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It is an ancient belief in Ireland that wells and caves are sacred places. Known in Celtic spirituality as “thin places” they lay between the mortal world above, these holes in the earth provide the channels by which fairies, leprechauns and even demons can come out to be among us. They are also the places where mortals like ourselves are most likely to travel to the other world, deep into mother earth. The stories of heroes from Hercules in Greek myth to the Norse hero Balewolf, each travel to the underworld to rescue a woman, the feminine energy necessary to life on earth, through these thin places.
In every spiritual tradition there is an understanding of these thin places of the soul where we can have access to the divine. In the Hebrew bible, almost every spiritual encounter with a man and a woman happens at a well. Jacob finds Rebecca; Jesus converts the Samaritan woman at the well, near the access to the divine. Even our own tradition recognizes thin places. Henry David Thoreau during his sojourn at Walden Pond wrote of this magical pond “earth’s eye looked into the beholder measuring the depth of its own nature.” I know that some of you have experienced the Divine in this way. The tender beauty of a misty morning across the peninsula, the splendor of a rosy dawn stretching her fingers towards the day, the awe of bright green pine trees against a stark blue sky.
But not all these thin places are actual places. “A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened,” writes Marcus Borg. “They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts and we behold (the “ahaah of The Divine”)….all around us and in us”. (Borg’s The Heart of Christianity, 2003)
Thin places are those moments of clarity beset by the deepest emotions we can feel. There is more than one history of the Christian movement. I know what the church teaches about the 12 apostles, the Eucharist and the trinity. But there was another movement as well; a quiet more spiritual form that is inclusive and hopeful. From the earliest days of the movement there were those who claimed that there was no need for priests or intermediaries to experience the Divine because the Divine was all around us. Such a transparency is at the heart of every religious tradition; the Buddha taught that the heart of his teaching rested in each of us like a Lotus waiting to bloom, Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God was all around us yet we do not see, the Sufi mystics of Islam taught that we are in fact God already, the great Jewish prophet Isaiah called this infusive spirit a coal of God upon our lips. Our Ralph Waldo Emerson, borrowing from the great humanist philosopher Spinoza spoke of the OverSoul, a collective human spirit. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist Monk put this transparency best for me when he wrote:
“Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and (the spirit) is shinning through us all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to (life), forget ourselves, we see it…”
Of course, terms like God, spirit and such are relative, so substitute something more to your liking like life and you arrive at the same place. Thin places are those moments when we see a greater, more profound meaning than we saw the moment before and they happen most often at the margins of life; those moments of greatest change and transformation.
But, of course, for most of us, myself included, it is hard to see these thin places, much less travel through them. How can we set aside the worries of our lives, the very real concerns of money, relationships, stresses and strains and “be” one with the Divine. Fine we might say for a monk sitting alone without a care in the world but hardly possible for the rest of us ‘dirt dwellers’. I believe that in order to sense and travel through these thin places towards what we may not know, we must see our world in a different ways. Its not that our world changes but we change how we see our world. We must be transformed.
This process of transformation begins with our imagination. I am reminded here of the words of Einstein “Imagination is more powerful than knowledge.” What did he mean by that? What he meant was that knowledge follows where our imagination begins. And we will see those thin places when we let our imagination take us where we will let it. Remember, the spiritual journey is not rocket science, we aren’t here to prove anything, just to help see the Holy and be transformed in the practice.
Imagination changes the way we look at our world. Remember the last time you had a tragedy in your life. I can remember losing my last business. Despite 16-hour days and selling door to door, the bills coupled with my divorce and a pretty bad drinking problem left me completely lost. For months I watched, it seemed helplessly at the time, as my business, like my life, was slipping into bankruptcy. When I finally did file and put my assets up for auction I remembered thinking “this is it..the end.” I couldn’t see how this would lead anywhere.
Had I used my imagination I could have started to see, much sooner, how such a moment was a thin place. As it was, I was helped along the way. A good friend of mine, a truck driver by vocation and a recovering alcoholic by history, scooped my sorry soul up and took me on a truck driving road trip. We saw the expanse of the prairie, ate terribly bad food, laughed (he even let me drive the rig for a bit) and as the miles melted away I put my life into perspective. It was a moment of thin place, a moment of grace. Coincidences that led me on to other opportunities; my time in a American Baptist Church that first turned me towards ministry, meeting someone there who knew someone on the East Coast who hired me sight unseen, who then knew someone else who connected me with Frances, who, as her own deeply spiritual self, opened up in me a call to this vocation of ministry. Looking back on it now, it all began with that thin place of my failure and a guide to set me on my way. All of us have those guides, all of us have our journeys, all of us are heroes and failures at some time in our lives.
Perhaps we are just such a place as a country now. Perhaps what looks like deep and dark hole is only the passage way into a new beginning, after the struggle, after the marches, even after lives have been lost. And lives will be lost. Last week I spoke about the purposed of prophecy, in Walter Brueggemann’s words to lament and disrupt. Perhaps the time we are in now is not an end time but a beginning time, an inflection point, a thin place. Perhaps that is why this all feels so fragile. As Brueggemann put it: “The task of ministry is to….evoke a consciousness and perception (which is an) an alternative to … the dominant culture around us.” (From The Prophetic Imagination) Perhaps we are passing through a thin place ourselves.
The journey through the thin places of our lives begins when we let our imaginations explain the so-called coincidences of our lives. While I can’t tell you what the mystery of the universe is, I do know that each and everyone of you is a part of something much greater than our day to day lives suggest. Remember that tragedy. What happened next? How did your live change because of it? The Chinese ideogram for tragedy is crisis and opportunity. More often than not those tragic moments are thin places to the Divine. Pay attention to them. I hold that there are no coincidences, just openings to your destiny. This is not to say you don’t have a choice here. But realize that I believe you are presented choices for a reason. The question is: will it be your fear of what might happen that holds you back or your imagination that a thin place is before you that guides you forward? “Two roads diverged in yellow wood” writes the often quoted Robert Frost “and I, I took the one less traveled by and that made all the difference.
Like any journey we are, I believe, constantly traveling through these thin places. They are not always easy to see. We have to balance out our sense of reason (the cost/benefit analysis of the soul) with the inclination of our hearts. You need both, along with a healthy imagination, to realize that everything, yes, everything, happens to us for a reason. It is up to us to imagine the reasons and then have the courage to travel through those thin places to a new place.
Thomas Khun, a German philosopher, referred to these new ways of looking at the world as “paradigm shifts”. There have been many such shifts in the history of humanity; from seeing ourselves at the mercy of capricious gods to understanding the forces of nature, from seeing the body as place of spirits and humors to a living, working organism, from telling our stories through art and spoken words to the left brained dominance of the written word, from magic to science to something new. I believe we are in the midst of another such shift in our very worldview now. Long dominated by the faculty of reason, we are beginning to sense that there is another kind of knowledge available to us, which may someday even compliment our reasonable abilities and I call this “spiritual reality”. I, and certainly many others, are sensing that we have an emerging talent to see the world differently; not with ourselves so much subject to the winds of fate, but learning some deeply embedded lesson with the fate that can actually guide us if we see it as something other than what is happening to us. This is a paradigm shift of potentially tremendous proportions, one in which we see our lives as embedded with lessons and opportunities for growth and not lives that must be simply survived.
To go through the thin places you have to let go, if even more a moment, what you “know” to be true. A woman I once knew had lost her husband to cancer, they had been married many years and one of their favorite pastimes was to go to the grocery store together. (Frances and I also seem to have this strange proclivity, thank heavens for all night grocery stores; as I think about it there were like dates, when the smaller kids were asleep, the older girls at home, and we go for a date at the grocery store. What is it about the vegetable aisle, those, fresh green smelling shapes, o.k., o.k. enough of that). Anyway, she and her husband would go grocery shopping and as soon as they walked into the store he would run off and find three yellow roses and sneak up behind her and present them at the checkout counter. After her husband died she dreaded the thought of going to the grocery but she did what had to be done. On her first trip there a young woman, beautifully dressed, was looking over the meats and said “my these steaks are expensive but it’s my husband’s birthday and I know he loves them”. My friend remembered how her husband loved steaks and she said to the younger woman: “My husband died two weeks ago, buy him the steaks and enjoy them” and with that she turned so the younger woman wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes. They both went on with their shopping and towards the end of the checkout lane my friend saw the younger woman approach her with a package in green tissue paper. “These are for you” she said, “they are already paid for” and with that she turned and left. My friend opened up the tissue and to her amazement, found three yellow roses. She had passed through the thin place, she knew her husband’s spirit would be with her always and kept three yellow roses in her house as a reminder and as strength for her coming days. True story. The roses delivered by a perfect stranger became her way through her struggle and home to her soul.
The mystics of old suggest that there may even be a larger purpose to our collective existence beyond what we see now. They suggest that we are actually in the process of remembering in these coming generations what we already know in our souls. Some calls this remembering the God within. Some say these thin places are only the way home.
Recently one of my colleagues reminded me that we can only approach this possibility if we are able to engage our sense of awe (remember this is one of the prerequisites to be an enchanted agnostic) and humility that we might actually learn something new when we let our imaginations take over.
Perhaps we are, after all, only remembering who we already are. I close with the story of the little girl who, upon the arrival of her baby brother, insisted that she spend some time alone with him. Her parent agreed but listened in on the baby monitor as she closed the door and walked over to his bed. After a minute of silence, she said asked quite firmly: “Tell me about God, I have almost forgotten.” Perhaps ours will be such a journey of remembering as well, through the thin places of the spirit. Call it what you will but know they are there, these thin places to the spirit. May our blessings endure and our struggles lessen. Amen.