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Holy Places–Thin Places

21 September 2009

Recently Bishop Seraphim Sigrist posted some pictures of Radonezh in Russia on his blog, and asked his readers to suggest what might be the spiritual heartland of their own country. Radonezh is where St Sergius of Radonezh established his monastery at the time that the Russians were resisting Tatar imperialism, and so it is of both spiritual and national significance for Russian Orthodox Christians, and is certainly the home of Russian monasticism.

The pictures he posted of Radonezh look very similar to the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, which is one of my favourite parts of South Africa, and where I’d like to have lived, if I had a choice. But it didn’t seem like a spiritual heartland to me. Do we have any holy places in South Africa that could be called a spiritual heartland? What some have called “thin places”, where one feels close to God?

The place that came to my mind was Marishane in Sekhukhuniland, in Limpopo Province.

It is about 300 kilometres north-east of Pretoria, in a rather remote rural area. It is, in a way, the heartland of Pedi culture. King Sekhukhune maintained his independence from the South African republic for many years in the 1860s and 1870s, even though that republic claimed his kingdom.

Traditional Pedi dancers at Marishane

Traditional Pedi dancers at Marishane

But that is not why I think Marishane is a holy place.

I think it is a holy place because is the place of the death of Manche Masemola, a teenager, and a catechumen in the Anglican Church.

The Anglican equivalent of the Synaxarion tells her story thus:

4 February– Manche Masemiola of Sekhukhuniland

Virgin and Martyr, 1928

An African girl who at the age of eighteen joined a class to be prepared for baptism. Her parents were strongly opposed to her becoming a Christian and did all in their power to stop her. Every time she returned home from class she was beaten by her mother, who in her rage even threatened to kill her daughter. Finding that nothing could shake her faith her family dragged her out of her hut and by turns flogged her until she died. As she herself had predicted to her priest, she was baptised with her own blood.

The place where she died has become a place of pilgrimage, and thousands of people make the pilgrimage each year in February to commemorate her. I have not been to one of the February commemorations, but I have visited her grave and the nearby church at Marishane, and that to me seemed to be one of the thin places, one of the holy places, in South Africa. Her grave is in a grove of trees on a hill above the church, and it feels like a sacred grove, where the whispering of the wind in the trees could be the voices of angels, perhaps the very angels who bore Manche’s soul to heaven when she died.

Manche Masemola's grave at Marishane

Manche Masemola's grave at Marishane

Bishop Seraphim commented on my choice, “it is an alternative certainly to the trekker locations which no doubt have great power but are for only a fraction of a people. this could be for your whole people inasfar as may be…”

Manche Masemola's grave -- another view

Manche Masemola's grave -- another view

I have visited some of the trekker locations. Piet Retief’s grave at Dingaanstat, the Church of the Vow in Pietermaritzburg, and of course the Voortrekker Monument, which, however, has the spirit of the 1930s rather than the 1830s. But they hav e never struck me as holy places. Scenes of significant historical events, or monuments to commemorate significant historical events, but not a spiritual heartland. Perhaps because they were sectional, and perhaps because for much of my life they were used to invoke a sectional spirit, and tied to an evil political system.

St Peter's Anglican Church, Marishane

St Peter's Anglican Church, Marishane

But I’ll ask a similar question to that asked by Bishop Seraphim, to readers of this blog. Which place or places in South Africa (or, if you don’t live in South Africa, your own country), do you regard as thin places, or holy places? And why?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. sol permalink
    21 September 2009 11:04 pm

    I use Manche’s story when teaching a unit on Christian suffering and martyrs in particular. The video clip has its inadequacies, but it does put her story out there.

    • 22 September 2009 5:15 am


      That’s interesting. I didn’t know it was widely known outside southern Africa.

  2. 22 September 2009 11:59 am

    What a sad story – no-one should be prevented from following their chosen religion.

    My favourite holy place is Danebury Rings, a hillfort near Stockbridge in England. It’s on the chalk (always the best geology in my experience) and seems to be a thin place, in that one can easily slip back in time there.

  3. sol permalink
    23 September 2009 12:28 am

    We are blessed with a number of thin places very close to here. Two of my favourites are the church founded near St Dyfrig’s first seminary, where he trained monks to spread the Gospel throughout Wales, and Llantony Priory, the ruins of which are built next to the cell where St David retreated to pray before he became a bishop. The Anglican parish church built on the site of the cell allows us to use it for Orthodox services, which we have sometimes done on the Saturday closest to St David’s Day.

  4. 23 September 2009 1:00 am

    I’m not sure if I could think of a “holy” place here in America. I’m sure that there are some on a personal level. Well, there is always Ground Zero in New York, which was the sight of the bombings on Sept 11, 2001. You have a terrific blog.

  5. 3 October 2009 5:49 am

    I recently visited Freedom Park. Although its perhaps a little artificial, I did have a slight feeling of being in a place, perhaps not holy, but special, somehow. Or perhaps I had the feeling that it might become holy. It celebrates all those who made sacrifices for our freedom, and is the most inclusive place I’ve been to in terms of sites that try capture elements of our South Africa history. It also has a symbolic ‘holy site’ which has stones representing all nine provinces. A little forced perhaps, as they’ve surrounded the area with artificial smoke, and yet I got a little chill while standing there, for some reason.

    • 3 October 2009 6:29 am

      It’s a place I’ve been meaning to visit, but somehow keep putting off, or rather just forgetting. Thanks for the reminder!

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