Many people recognize the phrase “thin places”, an early Celtic Christian metaphor for those times or places when the boundary between the sacred and the everyday feels “thin,” when the distance between heaven and earth collapses and God’s presence is more strongly felt. We catch in such places a glimpse of the divine and those glimpses transform us.
There are some particular locations that are widely recognized as thin places, such as the Kealkil stone circle in Ireland, or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or LaVerna in Umbria, where St. Francis received the stigmata. And many people go in search of places that have developed a reputation for being thin. I frequently come across posts or articles talking about one or more of such thin place (and just read one yesterday, prompting this post).
It is important to remember, however, that thin places can be anywhere for us. The danger in identifying certain “special” places is thinking that one can’t penetrate the boundary between the everyday and the sacred unless one is in a spot someone else has already labeled as a deeply spiritual place.
“Thin” places can be anywhere. I think of what I label Thomas Merton’s four foundational religious experiences: one occurred in his bedroom, one in a Church in Havana, on on a street corner in Louisville and one at a sacred site in Thailand. If Merton could find God on a street corner Louisville, a thin place for you could be a street corner in your own town, or your bedroom, or a church, as well as at one or another well-known sacred site. Yes, there are certain places that are special for a lot of people, but others can be uniquely special to you.
We need to allow ourselves to be completely open about where and how God might appear to us. To recognize that the distance between heaven and earth can collapse completely for us any time and in any place.
At a weekday Mass at UST the other day, the celebrant (our head of Campus Ministry, who always manages to say something in his homily that speaks to me) opened his homily by asking why it is that we are so fascinated by falling snow or by a star-filled sky. Or why is it that we are so delighted by magic. These tendencies reflect, he suggested, our inherent desire to reach beyond to the transcendent. We are, he said (using a phrase I instantly fell in love with), drawn to divinity.
His words resonated deeply with me. I remember at a very young age having an intuitive sense that there must be something more, something beyond this physical existence. A sense that, however good one’s life here on earth might be (I would lie in bed and play out in my mind the best I could imagine), that it would be somehow incomplete, not enough, unless there was something beyond this, something more than this. I was much too young to use words like transcendence or even divinity. But I had a felt sense of exactly what the priest was talking about.
St. Augustine expressed this thought in his oft-repeated line, “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” We don’t always have words for the feeling. But if we sit in the silence, we feel a yearning, a yearning that simply cannot be satisfied by anyone or anything other than God. We are, by our nature, drawn to divinity.
One of the rituals I love during Advent is the lighting of the candles on the Advent wreath. We light them at Mass every day…one during the first week of Advent, two during the second week and so on. I also light them at home – on each Sunday, but also during the week at odd times when I am home.
There is something in actions like this. If we do them intentionally, they seem to stop time for a moment. They pull us out of the ordinary and into a quiet space of peace. For a few minutes, the exams that have to be graded, the meal that has to be made, the load of laundry waiting to be washed, the bills waiting to be paid – all disappear and there is something else in its place.
I recently read a New York Times article that quoted a Jewish rabbi saying, “Ritual pulls us back from all the mundane stuff and helps make us more transcendent in our lives Any ritual can have transcendent meaning, but most of the time we miss it because we’re trying to take care of everything else.” The author of the article commented in words that mirror my experience, that ritual is “a way to make time stop for a moment in the blur of life.”
So let time stop for a moment. Whether it is lighting the candle of an Advent wreath or some other act, allow yourself the time and space to leave the ordinary for a bit. Don’t worry – it will all still be there when you return, although you may look at it all a little differently.