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Thinking Out Loud

Thin Places: The Life You Save May Be Your Own

by Michael Jinkins | Sep 04, 2015


A Spirituality Notebook


Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “spirituality notebook.”
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Thin Places 1"Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, 'Surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it!' And he was afraid, and said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.'" (Genesis 28: 16-17)

Credibility matters in matters spiritual as much as in anything else. I feel this to be true particularly as someone who has spent a good deal of my adult life cast in one leadership role or another. In these roles, I've encountered people only too ready to serve as experts on various subjects. My skepticism regarding the credibility of some of these experts (and I think this applies mostly to the self-appointed and self-anointed ones) runs high, especially of those who serve as "consultants" in areas of expertise in which they have very limited experience themselves. Their tribe only seems to increase.

As a minister, an educator and a seminary administrator, I often consider the spiritual needs of people – not in the least, people who lead busy, hectic lives heavy with obligations, pressed down and shaken by responsibilities public and private. In doing so, I realize that I could have no credibility in helping them in their spiritual lives unless I find my own measure of spiritual wholeness. Probably as much as anyone else, I struggle with anxiety, worry, restlessness, and the other minions of the mind that clamor, compete and make messes of us. "Physician heal thyself," we are aptly reminded. And, so, as I shall relate in this blog series, over the course of some years, I have undertaken practice spiritual disciplines that are strangely paradoxical, as illustrated by the title of today's blog. These are disciplines I have sometimes at least initially resisted until undertaking them became more a matter of life and death than merely an option for deeper spiritual enrichment or personal improvement.

“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” came to mind because of Flannery O'Connor's use of the phrase in the title of a disturbing short story, and because this phrase is used in the title of a group biography on O'Connor and her fellow Catholics, Thomas MertonWalker Percy and Dorothy Day.* The title suggests, I think in part, the irony of the human spiritual predicament and the reason why we have such difficulty figuring out some important things about ourselves.

We cannot save ourselves from the things that most threaten our lives, our relationships and our humanity. Try as we might, by dint of human effort alone, we can't construct that tower that raises us to heaven. We can't even extricate ourselves from the mire that sucks off our boots in the various sloughs of despond in which we find ourselves. We are saved by grace alone, as St. Paul so eloquently put it, and "that doesn't come from yourself."

And yet - and yet! - without availing ourselves of what Christians have long called the "means of grace," those disciplined practices through which God channels new life to us, we will not really experience the fullness of life which God's grace freely makes available to us. These "means of grace" include: participation in the community of faith (which is the living Body of Christ), receiving the visible signs of such community (which we call the Sacraments of the Lord's Table and Baptism), engagement in prayer, meditation and contemplation, acts of compassion and mercy, especially to the poor, and listening for the Word of God in the Bible and proclamation. Through these "means of grace" faith is nurtured and tested in us so that habits of grace can become habits of being. God's free grace becomes lived grace.

We can't save ourselves. That's true enough. But we can't realize our salvation at the ground level without doing something. Grace calls forth participation.

This year on alternating weeks I will post blogs on the subject of "the spiritual life," which (as my spiritual director, Father Paul Scaglione, has often said) is just another way of saying "human life." These blogs will take as a recurring starting point the metaphor "Thin Places," a pretty common phrase in some of the popular literature on spirituality, though it is a phrase in need of refurbishment, critical reflection and perhaps more.

Place matters. What place we're talking about makes a difference to the sort of discussion we have, whether historical, social, cultural, religious or some other kind of “place.” Indeed, "place" might serve as a kind of metaphorical shorthand for all sorts of personal and spiritual "locations."

Where do we find ourselves on the universal GPS? Where and who and how have we been in the course of our lives, aware as we are that we are not the same today as we were twenty years ago, nor, really as we were two weeks ago, not if we are growing and maturing? Where are we and who are we, knowing that we are not experienced precisely the same way in a conversation with an aging parent as we are in a conference with one of our students, or with a business associate with whom we are negotiating a deal, or in a discussion with our spouse, partner, brother, sister, son, daughter or best friend?

That which I call "myself" is not rigidly fixed, not if I am healthy, spiritually and emotionally. Neither is "myself" utterly fluid, not if I have integrity. We live, as Heraclitus reminds us, floating down that stream that is always roiling, flowing, moving, never precisely the same from moment to moment though it remains the same stream rolling down the years. The thinness of our place psychically and emotionally is as much a part of our spiritual identity as the thinness of the places we worship or pray or meditate, or the thinness of our place in existence, realizing how fragile and fleeting life is. I will use the phrase "thin places" mostly to speak of where we meet God, but I will also use this phrase to describe where we meet every "other." We'll explore this theme, and use it as an excuse and a tool to explore other ideas, though not from a clinical or academic perspective.

We'll explore thin places like children in a dark wood, hungry and sleepy, who come upon a house built entirely of gingerbread. We will look at thin places like a hill walker who comes upon a cavern on a leisurely Sunday ramble, and, grabbing hold of a root in the cavern wall, scales it with a flashlight down into the dark and the deep chasm. We will set sail upon a sea of thin places letting prevailing winds take us where they will, sometimes flying upon the wind's back, sometimes tacking into it, as the occasions and the seas and the boat demand.

In our journey, we will find, I believe, that we are guided in all of these adventures by an invisible hand. We will discover, I believe, that our craft can be entrusted to the wind, that footholds await us in the rocky walls, and that the gingerbread house is inhabited not by a wicked crone but by a friend who is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

It needs to be said from the outset that the thin places we'll explore are not chosen from among all of the places of this wide world because they have been found especially unique in some literature on the subject or on the basis of a poll of spiritual seekers, but simply because they are places I know that have become thin for me. The choices, then, are idiosyncratic and sometimes eccentric. But I believe a writer should write about that which he or she knows. Otherwise a writer has questionable credibility at best. This raises an even more basic question about credibility in spiritual matters.

I cannot claim any real credibility in matters of the spirit. I am not a spiritual expert. If any such person exists as a spiritual expert, I am not one. Indeed, I am barely a novice, if that. The longer I live, the more convinced I am that I know virtually nothing, and probably the “virtually” in this sentence is a reflection of my false self. Far from being an experienced swimmer in the infinite ocean of the spirit, I feel like a person wading from puddle to puddle on the shore. Often I wonder if the sand is really a beach lapped by waves at all, or is really just a desert and the waves a mirage. Whatever "credibility" I might have must reflect this profound ignorance, this unknowing, this utter dependence on realities I trust but do not understand.

Thus it is that my own "credibility" (and speaking of credibility, in this application the word must be written within quotation marks to remind us of its dubious character) along this path is not the “credibility” of the guide who, knowing every path and every wrinkle on a well-worn map, can unerringly show us the way. My "credibility" is just that of a beggar who, as the great D.T. Niles has said, has some experience in finding bread for the journey.

*Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).

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