Carl McColman will help people explore thin places during a retreat at the Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse. Don’t let the word “thin” throw you — he’s a spiritual scout, not a diet docent.
McColman specializes in Celtic spirituality, reflecting his Scottish heritage, but he is quick to say, “You don’t have to be Irish or Scottish” to benefit from the Aug. 17-19 retreat.
Titled “Holy Wells and Thin Places: Celtic Spirituality for Our Time,” the retreat won’t plumb wells, in the literal sense.
In Celtic spirituality, a “thin place” is where the veil separating the earthly world from the spiritual is especially thin. They are said to exist in ancient holy wells, monastery ruins and stone circles common in the landscapes of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
“You can almost hear the angels’ wings” in those holy spaces, McColman says.
Human hearts also have thin spaces, and the retreat will help participants explore those places, where they might feel closer to God.
McColman speaks from experience when it comes to checking spiritual places. Raised a Lutheran, he joined the Episcopal Church in graduate school, sticking with that denomination for seven or eight years before a period of spiritual wanderlust prompted him to delve into several other traditions.
“I explored the Goddess, New Age, Buddhism — everything. Eventually, I realized I needed a community of faith” and converted to Catholicism 13 years ago, McColman said.
“What I’m very interested in is history, myths, legends and stories,” he said, adding, “I’m also very into helping people,” which dovetails with his role as a full-time retreat leader, speaker and author.
A prolific writer with several books on store shelves and online, McColman’s new tome, “An invitation to Celtic Wisdom,” is scheduled for publication in November.
“Celts are poets, bards and catechists cultivating a spiritual relationship, grounded in a Christian world where everybody is welcome,” he said.
“I try not to turn my retreats into lectures,” McColman said. “The heart of Celtic spirituality is poetry and storytelling. I tell several short stories, and one or two longer ones.”
One of his favorite stories is a legend about St. Brendan the Navigator, also known as one of the 12 Apostles of Ireland.
“If the legend is true, it’s a great story,” McColman said, noting that Brendan was looking for the Isle of Promise, where myth has it that the trees were heavy with promise.
Despite Brendan’s honorific title, his nautical skills apparently left something to be desired, and he ended up across the Atlantic Ocean in a previously undiscovered area far south of where Columbus landed centuries later, in 1492.
Imagine the possibility, McColman mused, that America could have been named after Brendan instead of Americus Vespucci.
At any rate, Brendan encountered a host of angels, who told him to reverse course and return home.
“Poor St. Brendan — he gets to where he was going and the shore has changed, so he has one foot in heaven,” he said.
McColman is a married lay Cistercian, which means that he is under the formal spiritual guidance of Cistercian monks, affiliated with the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga. He became attracted to the monks’ charism while working with them for five years.
Lay Cistercians need not be celibate but follow the contemplative life of the monks, with prayer an essential element in their daily routines, he said.
Just as the retreatants need not have a Celtic background, they also can be from any denominational background or none, McColman said.
McColman said it is appropriate that he is giving a retreat at a Franciscan institution, since Franciscans and Cistercians share appreciation for nature, animals and the universal presence of God.
“In a mystical sense, God is in our history,” he said. “God is inside every beating heart.”
“Celts are poets, bards and catechists cultivating a spiritual relationship, grounded in a Christian world where everybody is welcome.” Carl McColman