Many faith traditions have ‘thin places’ – places where another world, a world of other dimensions, spiritual realities, seems very close. Sometimes these are much revered holy places, sometimes they are more personal places experienced by an individual alone.
This week in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania I experienced two very different thin places. Above an arch of Ausros Vartai, the gates of Dawn, one of the ancient city gates, is a small chapel containing a large icon venerated by Catholic and Orthodox christians – the icon of Our Lady of Mercy. To visit I walked along the corridor from the nearby church of St Teresa and walked up the 39 steps to the chapel. On the stairway two pilgrims were ascending on their knees, one a poor elderly lady in her 70s, the other a man in his 30s.
The holiness of the place was almost palpable, one felt one stood on the threshold of a glorious realm. The icon of Our Lady was a focus of love and prayer. Everyday people came and went, saying their rosaries, kneeling in prayer, some at peace, others in tears.
In contrast on Gedimino pr. in another part of the city I experienced a very different, dark, ‘thin place.’ On a sombre building on this thoroughfare a plaque reminds passers by that the building once housed the Gestapo and later the KGB and in the building people were “tortured and killed”, and “genocide planned”. The plaque was a chilling reminder of how close evil can be to us.
Next to the building an impromptu street shrine has grown where relatives and other Lithuanians honour former citizens who suffered under terrible repressions.
Both places stand as poignant witnesses to the good and the evil of which humanity is capable. In both places I felt God was close.