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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

Holy Week: A Thin Place

Holy Week in the Christian tradition invites us to suspend our rational sense of what is and isn’t possible.  Like the Disciples witnessing Jesus’ crucifixion, we are asked to believe that death will not have the final word.  To believe that the terrible might of the Roman Empire has not won.Cross in Nicaragua

With Peter, John, Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, we are asked to consider a new narrative that Jesus has overcome the grave.   That the life-force in Jesus can not be contained.   Theologian Marcus Borg writes:  “Something happened that first Easter, that sent a group of fearful disciples, out into the street with the news that Christ was not dead, but alive.  Something happened on that first Easter that transcended their fear and despair.”

This ‘something’ is that of God which cannot be measured, quantified or contained.  It refers to a mystical, subjective experience which is real to the one affected.   For those without such an experience, it can be hard to believe.

The author Barbara Ehrenreich, is a well-known atheist.  In her new book , Living With a Wild God, she writes of a mystical experience when she was 17:

“This experience shook my safely rationalist worldview and left me with a lifelong puzzle.  In 1959 I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, California and saw the world – the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings – suddenly flame into life.  It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heart breakingly beautiful to let go of.”

For years Ehrenreich tried to rationalize her experience away.  She doesn’t believe in God or gods.  Yet all these years later, she can’t  let go of wondering what it meant and the source from which this vision came.

In Celtic theology, the Celts (both pre and post Christian), believe that there is a thin place, a permeable membrane which separates our conscious world from that of the super-natural, the spiritual, the mystical.   That in the ‘thin place’ we are able to catch a glimpse of that source, that ‘something’ which serves as the essence, the life- force for all that is.

During that first Holy Week, something happened.  Something happened on that crucifixion cross.  Something happened when the women went to anoint Jesus’ body for burial.  Something happened when Peter and John peered into the empty tomb.  Something happened when Mary Magdalene heard her name spoken.

2000 years later that same life-force continues to confound us.  To challenge our carefully structured sense of what is and isn’t possible.  We are invited to consider the  possibility that something extraordinary happened on that first Easter, in those moments between darkness and dawn.

Could it be that there is something more going on than we can easily contain and measure?