Thin places in time
How looking beyond the present makes a walk more meaningful
In the week before our current season of lent, I had a series of experiences of time wearing thin, of seeing the multiple, ironic and grace-filled layers of previous times within or alongside the seemingly solid present. The idea of thin places originates in Ireland, where it was believed that certain places touched the holiness of another world. But here in Munich it is not the thinness of being close to the numinous. It is instead the thinness of time and culture, and a felt connection to others long gone.
One can stand in a place and feel the presence of other times, of momentous and of ordinary events. Every place one stands is old beyond reckoning. But some seem more likely to call you into the past – or perhaps the past lingers here like a ghost or a kind spirit. As I stand in Odeonsplatz, I can image a baker hurrying by in the 1920s, his white clothing flying. And moments later, two thin men in suits walk with heads leaned together, plotting an assassination attempt. I can see, hundreds of year earlier, two Jesuits standing in their black cassocks and capes, pointing and discussing the plans for the new Theatiner Kirche. In a city as old as Munich, it is easy to feel the presences from fifty, or one hundred, or ten thousand years ago, when things were very different in this very place. There has been a settlement here for at least 6,000 years, to which Benedictine monks later added an Abby and where a Bavarian Duke built a bridge over the river to get tax revenue.
I spend a lot of time at Odeonsplatz at the old north gate of Munich. One of my favorite coffeehouses is there (the Tambosi) and also one of my favorite places to get traditional German food (Pfälzer Weinstube). As befits a gateway, it seems to be on the way to pretty much anywhere I want to go. And every time I walk or ride through it, it seems a thin place.
Walking home from the train station the other day, I walked through Odeonsplatz and stopped at the east side of the Feldherrnhalle (a monument to Bavarian generals). One could see there the places on the stone where a monument had once been attached. It was a monument to the “victims” of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s abortive attempt to overthrow the government of Bavaria that landed him in jail (where he wrote Mein Kampf, his infamous political screed). If you stand in front of this vacant, bare corner you will be standing where Hitler and his comrades stood in 1923, just before they were fired upon by the Bavarian Police. It is an eerie feeling in this thin place.
A few days before, I was waiting for Almut in front of the Tambosi, and watching a demonstration across the square from me. It was actually two demonstrations, both held here in Odeonsplatz every Monday. On the one hand is Pegida, a nativist, anti-immigration party, and on the other side of the barricade is a loud rabble of counter-demonstrators. Pegida has a screen, film projector, and speaker system. The counter-demonstrators have trumpets and noise makers. Both groups are outnumbered by police, some in riot gear. At this point Almut bicycles up and shouts into my ear (over the noise of the demonstrators) “Democracy!!! Look, they do ...Democracy!!!” One might wonder about such enthusiasm, except that I know Almut was raised behind the Berlin Wall, when Germany was still separated in East and West. People demonstrating (and counter-demonstrating)in the streets was rather a rare sight in the Russian controlled East before the 1988-89 peaceful revolution, which filled the streets for months, bringing down the communist government. Instead, the 40 years before that revolution saw a full sufficiency of police, both open and secret. So now we are binding together in this place the early days of Nazism, modern anti-immigrant movements, left-wing counter demonstrators, and the memories of totalitarianism of the communist East. Here indeed is a thin place where a multitude of times float into each other.
There are still more layers to discover, even on this one evening. Almut and I are meeting to go to the Weinstube, not realizing that this is the night the Weinstube has its Fasching Ball. We walk in and the receding noise of the demonstrators is replaced by loud Schlager Music (a German version of country). The Weinstube is always full of older Munich residents, and tonight is no different. But tonight most are dressed as though for a costume ball. And a costume ball it is: It is Fasching, the German version of Mardi Gras, and held for the same reason – a large party before the rigors of Lent. But the name, "Fasching," binds us back to the old days of pagan rituals to drive away the winter. And the costumes and the dancing of the genteel revelers remind us of the Fasching balls held 50 years ago, when these guests were young. The party a few days later on the Victualienmarkt (see pictures) seems as wild a party as one the ancient Celts from this area might have thrown 2,000 years ago. Again, even in drunken revelry, one can find thin places stretching across time.
It is this thinness of time that brings us together in spirit with the host of witnesses who have gone before, and makes us wonder about those to come. It is probably something we notice more when we are traveling in foreign places. But these places are also where you are right now. Where you sit as you read is a magical place, connected by the thin webs of time to many other events, tears and laughter, prayers and curses. To remember this is to be drawn outside ourselves, to transcend our own time and to feel a part of something larger. Recognizing this connectedness is part of what it is to be spiritual:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
-Percy Bysshe Shelly
I would love to learn of the thin places in time that you have come across. How do they change your experience?