Nebraska farm country, there’s an old cemetery called “St. Patrick’s” plunked down amid the cornfields. To the locals, it’s universally known as “Kelly Hill,” in deference to the family that donated the land.

Kelly Hill was founded as the cemetery for two country parishes, including my childhood parish, St. Patrick’s Dublin. The churches closed in the 1970s, but the cemetery remains.

Kelly Hill is probably where I’ll be buried. My mother and father and one brother are there. My great-grandfather from Galway, and other relatives from Mayo and Tipperary, lie there under Celtic crosses.

Grandma Lizzie, who died young, was buried there, but years later my grandfather decided he wanted to be buried in the town cemetery and ordered his two oldest sons, one of whom was my already emotionally fragile father, to exhume their own mother’s grave.

Memories help make the windswept hillside what the late Irish philosopher John O’Donohue has called a “thin space.” In the Celtic tradition, a thin space is a place or occasion which gives us an opening into the presence of God.

The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gassett wrote, “Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.”

The landscape of Kelly Hill is dramatic. From the top of the hill, you see for miles down into the valley stretching towards the Platte River. No towns or highways are visible. The occasional farmhouse and the dust stirred up by a random plow are the only reminders of human presence.

Two things strike you: the silence and the omnipresent prairie wind.

St. Patrick converted an entire nation without bloodshed, a singular event, and one made possible because ancient Celtic spirituality melded well into the sacramental and mystical Christian faith. The idea of the presence of the living and dead in communion resonated with the Celtic mind.

Today, we live in a skeptical age. Skepticism can be a healthy thing, as hucksters abound. Yet, our faith calls us to a place where skepticism yields to trust. For all its foibles, the church offers us a place where theologians delve into faith informed by reason. We live in a church that moves slowly in a fast-paced world, and that, too, can be a good thing.

Silence is essential to the spiritual life. One needn’t visit a country graveyard to find silence, but the combination of silence and feeling in communion with the dead can be conducive to spiritual growth.

I feel peaceful at Kelly Hill. But I also feel challenged. Death is the ultimate challenge of our faith, because the ultimate promise of our faith is the empty tomb. We do not know precisely what that means for our departed loved ones or for us. I chafe at funerals where homilists assure us that Uncle George is still fishing for salmon on heaven’s shores.

Let’s leave it to mystery, to the Mysterious One who came back almost unrecognizable save for the wounds he still bore.

Meanwhile, I take heart from the first line of a blessing from O’Donohue: “May you know that absence is full of tender presence and that nothing is ever lost or forgotten.”

When I was in Galway, I hunted for a flat stone. On it, I am writing the words “a Iosa Criost” (phonetically “a Eesuh”) which translates into “to Jesus Christ” in Irish. It was going to be my souvenir, but if I can part with it, I’m going to take it to Kelly Hill and bury it by my great-grandfather’s grave, because nothing is ever forgotten.

The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.


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