Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Thin Places

We are exiles in the far end of solitude, living as listeners
With hearts attending to skies we cannot understand:
Waiting upon the first Drums of Christ the Conqueror,
Planted like Sentinels upon the world’s frontier.
Thomas Merton

In the poetry and prayers from Celtic Christians, I’ve noticed two ideas that are often held in tension: the importance of place and the importance of exile or journey. Thus the same people could affirm on the one hand “the place you are standing is holy,” and on the other hand proclaim “we are searching for our place of resurrection.”

This tension appears on the film Nostalgia by Andrei Tarkovsky. A Russian poet wanders the countryside of Italy in search of inspiration. He is an exile longing for his homeland. Of course, the viewer is left wondering if is his homeland simply Russian soil or the place of his eternal longing.

This is the yearning of the human soul to come home. Our particular places give us stability and comfort and yet in our heart of hearts, we know there is a place more sure, more stable than “the shifting sands of Rome.”

We sense this because each of us, in our journey has stumbled across “thin places.” The Celts suggest that there are places where heaven and earth seem to collide and the eternal wall of separation seems to vanish. These transcendent encounters remind us that there is more to life than simply the material realm we can see, feel, smell, hear and touch.

Our forefathers of faith Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all stumble upon “thin places.” They each have encounters when the Creator penetrates the moment with a Voice from above. They respond to the call and journey forward in search of a city not made by hands.

Edward Sellner has suggested that these “thin places” actual remove the wall between the past, present and future. For a brief moment, our particular time and space is eclipsed by an awareness of relatedness that extends far past anything we could have imagined.

The Hebrew prophets sometimes captured this overlapping of past, present and future when they declare the works of God. Addressing the present moment, they may look forward to a perfected future by alluding to a glorious past. Edenic visions look forward to the summation of all things in Christ.

Bishop Seraphim Sigrist speaks of encountering a “thin place” in Semhoz at the home of the martyr Alexander Men. He wonders if a place rich in history makes it seem “thin.” But then he suggests the radical possibility that we create thin places. He says,
“So there is history at Semhoz, but I wonder if also Christian hospitality and lived faith, such as that which my friends experienced from the Men family, does not also render a place “thin?” If so of course, we may come upon (or dare we hope create?) thin place unsuspected by connoisseurs of sacred sites.”

Bishop Sigrist continues by connecting the deep mystery of Christian community with the mystery of thin places. Thus the Lord would say “for where two or three are gathered in my name there I am in the midst of them.”

In the mystery of His love and grace, God calls us forth into community, into a people, into a body. He forms us in relation with other people and together we become a family. Into this family of faith, he gives gifts. More gifts than we could ever contain in a list.

(G)ifts of son, and of joy and of a particular smile…the gift of courage and the gift of peace. The gift of vision of the unseen and the vision of what should be…the gift of tears and the gift of laughter. Fire and ecstasy are a gift and so is radiant calm. Tongues are a gift and so too is the language of science and analysis. The gifts of healing by prayer, the gifts of a faithful doctor.

The list is unlimited in variety and expression. Each gift is a treasure for the family—not for the individual to wrap up and hide away for themselves. He continues:

A gift is not something that we have on our own. Considered in ourselves we are all on the contrary limited and broken and fill of impossible contradictions even within ourselves—not to speak of with others. We have no wholeness individually or together, but we have the possibility to receive as a gift that which we could in no way establish in ourselves.

God who is rich in mercy, calls us forth to his family. And in this family, we who are wounded and hungry and hurt become a precious gift poured out on behalf of others. To think we might ever mature as Christians in isolation from one another is absurd. (This is a paradox for another day—we are called to solitude and community not isolation and groupthink).

In the body of Christ’s love, we give and receive, we rest and act, we love and are loved. It is in this family, this place of going and coming, this “thin place,” we step through the veil of time and space and enter the great feast of love centered in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—extending through the communion of Saints and ultimately shining into all of God’s great creation.


Milton's old profile said...

Doug--Your reflections on "thin places" has given me much to think about. I can relate to the tension between place and exile. On the one hand, I have chosen to take my stand in a place. I've lived more than forty years in Oak Ridge, the place where I was born and where my wife and I have chosen to rear our children. Yet at the same time I'm fully aware that "this world is not my home." Your post is intriguing. I'm fixing to read the whole thing again. Peace.

Milton Stanley said...

Doug: Thanks for linking to my blog. Please note my new address:


I'm adding a link to your site on my blog. Peace.