Celtic Thin Places

Summer is my favorite season of the year.  The weather is warm, the pace is slower, and nature explodes in a riot of color, lushness and beauty.  Seeing the sun rise early in the morning when I am running prepares me for the unfolding promise of a new day.  Watching the sun set on walks late into the evening provides the opportunity to reflect quietly on the day and rest in God’s love. 

Summer is a time when the veil between heaven and earth is lifted, if only for a few months.  In the Celtic tradition, places that provide an opening to the glory of God in all its fullness are called thin placesThere is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places, that distance is even closer.

Thin places, where it is possible to touch and be touched by God, are often found in nature.  I’ve always been drawn to the majesty of mountains and the mystery of the coastline, marveling at the imagination of our Creator God.  Living in the city has always been a challenge for me, but I have trained myself to look for the thin places, even in Grand Rapids.

When we pulled in the driveway after returning from Israel a few weeks ago, I immediately noticed the clematis vine winding its way around our light post.  Never in 15 years have I seen our clematis with so many brilliant purple flowers.  When I’m outside, I become fixated on its incredible beauty.  I can’t even count how many walkers have stopped and commented on the clematis, asking “How did you make it grow so large?”  The answer is always, “We don’t know.  We’ve done nothing ourselves.”  However, I’m tempted to reply, “It’s a thin place.  Can’t you see heaven?”

Another thin place opened up last Wednesday during the violent thunderstorms.  No, the thin place was not in the three feet of water inundating our street in the evening or in the water squirting into our basement from a loose pipe.  It happened in the late afternoon as I was driving to Woodland Mall to get my hair cut and discovered that the light at Breton and 28th Street was out.   

I got out a CD of meditative Taize music and settled in for what I thought would be an interminable wait during rush hour at this very busy intersection.  I assumed that if there were no police officers to direct traffic, the intersection would be utter chaos.  Listening to the many repetitions of the song, “We adore you, Lord Jesus Christ,” I remembered the words of Brother Roger, the founder of the Taize Community, “When the mystery of God can be glimpsed through the simple beauty of song, a common prayer opens out upon the joy of heaven on earth.” 

My heart was quieted, and the music penetrated deep into my spirit.  Then I began to notice the thin place.  In the midst of their frustration, the drivers were amazingly courteous, aware of the importance of taking turns and ensuring that drivers who had to make left hand turns were not neglected.  It was an extraordinary example of teamwork and cooperation.  Another door opened to God’s glory.

The thin places where heaven and earth come together are all around us.  We find them at home, at work, at church, and on our walks, whether out in the country or in the middle of the city.  I even found a thin place on the Fourth of July, marveling all day at the whimsical and wispy beauty of the clouds, thanking God for the privilege of living in the United States, and renewing my commitment to ensure that all people in our world have the same freedoms that are mine.

We open ourselves to the thin places when we pay attention to everything around us and let go of all that separates us from communion with God.  That’s why I am more connected with God in the summer: my schedule is not so harried.  Isn’t it interesting that the busyness of our ministry from September through May often leaves us so scattered that we miss the burning bushes that God places in our path every day.  As Microsoft researcher Linda Stone puts it, we live in a state of “continuous partial attention.”  When was the last time you gave someone your full and undivided attention, including God? 

God yearns for our attention.  God’s greatest desire is that we be still so that we can know God.  God hopes that we will be patient in our waiting as we seek God’s direction for our lives.  God longs for us to look at the world through the eyes of Christ.  The thin places are all around, if only our eyes, ears and hearts are open. 

Of course, the thin places can be dangerous.  If we aren’t careful, we just might fall though into heaven for a spell before being pulled back to earth.  It’s in the thin places that transformation takes place because we no longer have control.  It is God who leads, God who calls, God who speaks. 

Here’s the best kept secret about thin places.  Not only do we play a part in experiencing thin places by our attitude, openness, attentiveness, and willingness to let go of self.  We become co-creators with God in establishing the thin places of life by being Christ’s representatives in the world, by creating sanctuaries of welcome in our churches, by cultivating the sacred in worship as well as in all of life, and by nurturing the greatest thin place of all: the table of the Lord.

I invite you to be attentive this week to the thin places in your life. 

  • Can you identify the song of the cardinal and find the red bird as you take your evening walk?
  • Will you pay absolute attention to what is going on in your heart as well as your mind?
  • Will you take some extra time this week to take off your shoes and stay a while when you discover that you are standing on holy ground?
  • Will you take a half hour, sit on a park bench and simply be in God’s presence?
  • As in music, could rest simply be a pause before the next great call of God in your life?

Carlo Carletto, after spending many years in the desert alone with God, was asked what he had learned.  He replied, “God is telling us: learn to wait – wait – wait for your God, wait for love.”

“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living;
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage;
Wait for the Lord!”
Psalm 27:13-14

Blessings, Laurie

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