White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World
256 pp., 25.00
Nearly fifty years ago on the Dingle Peninsula of Ireland's County Kerry, a young Seamus Heaney entered the Gallarus Oratory, a dry-stone chapel "about the size of a large turf-stack," and had a small epiphany.
In an essay Heaney described entering this thousand-year-old house of prayer. He felt as though he were "sustaining a great pressure," the burden of Christian history itself "in all its rebuking aspects, its calls to self-denial and self-abnegation, its humbling of the proud flesh and insolent spirit." He imagined the monks of previous centuries feeling a similar pressure within that place. When Heaney re-crossed the threshold and emerged into the sunlight amid "the dazzle of grass and sea" his heart lifted. This sudden feeling of happiness, he thought, must have been the very sensation those monks experienced again and again as they crossed that same threshold. He felt "a surge toward praise, this sudden apprehension of the world as light, as illumination."
Perhaps what Heaney was describing was an encounter with a thin place. Associated with Celtic Christianity, thin places are certain landscapes where the veil between heaven and earth is said to grow diaphanous, thresholds that, once crossed, usher the visitor into a heightened awareness of God's presence. What follows is a lifting of weight, a sudden illumination. I recently met an Irish tree scientist, a famous biochemist who studies the effects of forest aerosols on human health. Her scientific credentials are impeccable. When I asked her about thin places, she told me about Gougane Barra, an island on a small lake where St. Finbarr the monk built an oratory in the 6th century, a place she said possessed numinous qualities. "There's a wall of prayer surrounding that place," she told me. I would feel it when I approached. The genius loci, the spirit of the place, would be palpable.
I was intrigued, but wary. The whole idea of thin places sounded a bit twee, like chem trails or crop circles, the kind of weirdness that attracts kilt-wearing American guys trying to reconnect with some imagined Celtic heritage, or scarf-bedecked women from Sedona with a large crystal collection. But what of places like the Gallarus Oratory and Gougane Barra? Was there some residue of prior belief, I wondered, in those erstwhile abodes of prayer? Seamus Heaney seemed to allude to such. In his essay "The Sense of Place" he said the Irish landscape was sacramental. Certain places possess a nimbus of their own which can be perceived.
I grew up amidst the mountains and rivers of southwest Montana, and experienced there what I might call intuitions of holiness. If thin places were real, then wild places had as much claim to the distinction as church ruins. Ireland was full of both. I decided to engage in some firsthand phenomenological research.
This past July, my wife and our three young sons rented a house for a few weeks on the western tip of the Dingle Peninsula. A pilgrimage en famille. In the months prior to our trip, I imagined us becoming a clan of eremitic monastics. We would visit holy sites like Gallarus and Gougane Barra. We would immerse ourselves in an ancient landscape of prayer and perhaps find that elusive feeling I had come to associate with such places: a lifting of the daily weight of living. God's felt presence in the landscape. A surge toward praise.
Which sounds poetic and blissful and transcendent, except that it often wasn't.
With three young boys in tow, most days were spent doing touristy things like riding the ferry to Great Blasket Island, renting surf boards at Inch Beach, and getting bloated on fish and chips. Our brief stop at Gougane Barra was a blur. Try as I might to intuit some aura of holiness on St. Finbarr's island of prayer, I was too distracted by the big Irish wedding party, some noisy Germans, and three juvenile delinquents—my sons—who I busted with their pockets full of Euros they'd stolen from the wishing well. And the Gallarus Oratory? Once I stepped inside the overturned keel of stone, I tried to imagine Heaney standing here fifty years ago, as he in turn imagined the monks a thousand years before him. I started to pray, but was interrupted by a scratching noise outside. I ducked back across the threshold and as I turned the corner discovered our eight-year-old halfway up the north wall, our five-year-old not far behind. The most hallowed early Christian monument in all of Ireland, and my hoped-for thin place, had suddenly become my sons' climbing wall. We left after five minutes.
I did find a thin place. It was the one I reached every evening with the aid of several drams of Jameson Black Barrel, knocked back neat.
The disconnect between pilgrims' expectations and their actual experience is the subject of Geoff Dyer's White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World. These essays describe secular pilgrimages—Dyer is an agnostic—but they are full of insights for the religious pilgrim. They are also full of prose that crackles and zings.
I read White Sands just after returning from the Dingle Peninsula, and one of the reasons I found it intriguing was Dyer's interest in thin places. Actually he never uses the phrase, but he is on the hunt for landscapes full of what he calls, borrowing a term from D. H. Lawrence, nodality. More on that shortly.
Dyer is both novelist and essayist, though he's not particularly concerned with genre boundaries. He has been compared to W. G. Sebald, whose autobiographical novels (or are they novelistic essays?) defy labels, though reading Dyer I was reminded less of Rings of Saturn than of Songlines or In Patagonia, book-length travel narratives by Dyer's late countryman Bruce Chatwin.
One of the reasons we read essays is for the vicarious pleasure of watching another person think. Entering thickets of thought is the essay's territory and method. The mind endlessly chewing into itself, probing, making assertions, then doubling back to confirm or dispel insights or delusions. Throw in a compelling travel narrative and the pleasure increases. "Travel essays" comes closest to describing White Sands, but its author disavows the label. In a 2012 Paris Review interview, Dyer said: "That term travel essay always seems tautologous to me. All the best essays are epistemological journeys from ignorance or curiosity to knowledge." The inner journey occasioned by the outer journey is his real subject, and in each essay Dyer is out to discover "the point where the place and the self interact or merge—or where there's a big crack between the two."
Dyer is a seeker, and a restless one, which makes for plenty of cracks. He often fails in his search for places of nodality, but the seeking is genuine. Dyer defines his search more or less like this: "You come to a place and ask what makes it special. The answer, sometimes, is because of the history that's converged there. I like—and am on the lookout for—places where time has stood its ground. I guess mystics or someone like Annie Dillard would say you can have comparable experiences anywhere, at any moment, but I need the help of a special place." The nodal points on his secular pilgrimage range from Gauguin's grave in Tahiti to Beijing's Forbidden City to various land art projects in the American West. In a series of micro-essays braided into the longer pieces he recounts his visits to the nodal points of memory, places like the Hump, a no-place mound of dirt and trees in the far corner of Dyer's primary school playground that becomes the first place of significance in his personal landscape. Of the Hump, Dyer writes, "it was more than what it was, more than what it was called. If we had decided to take peyote or set fire to one of our schoolmates, this is where we would have done it."
That pattern of earnest introspection juxtaposed with bad-boy humor is one Dyer uses repeatedly throughout the book. Perhaps given his British labor background he's always ready to undercut any statement that sounds remotely pretentious. In his essay on Gauguin, perhaps fearing his reflections on art are growing ponderous, he interjects: "Gauguin was a symbolist, which means his art is full of symbols."
The centenary of the artist's death gets Dyer thinking about Tahiti, so off he goes to write about Gauguin and "the lure of the exotic." The trip begins badly. While changing planes at LAX, Dyer forgets David Sweetman's biography of the artist, his most important source of reference. What he finds on arrival—no surprise here—is not Gauguin's Tahiti, but its commodified simulacrum. As Dyer remarks to one of his fellow tourists, "We are not in Polynesia at all. We are in a casino in Vegas called the Tahiti or the Bounty."
This, Dyer worries, will be a thwarted pilgrimage. But not entirely. For he has an encounter at one of the tiki sites:
The jungle had been cleared, the air swarmed with mosquitoes and, as soon as we approached, I felt the gravitational force of the place. I mean that literally. The main tiki—the largest in Polynesia—is squat, rounded, strong. There is an unmistakable power here. Even the leaves are conscious of it, can feel it, are part of it. At some level this came as no surprise. There had to be something here, lurking or buried in the midst of the island: it was inconceivable that a place like this would not have generated some kind of belief in itself that could be felt—if not understood—by the stranger or visitor.
Dyer is mostly smirky and proud about his lack of belief, but there is no mistaking the earnest nature of his search. Which makes it hard to fault him when his epiphanies fall short. "The answer to the obvious question—was it worth coming all this way?—might have been no, but it didn't occur to us to ask … . [It] was here. We were here. That was the simple truth." And that's about as far as he takes it.
And yet I found Dyer to be a deft chronicler of a pilgrim's expectations, how one's desires shift and reform, and how time spent in a certain landscape can replace false desires with something more durable and true.
The formula, if there is such, is to simply pay attention to the place itself. One of the book's epigraphs is a quote from Annie Dillard: "The point of going somewhere like the Napo River in Ecuador is not to see the most spectacular anything. It is simply to see what is there. We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place."
After failing to see the real Tahiti, Dyer remarks: "That is the essential difference between religious and secular pilgrimage: the latter always has the potential to disappoint." No, Mr. Dyer, disappointment waits for us religious pilgrims, too. We are always trying to ferret out some spiritual significance from our journeys, which means we often fail to see the actual places, and people, right there in front of us.
Once I gave up my search for thin places, I began to pay more attention to the Dingle Peninsula, the place right there in front of me, and it felt like I had come to the edge of the known world.
It's as if on the third day of creation, after separating the dome above the waters and dividing night from day, God had said 'Let there be a land of moss and stone and great columns of walking light,' yet after the sixth day when he gave form and breath to the first humans, God forbade them from establishing too firm a tenure on these islands and headlands. As several millennia of abandoned habitations attest—Bronze Age ring forts, monastic beehive huts, oratories like Gallarus—Dingle's human settlements have a liminal quality about them, as though the human race could visit, but our stay here would be always be tenuous and contingent. This is a place where a finger of land meets the hunger of the sea and is swallowed into oblivion.
That hunger is ours, of course. It's why we travel, at least those of us who go as pilgrims rather than tourists. We go on pilgrimage not to consume experience, but be consumed by a place. Or at least to discover the borders between self and world, borders that have become blurred in our online lives. The digital age has obscured what Heaney called "a marvelous or a magical view of the world," and we're hungry to find it again.
When I gave up my search for false reveries I also rediscovered my sons, the very ones who had thwarted my earlier efforts. I noticed, and reveled in, certain unscripted moments with them: messing around in tide pools on Wine Strand beach, scrambling up the summits of the Three Sisters, walking along a sea cliff on Great Blasket and looking across the Atlantic toward home.
One afternoon we climbed Mt. Brandon, a 3,000-foot ascent to the summit where St. Brendan the Navigator was said to have fasted forty days before sailing to the Americas. As we were climbing I wondered what visions St. Brendan saw from his mountaintop, which got me thinking of another mountaintop, the one where Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John. Master, Peter said, after gazing upon Jesus' radiance, it is good for us to be here.
Our own ascent was more purgative than revelatory. The path was a sodden mess; we were hiking in tennis shoes, and within ten minutes of starting our feet were drenched. A dense fog set in. We didn't bring enough food or water. But once our boys embraced our shared suffering, something like glee seemed to carry them up the mountain. Our five-year old made it halfway up, much further than we expected, and turned back with my wife. The older two boys wanted to push on. After a strenuous two-hour climb, the three of us reached the summit. It was windy, cold, and damp. We found the rock grotto where St. Brendan hunkered down those forty days and nights, and the three of us hunkered down there as well. The boys pulled their jackets down over their knees and pretended to be mountain trolls. We shared the last of our water, congratulated ourselves with high fives, took a few group selfies, then headed back down the trail.
In the summit photos we appear soggy and tired. We are all wearing huge grins. I am struck now by the faces of my sons. Such radiance. The image and likeness of God looking back at me.
It is good for us to be here.
Fred Bahnson is the author of Soil and Sacrament (Simon & Schuster) and is on the faculty at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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