Opening to the Thin Place

In Celtic spirituality there is a Thin Place which separates the conscious world from that of the Spirit. Thin Places are the places and moments which transcend our daily preoccupations and transport us into a deeper awareness of what is and what can be.

Thin Places are the moments that elicit awe, wonder, dare I say, reverence.  A deep seated belief that there is more going on than meets the eye. A truth that cannot be proven, measured or quantified.

In my Christian tradition the Easter Season is full of appearance stories. Oftentimes the Risen Christ appears to the disciples but they don’t recognize him.  Their mind and imagination can’t grasp that the Christ has overcome death, violence and despair.

As the stories unfold there comes an a-ha moment. When their self imposed limitations as to what is possible, slip away.  Often times it is in the simplest gesture that everything turns: In John 20: 16 Mary Magdalene hears her name spoken; 21: 12 the disciples see Jesus preparing them a breakfast of fish and bread on the beach and they know.

What is it that allows one to suddenly see, feel, hear in a new way?

Have you ever had such a moment when your sense of what is possible, expands?

When I was a boy of 10, playing in a wetlands near my home, I had my first memory of a Thin Place.  I was with my cousin.  We were lying by a brook, listening  to the water.  Our faces were turned up to the sun, as beams of light flooded through the canopy above us.  At that moment I felt transported.  That I was connected to everything, the water, the sun, the call of the birds, the frogs in the stream.  Everything was interconnected.  There was no separation.

A Thin Place.

Anyone who has had a similar experience, knows that what I’m saying is true.

Instinctively we understand that there is an  intimate connection between place and openness.  Mystics over the ages, of various cultures and traditions, have understood that certain places have cosmic energy.  Places which heighten our sense of creativity and imagination.

Skellig-Michael – Ireland

The early Celtic monks in Ireland and Scotland sought out the most isolated places, feeling that such places heightened their senses.  This is true too in many Native American traditions.

It is why instinctively we go to the beach, the mountains, the desert, even our backyard garden.  It is more than a place for play and rest.  It is a place of meeting.

Mary Oliver, the American poet and mystic, in her seminal poem ‘Messenger’, writes:

My work is loving the world.

Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbirds –

equal seekers of sweetness.

Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.

Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Let me keep my mind on what matters,

which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

astonished.

Thin places are those moments where we are cracked open to see, hear, feel and understand in fresh, expansive ways.  Places of astonishment.

How do we live in such a way?  The answer is simple and profound:

A desire to be open and curious.  Mixed with a healthy measure of humility. Which is to say, a willingness to admit we don’t know it all.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers offer this:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?”  Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.”

May it be so.

 

 

 

 

COVID-19 and the Thin Place

In Celtic theology there is the concept of a thin place.  The Celts believed that there is a thin place, a permeable membrane that separates the conscious world from that of the Spirit.

They believed (and believe) that there is another source of reality that is distinct from the world of the mind: Plans, projects, pride, worries.  This world of the mind is defined by the Greek word chronos.   Chonos is the root for chronological, defined by that which we are aware of and guided by.

The Celts believed that beyond the life of the mind, beyond chronological time is a separate realm.  It is the world of that great mystery of many names:  Spirit/Sacred/Wisdom/God/Higher Power/Creator /Presence/Source.

This other realm has a different measurement of time, Kairos time.  Kairos transcends calendars and to do lists.  It is a time beyond time which breaks into our carefully constructed lives and reminds us that there is more to life than we can imagine.

The Celts speaks of such places of awareness as thin places. A place of awe, wonder and blessing. Ever been in a thin place?

I’d like to suggest that this bizarre moment of pandemic that we find ourselves in, is just such a moment.  Allow me to explain.

This pandemic has created a moment of profound unsettledness and fear for all of us.  Such a moment (stretching into weeks and months) pulls us out of our structure of ‘normal life’ into an unstructured time.  It is here in the midst of this profound unsettledness that we may become more spiritually open.

What am I talking about?

Let me suggest that many of us have more experience than we may be at first aware.  Here are some examples of thin place moments:

Holding an infant for the first time.

Seeing a rainbow after long wet and grey days.

Standing at the beach during a storm as the waves pound.

Watching a whale off the coast.

Hiking above the clouds.

Sitting on the ground with a 3 year old and seeing the world through their eyes.

Moments before and after surgery.

Falling in love.

Holding the hand of a loved one as they take their last breath.

Such moments are profound.  They pull us up and out of our self.  Time is stopped. Feelings are heightened.  We may experience fear or joy.  Hope or despair.  All with greater intensity.

When was the last time you cried out ‘Wow!’ or, whispered into the silence ‘help me’.

During such moments of awareness, we may experience what I call a ‘felt presence’.  An awareness that there is more going on than meets the eye.  An awareness that can’t be measured or quantified but only felt.

In the work I do, there are times when I’m with a person and their family when they take their final breath or soon there after.  We gather in a circle and offer a prayer.  In such moments, often but not always, we look up and at one another and ask: ‘Did you feel that too?’  A moment of oneness, communion with the one who has died, with those we love and with that Source to whom we all one day will return.

A thin place.

This pandemic has that effect for many of us.  It strips away the illusion that we are in control. Even those who haven’t thought of themselves as spiritual may sense something deeper going on.  An awareness that we need comfort and peace and that maybe, just maybe, it may be found in a place we never imagined before, a thin place.

May peace be yours during this unsettled season.

May it be so.

When the Visible and Invisible World Meet

There is in Celtic spirituality an awareness of ‘thin places’ in the universe, where the visible and the invisible world come into closest proximity. Monasteries and holy places were meant to be founded at such spots to increase the likelihood of a transcendental communication. These thin places are threshold places, a border or frontier place where two worlds meet and where one has the possibility of communicating with the other. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html

Marsha Sinetar in a wonderful little book entitled ‘Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics’, reminds us that the search for thin places is not just the purview of those religious types who live in set apart places. Each of us has the ability to discern and experience such places and moments of awe and wonder.

From my experience such places sometimes are found in houses of worship but more often are found in the everyday. Often in nature.

Have you ever been in a thin place?

I am a pastor serving a church along the North Shore of Massachusetts.  With a limited warm weather window many of us savor days at a nearby beach or on rivers and lakes.   Instinctively we are drawn to such places because they not only provide relief from the heat but also nourish our soul.

This summer at church we are spending less time indoors and more time attending the ‘Church of Woods and Water’.  At this church we dig our toes in the sand and our paddle in the water.  We listen for the voice of the Creator in the wind and waves just as aboriginal Peoples have done since the beginning of time.

Such settings serve as portals into the ancient rhythm of creation.  Such thin places remind us to slow down, to savor, to reflect on what matters and where we belong.

John Muir said:  “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

This summer I wish you a good journey to places both familiar and thin.  May we walk slowly, breathe deeply and paddle well.

Band of Brothers: A journey into what matters

Some of us keep a bucket list.  From the profound to the mundane we write down hopes and dreams and a plan to make them come true.  As a cancer survivor (ten years out) I’m mindful that life is a gift to be savored, lived as fully as possible.

Recently I spent a day hiking to and skiing the iconic Tuckerman Ravine. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuckerman_Ravine   I climbed with  ‘the boys’, five lifetime friends now 60.  We decided now was the time to experience  Tuckerman.

The ‘Tuck’ is a legendary bowl for spring skiing on the southeast side of Mount Washington in New Hampshire.  No chair lifts here.

To get to the bowl is not for the faint of heart.  You begin with a three-mile hike rising from 2000′ to 4500′ feet while you carry your skis and boots up a rock strewn path.  Before the final ascent you check the Avalanche Information Board to know where to ski and avoid.

Once arrived you put on your boots to carry skis up a steep incline with toe holds made by others.  The best skiers keep climbing to drop over ‘the headwall’ with no room for error.  We watched two young guys far above us drop like rocks, catching air time and time again and eventually ski past us.  Beautiful to behold.

Suffice it to say I chose the bunny slope.

At 61 I’m happy to be able to get to the Tuckerman bowl.  It’s an awe-inspiring setting that causes one to look up and around and within.  The Celts call such settings a ‘thin place’.  A thin space  serves as a permeable membrane separating the conscious world from the supernatural.

For me (and I suspect many others) Tuckerman Ravine is a thin place a portal into a different way of seeing and being.  A place that calls us to look both outward and within in a deeper way.

The ‘boys’ left to right: Tom, Rob, Clyde, Dave, Kent

Adding to the experience was being with life long friends.  Together we’ve shared good times and hard.  We’ve lived long enough to know that life isn’t so much about the destination but the journey itself.

Back at the parking lot we headed to town for dinner and a beer.  We toasted the mountain and we toasted each other.  We were tired and grateful for this ‘band of brothers’.  Grateful for one more day on the trail.

 

 

 

Celts and Geese

The Wild Geese

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end. In time’s haze
over fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here. ~ Wendell Berry

photo-of-goose

In Celtic spirituality a goose is the symbol for the Holy Spirit.  For the Celts raised on the windswept cliffs of the Irish Sea it is the goose that survives and thrives.

For the Celts a wild, loud, sometimes aggressive goose is a more fitting symbol of that great mystery called Spirit.  Whereas tradition depicts a dove, it is a goose which honks with an explosive energy and flies on wide, powerful, expansive wings.

Wendell Berry the Kentucky farmer and poet believes that wild geese flying over remind us ‘that what we need is here’, that the mysteries of life surround us…seed and earth and honking geese…awakening us to the gift of now.

 

 

 

Everyday Monks and Mystics

The blow from the humpback whale splashed back down on its backThere is in Celtic spirituality an awareness of ‘thin places’ in the universe, where the visible and the invisible world come into their closest proximity. Monasteries and holy places were meant to be founded at such spots to increase the likelihood of a transcendental communication. These thin places were threshold places, which can mean a border or frontier place where two worlds meet and where one has the possibility of communicating with the other.

Marsha Sinetar in a wonderful little book entitled ‘Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics’, reminds us that the search for ‘thin places’ is not just the purview of those religious types who live in set apart places. Rather, each of us has the ability to discern and experience such sacred places. From my own experience such places sometimes are found in houses of worship, but more often, are found in the everyday. Have you ever been in a thin place?

Several years ago I was kayaking in the Tongass Wilderness in southeastern Alaska. One morning my companion and I found much to our surprise that we were in the midst of a pod of humpback whales. We had been told to knock on our kayak hull lest a whale get too close and capsize us. For the next hour we moved with the whales as they fed and occasionally breached. The word ‘awesome’ comes to mind as we watched the beauty and grace of these majestic mammals. More than that I felt a sense of connection, of being part of something so much greater than me, a thin place.

Such moments of course are not relegated to the vast beauty of Alaska, often ‘thin places’ are found in the day to day. We may approach a thin place in the delight of a child, a mist hovering over a river, a rainbow emerging after days of grey. Thin places are places and experiences that cause us to look up, around and within in a deeper way. Sometimes a thin place emerges from fearful moments of uncertainty, vulnerability and loss.

The ancient Celts would remind us that awareness of such thin places come to those who wait and watch. Buddhists speak of mindfulness and Christians speak of the contemplative heart. A few hundred years ago, a theologian named Soren Kierkegarrd said, “God/Spirit is always present simply waiting to be found”. Such wisdom reminds us that the thin place is close by , for those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear.