Wandering In The Thin Place
“Does your dad live there too?”
Its an ordinary question. The pickle it puts me in has become ordinary too. I can answer honestly – “My father passed away” – and put this stranger in the uncomfortable position of realizing he just innocently brought up far too intimate a subject for individuals who just met over a conference dinner. Or I could simply answer, “Yes, he’s in Connecticut as well,” which, when I stop to think about it, wouldn’t really be a lie. Because we did bury him in Connecticut and his physical body remains there now, fourteen years later.
I step out of the overheated and overcrowded New York City restaurant and into the flurry of the sidewalk. I look around, taking in the multicolored Christmas lights, the sale signs, and the off-duty elves. I take in the multitude of tell-tale signs that Christmas is upon us – that Advent is underway. For the last fourteen years as we have ushered in this season I have also ushered in a resurgence of the grief surrounding the loss of my father to a coma on Christmas Eve all those years ago. But this year the quality of the emotion that washes over me isn’t the sodden weight of grief I have grown accustomed to.
What I feel instead is thinness. It is as if heaven has drifted down into our plane, much in the way that clouds settle onto mountain roads, and I am wandering through it as I move toward my hotel. The air sparkles and without seeing them with my eyes, I understand that angels are walking alongside me. I have the distinct sense that our Earth is mingling with something more divine in this moment.
I breathe it in deeply and whisper, “thank you.”
* * *
The thin place.
It’s a term used in the Celtic tradition – one traditionally referring to those physical places on earth where humans were thought to be more intimately aware of the presence of the Divine. Certain cathedrals or spaces in nature. The term came from the notion that in these places the boundary that exists between heaven and earth thins, becoming barely perceptible. It is believed in the Celtic tradition that one can travel to these physical locations to become more closely acquainted with God.
Religious scholar Mircea Eliade explained thin spaces as “parts of space [that] are qualitatively different from others.” This is certainly undeniable by anyone who has spent any period of time in nature, in solitude, among buildings that were constructed long before we ever walked the earth. The air feels different in those places. The colors brighter. Its as if you could hear sounds for miles and miles.
But while I can’t deny that there is a certain, sacred quality about some places that others simply do not possess, I don’t think thin places end at the bounds of such a narrow definition. Or that they are necessarily limited by geographic boundaries.
* * *
Christmas was always a special time with my dad. He would bundle my siblings and I up and take us into the city where we would buy hot cocoa and soft pretzels from carts on the sidewalks. For small-town kids this was a huge deal. I remember trying in vain to take in everything happening around us on those cold wintry nights. Mittened hands clutching Styrofoam cups, we would wander the plaza, taking in the dazzling holiday lights and the music of the carolers standing alongside. Advent is laden with memories of those nights long ago, and that Christmas morning when I woke 3,000 miles away from Connecticut, knowing in my bones that something had changed forever – even before getting that earth-shifting phone call.
Author Shauna Neiquist, has written about thin places and their relationship to Advent:
I believe deeply that God does his best work in our lives during times of great heartbreak and loss, and I believe that much of that rich work is done by the hands of people who love us, who dive into the wreckage with us and show us who God is, over and over and over. There are years when the Christmas spirit is hard to come by, and it’s in those seasons when I’m so thankful for Advent. Consider it a less flashy but still very beautiful way of being present to this season. Give up for a while your false and failing attempts at merriment, and thank God for thin places, and for Advent, for a season that understands longing and loneliness and long nights. Let yourself fall open to Advent, to anticipation, to the belief that what is empty will be filled, what is broken will be repaired, and what is lost can always be found, no matter how many times it’s been lost.
Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way.
* * *
For so long, I sought the beauty of a thin place in churches and synagogues. I was determined to find the organized religion that would provide the gateway I was looking for so that I might connect more intimately with God. I wandered from place to place, looking for just the sacred spot.
But I never found it.
At least not any one place in particular.
But I have found thin places during times when I've needed the boundary to fade most. I’ve found them in chemotherapy rooms and on long, lonely rides into operating rooms as I shook with terror at the immense unknown that lay ahead. I’ve found them in a jail cell and in a strange bed I didn’t recognize as I came to the final moments before my surrender over an all-encompassing addiction. I’ve found them sobbing in the middle of Costa Rican rainforest and while sitting within a Sedona vortex as I wondered if I was crazy to forgo the treatments my doctors had offered.
And I’ve found them wandering New York’s avenues during Advent wishing my dad was still here.
* * *
While one can intentionally go to physical locations known for their thinness, I would posit that one cannot actually intentionally go to the place where the heavenly border is thin. If you were to ask me, only God can open the door to a thin place. And He only does so when we ready ourselves to pass through.
But similarly, I do not believe you can protect yourself from the thin place. In fact, I often determine not to go to the thin place as Thanksgiving gives way to Advent. But what I’ve come to realize is that in doing so I was mistaking the thin place with depression. With sadness. With grief. It is none of those things. But my propensity to feel these states during Advent make me more inclined to experience the thin place during these days. The lingering grief over my earthy-father making way for magic worked by my heavenly Father instead. I may not intend to go there, but I find myself there just the same.
* * *
But how can thin places exist if I am to also be aware of the Divine within me at all times? How could I need a thin place – whether defined by geographic or temporal bounds – to connect more intimately with the Divine when we are one and the same all the time? This seems counterintuitive – doesn’t it?
Although I am aware of the interconnection between myself and the Divine, it is often easy for me to forget that the Divine permeates each and every space on this planet. Particularly when I am in a place like New York City – a place that seems like the antithesis of the Divine most of the time. This is where I require a blurring of the borders.
When I enter the realm of a thin place, I become intimately aware of the Divine within others. Within the concrete. Within the unaware pedestrians plowing along the streets. Within those snarling angry words and those shoving their neighbors out of the way. In the thin place, I become undeniably aware of the fact that the Divine is all around, not just within. Even if it may not appear that way at first blush.
And in the thin place, I am brought back to the understanding that the Divine does not simply help me navigate this lifetime when it comes to my own decisions, my own path, my own dharma. In the thin place, I feel the Divine guiding me – ushering me along, one gentle hand on the small on my back while the other presses gently on my shoulder – protecting me the parts of this world that feel scary. Reminding me acutely that I am never alone.
* * *
There is a Celtic saying, that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. But if you ask me, thin places serve as yet another reminder of what it is that we are tasked with doing here - obliterating that distance once at for all. So that heaven and earth may finally become one and the same.