Conceptually, I have known of “thin places” for a number of years but never really gave it a whole lot of thought. Thin places, like many other Celtic traditions, hold a certain mystical fascination for me. The Celts developed this sort of thinking long before the long arm of western Christianity invaded their world. Simply put, a thin place was and is just that, a physical location where the separation between the divine and the earth is thin. I believe we can expand that beyond the borders of Ireland and Scotland and say that we have all experienced thin places in our lives – those mystical, unexplainable touches with the divine that both test and strengthen our faith. Contemplative Franciscan Richard Rhor calls this place “the edge “, and suggests we should cultivate being there. “The edge is a holy place, or as the Celts called it, “a thin place” and you have to be taught how to live there. To take your position on the spiritual edge of things is to learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return.” So, how can we find a thin place in our world? Do we get on a plane and fly to Ireland, or can we just go around the block? Let’s do a little background first.
A thin place is any place of transition: a doorway, a gate, the sea shore, these are all places where very little movement will take you from one place to another. My grandfather had a practice of going “visiting” the neighbors where he would always stand on the porch on the outside of the doorway and never go into the house. In spite of that, everyone would say that that Frank had come over to their house that day. The thin places of spirituality are the same way, we are present in both worlds.
Thin Places in the Bible
I will narrow the list down a little by picking three.
The first is the thin place of God in the Exodus from Egypt. “For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.” (Exodus 40:38 NRSV) Perhaps this is the most graphic of all thin places in the Bible because it had a very graphic signpost of God’s nearness. God traveled with them and they saw it, they knew and were blessed by experiencing the thin place.
The second is the thin place of any miracle. I’ll pick the Hebrew Scripture story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were local officials of the occupation government of King Nebuchadnezzar. The king had statue of himself built and decreed all subjects to offer worship to it. These men refused saying that they could only worship the true God, Yahweh. He ordered them burned in an especially hot furnace, but they did not perish in the flames. “Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.”(Daniel 3:24-25 NRSV) Not only were they saved from the execution but God was walking with them in the fire. Not only Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego but all those present around the furnace were standing on holy ground – a thin place.
I chose for the third reference the thinnest place that ever existed, the hill of Golgotha. Many would say that this was a place of the melding of heaven and earth. The place where Jesus, God in the flesh, died for the salvation of all. Picture the scene: “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.” (Luke 23:44-46 NRSV)There were so many ways that this scene had become a thin place that I could spend pages talking about it, but instead I just want to say the veil between the celestial and the earthly was extraordinarily thin.
Relishing your thin places.
I believe with all that is in me that we are able to say, “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and… put out my hand and touched the face of God.” That quote from John Gillespie’s sonnet “High Flight” was made famous by President Ronald Reagan in his speech following the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. That is the type thin place I seek – a place where I can feel the presence of God.
Without question there were such thin places in the Bible. The fire that followed the Ark of the Covenant, the conversation of Paul on the Damascus Road, the encounter with Jesus on the Emmaus Road and the Temple in Jerusalem are examples of such places. These stories stand separately from the Celtic notion of thin places. Jesus expands the thin places of life by saying: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” Scholar N. T. Wright tells us, “Those in whom the Spirit comes to live are God’s new Temple. They are, individually and corporately, places where heaven and earth meet.” When heaven and earth meet, a thin place is discovered. I wish no dishonor or disrespect to the more purist concept of thin places but do wish to expand on the opportunity for each us to recognize our encounters with the thin places God has presented to us. With that in mind, I want to speak about some thin places we can experience.
In 1871, the German people of the town of Carrollton (now part of New Orleans LA) demanded their own church, and the Mater Dolorosa German Church was established. Mater Dolorosa still ministers to all seekers, and is a thin place for me. Thirty-five years after its ministry began my grandfather Frank Klundt was baptized there. In 1926 he was married to my grandmother at the same church and in 1927 my mother was baptized there as well. Now if that is not enough, in 1955 I was presented for Baptism at Mater Dolorosa church. Tradition and spiritual experience have made the area of the baptismal font a thin place for me. When I am there, I am with my family, God and a gathering of the communion of saints. Mater Dolorosa church is a place where generations of my family have expressed their faith. I can sit silently and just wait for the touch of God, and He does touch me. He touches me though the hands of my faith. Ask God to reveal a thin place to you. I know you have one.
INTENTIONAL RETREATS –
Many of us have gone “on retreat” at least one time in our lives and in the midst of such an experience we have felt a special touch of God. Perhaps it was the teaching, the music or the other people. God spoke to you, He gave you a mountain top experience. As we leave that particular set of circumstances we have a great desire to “can” the feeling so that we will always have it in our possession. Don’t can it, relish it, and know that God has brought you to a thin place and he will do it again.
COMMUNING WITH NATURE –
Love of nature is built into our creation DNA. Experiences with nature drive us to an awareness of creation. Columbanus said, ‘If you wish to understand the Creator, first understand His creation.’ If we seek to be continually aware of His presence in nature, He will present to us a thin place of communication – a place where heaven and earth will intersect and glory revealed. Sunsets, mountains, sea waves, majestic creatures are all gifts to remind us of His magnificent creation. That reminder breaks the great veil of separation.
To allow heaven and earth to meet, we must seek God. He is sought in prayer and worship practices. The importance of having regular and disciplined practices is the key to thin place experiences.
Let me suggest a few.
The act of silence is a simple emptying of self and inviting God to fill the void. Centering prayer and other forms of meditation are windows to heaven. According to Dominican Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth century mystic, “There is nothing so much like God as silence.” Silence is a thin place.
PRAYING WITH ICONS –
The practice of writing icons is one of the earliest acts of prayer in the ancient church. Such a practice calls for us to leave ourselves behind and seek God. We desperately need a concrete image of God and icon gazing is a way reaching out and touching the face of God.
LECTIO DIVINA –
Simply put, it is the praying the scripture. Picking a passage and reading with careful attention to the words and thoughts that are contained therein and allowing those words to sink deeply into your souls can be a sacred experience.
In a world that sees worship as far more people centered than God centered, we are truly challenged to seek God in our time of worship. For worship to become a thin place we must put our personalities on the shelf and put the Holy Spirit on a pedestal. Allow God to pierce through all the distractions and enter into that place. Pray for those special moments that come in worship and you will find them.
I certainly hope that these words will inspire you to actively seek a thin place. God IS inviting you to find Him.