Thin Places: Where Heaven and Earth Embrace

“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Exodus 3:5

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Last year I visited Elk, or Lyck as it was known to my family. The town of my ancestors. I stood on the shores of the lake that held so many of my childhood fantasies. Fantasies that were fed by my grandmother’s mesmerising stories. I walked through the vibrant forest, up a hill, overlooking that magical place of a thousand lakes. I could hear whispers from the past, a distinct sense of the closeness of another dimension. It hit me. I was again standing amidst a Thin Place.

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The Celts coined the term ‘Thin Place’ for spaces and moments where the distance between heaven and earth seems almost non-existent. There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the Thin Places the distance is even smaller. My guess would be that the first person to utter the term probably did so in an Irish brogue, as they stood in wonder, looking at the wind-swept isle of Iona or the rocky peaks of Croagh Patrick.

Thin Places confuse our senses. We suddenly see the world in a different light. Our perceptions change. With breathless wonder we encounter the Divine and it changes us. For people who hold to a faith, Thin Places are those places where we feel most strongly connected to God’s presence.

“Thin Places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.”

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As I stood looking around by the lake at Elk, memories came flooding back. I was familiar with Thin Places. I remember the moment I stepped onto the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, that holy hush that descends as all words fall short in the face of such beauty. Or as I watched the sea eagles swoop through pristine Norwegian fjords. I recall the Thin Place moment as I trudged through the dark, cold catacombs along the via Appia in Rome, sensing that I was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And then there are those Thin Places of life and death. The moment when I took my newborn into my arms and marvelled at the wonder of life. Or when I held the hand of my dying mother on one warm and balmy December evening, and watched her pass over to another dimension filled with light.

So what makes a Thin Place ‘thin’? Not every beautiful place we encounter is a ‘Thin Place’ and it is not necessarily marked because of its tranquility. Perhaps a Thin Place can best be identified through how it effects us, changes us, strips us, and transforms us. We can’t really plan day trips to Thin Places. Rather, it seems, that Thin Places find us. Those mindful moments when suddenly we catch a glimpse of heaven and earth, unencumbered. It is that moment of recognition that Jacob experienced and exclaimed: “God is in this place — truly. And I didn’t even know it!”

It is the moment we passionately wake up:

“Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that it intensifies towards the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold a great complexity of emotion comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope.” John O’Donohue

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As I stand on the threshold of a new and different tomorrow, I also sense this is a Thin Place. I feel like the last few decades, lived in a blur of hurry and productivity, have given way to a rhythm of grace, and of seeing and hearing with an ever increasing sense of wonder. It has not been a comfortable place. I don’t think Thin Places are intended to be. Rather, it has been a place of irrevocable change of the way I view and relate to the world and who I am.

What about you? Can you identify some Thin Places in your life? What was it about them that made them Thin Places? How are you different because of those moments?

You only have one life to live and it’s not as long as we’d like to imagine. May you resist the temptation to live it in the way others expect of you. May you live deeply and not be asleep when the sun rises. May your very life be the sacrament of a Thin Place for you.

“A sacrament is when something holy happens. It is transparent time, time which you can see through to something deep inside time … you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.” Frederick Buechner

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4 comments

  1. Lance Sterling -

    I love Buchner. I also love Elizabeth Barret Browning’s quote. ‘The whole earth is aflame with the glory of God. But only those that see take off their shoes. The rest sit around picking blackberries’.

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