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Halloween offers chance to connect with sacred

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Halloween will soon be here. In North America, it's a time for children to dress up and go trick-or-treating.

For the ancient Celts, it was a special time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the worlds of the dead were blurred, and people on both sides could communicate with each other.

Known as Samhain, for the Celts that night was a "thin place" -- a time when spirits, both harmful and harmless, returned to the Earth. One way to prevent the dangerous ones from harming you was by wearing costumes and masks.

The idea of a thin place isn't unique to the Celts. It's a phrase used to describe both times, such as Halloween, and places where people feel especially connected to God or the life of the spirit.

Tom Cashman, who leads workshops on Celtic spirituality, told the Vancouver Sun in 2010 that thin places are those times or places "that cause the hair to stand up on the back of your neck" -- times when you feel you've made contact with the other side of reality.

I haven't had any of those kinds of experiences. But sometimes when I am in old buildings, like in the Exchange District, and I am very still and quiet, I imagine I can hear the people who used to live or work in those places. For the briefest of moments, it's as if I am taken back in time -- and then it's gone.

Someone who feels this way much more keenly than I do is Alan Green, senior rabbi at Shaarey Zedek synagogue in Winnipeg.

Green's interest in thin places stems from his first visit to Israel, in 1974, when he visited the graves of some of the great rabbis from ancient times.

"Even then, I was able to recognize them as sacred spaces," he says. For the first time in his life he "prayed that I should be able to have a clear experience of the presence of God." Several hours later, it happened -- an odd sensation of being outside himself and nearer to God than ever before.

"I learned a great deal from this experience about where one can find God, about how God can operate through us, when given the chance, and how long-deceased spiritual teachers and holy places can intervene to help guide us back to the source of life," he says.

He can only think that "the rabbis whose gravesites I visited that day graced me with an insight at which I could never have arrived on my own."

Since that time, Green has always had his antennae up for the thin places in the world.

"They are everywhere," he says of the places where the "barriers to spiritual experience are a little more permeable, and the spirit of God, and truth, a little more available than in ordinary, profane space."

One of the best thin places in the world for Green is Jerusalem.

"In Jerusalem, one has a strong sense that they indeed are in a place where heaven and earth kiss," he says. "Everything one experiences in Jerusalem is extremely vivid and somehow miraculous."

He sometimes calls Jerusalem "the land of times 10" because "everything one does there, from the extraordinary to the mundane, is 10 times as intense as it would have been back home."

It's no wonder, he says, "that the rabbis conceived of Jerusalem as the place from which the universe began. It really seems to be one of those thin places, a city upon which God always has His attention, a place of extraordinary power and inspiration."

But you don't have to go to Israel to get that experience, he says. Closer to home, he has found several thin places. There's the area directly beneath the dome of the Legislative Building, and the chapel dedicated to the Blessed Vasyl Velychkovsky at St. Joseph's Ukrainian Catholic Church in West Kildonan.

He also experiences it at the grave of Rabbi Avraham Twersky at Shaarey Zedek Memorial Park at Armstrong and Main. Twersky, who died in the 1940s, was known for his special ability to bless others; his grave is still a place of pilgrimage today for Hasidim from across North America.

But one of Green's favourite thin places is Bannock Point in the Whiteshell. That's where aboriginal people from long ago created petroforms of turtles, snakes and humans; for them, and for many others, it's a sacred place, where people can feel closer to the Spirit.

"Walking in that place, one feels a powerful, grounded connection to the Earth," says Green.

Maybe you have your own thin places; perhaps Manitoba is filled with them. After all, the province's name derives from the Cree word that means "the place of God" or "the place where God sits." So if you're wandering in downtown Winnipeg, biking through Birds Hill Park, walking along Grand Beach or driving past a wheat field along Highway 75 and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, you'll know why.

jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 J14

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