Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Thin Places

Alice stumbled upon an exceptionally deep rabbit hole. Lucy Pevensie got a surprise when she hid in Professor Kirk’s magic wardrobe. Dorothy clicked the heels of those dazzling ruby slippers as she chanted, “There’s no place like home.” Marty McFly revved up Professor Brown’s souped-up DeLorean time machine with its “flux capacitor”. Today astrophysicists dream of moving quickly to distant corners of the universe through some theoretical wormhole in the fabric of space-time. The idea of discovering a secret portal to another world is an idea that has long fascinated people. Back in the 40s Lerner and Loewe even created a musical along those lines: Brigadoon.

That mythical Scottish village makes for a great segue to an idea that we encounter in Celtic Christianity: the notion that on the earth there are “thin places”—spots where heaven and earth are unusually close, suggesting the possibility of free movement from one to the other or at least the idea that in such sacred places one might get closer to the divine.

First, a disclaimer. There is no direct and only disputable indirect biblical support for such a notion. The metaphor of thin place does not appear in Scripture. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the concept is unhelpful or theologically suspect, but as a people who base their understanding of God on biblical revelation, it should give us pause to carefully consider the implications of such a belief.

Experience teaches us the emotional power of place. In 1954 Perry Como first recorded There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays, a sentimental reflection on how memory and emotions are tied to the place we grew up—especially at Christmas. Likewise, some places have historical connections that stir the emotions. The Gettysburg and Custer Battlefields were such places for me. So was the Vietnam Wall. Sometimes the emotions stirred by place are negative. I once stood outside a Macumba temple deep in the Amazon. Macumba is a religion that mixes African and South American spiritism and includes practices associated with black magic. I felt like the very building exuded evil. Those who have visited the remains of Nazi concentration camps report similar feelings.

And I think we have all visited spots where the sense God’s presence was unusually strong. Naturally enough a church building can have that effect. So can a Christian camp or retreat center, particularly if it is a place that you have visited repeatedly over the years and have come to associate with powerful teaching, and spiritual refreshment and renewal.

Wild places of spectacular natural beauty can also have that effect. Such places are usually what the Celtic Christians had in mind when they spoke of thin places. Mountains have always tended to affect me in this way, a response common to many.

And if we can find support for thin places anywhere in the Bible, a couple mountains immediately come to mind. The first is Mt. Sinai. If there is a biblical thin place surely this is it. It was a place where Moses went to meet God not once but repeatedly. Mt Zion—the site of the temple—was another. Clearly these mountains had special significance as places where Israel encountered God.

But in other important respects they differ significantly from the typical Celtic thin place. For one thing these mountains were not, at least in biblical times, places of pilgrimage. After the exodus there is only one account of an Israelite journeying back to Sinai; that of Elijah’s trip to “Horeb, the mount of God” in 1 Kings 19:8. And the most sacred quarter of the temple mount was forbidden to all but the high priest and he was able to enter it only one day in the year—the Day of Atonement.

Nor is there evidence that the earliest Christians showed any special deference to those physical spaces closely associated with the life and ministry of Christ. The stable in Bethlehem, his boyhood home in Nazareth, the Upper Room in Jerusalem—none of these spots were made into shrines or their locations even noted. Only centuries later did later Christians attempt to find these sites and make them places of pilgrimage. There exists no equivalent to Mt. Vernon or Monticello in Nazareth.

So what are we to do with the metaphor of thin place?

First, there is no question in my mind that places of natural beauty, particular places that are physically removed from the rush of modern life, can often help us to spiritually reconnect. They help us pause and quiet are hearts and minds. I believe that this was even true for Jesus when he would draw aside either with his closest followers or by himself from times of prayer. These are not places with special spiritual properties. We are not talking magic here. Whatever power they have is power we give them.

Second, we must remember that God desires constant intimacy with his people. We ought not to need physical retreat to connect with the Divine. Rather we ought to work to make all of life on earth a thin place—a place where mortal flesh can reach out and touch God. If we draw near to God He draws near to us.

1 comment:

MamaT said...

Well said. Thank you.