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Thinking Out Loud

Thin Places: Trusting What We Cannot Know to What We Cannot Name

by Michael Jinkins | Sep 18, 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.” E-mail us!

Thin Places 2The conventional understanding of "thin places" runs something like this: In some places in the world the boundary between the eternal and the terrestrial is especially "thin." So, when we talk about a sacred geography we're really focused on the places where we are more likely to meet God than in other places. There are lots of people who are happy to chart the location of such "thin places" for you.

While these blogs will relate experiences of the spirit and they take us to a number of places you can find on a map that have become holy to me and to some other people, "thinness," I have come to believe, is an experience that is eminently transferable. God makes any place thin when God finds us there.

In other words, thin places are not so much about intersections of longitude and latitude on a map as they are about the intersections of histories, experiences, people and places. There's no particular magic in a particular place, except that God breaks through for us there, or perhaps we break through to God. Or maybe we just discover, in certain places, that the "boundary" between sacredness and profanity is only an imaginary line. The place becomes holy because we believe the Holy has brushed past us there.

"Thinness" may also be a better way to conceive of the relationship between life and death than the timeline from the cradle to the grave which most of us hold in our heads and which most of us bring to mind whenever we contemplate our mortality. We shall explore this and other ideas more fully as the year unfolds. And we shall, from time to time, even subvert one idea or insight with another that stands in tension or contradicts what we just said. We shall do this because our experience of the Holy demands it. Consistency is not only the hobgoblin of small minds, as Emerson warned, it also fails to convey anything like the depth and richness of our varieties of experiences of God.

The Hebrew Bible often relates the stories of patriarchs who stumble onto holy ground and take off their shoes to show a proper respect. Others awaken from divine encounters and only then realize that the place where they lay their heads is sacred. Many believed you cannot see God and keep on living. Others reported that they had seen God and survived to tell the tale. Maybe we're always on holy ground. Maybe we're always on the verge of this boundary. Maybe we're always "walking on thin ice." Life and death are always only a hair's breadth apart. God is closer to us than our next breath.

Any place might in the blink of an eye become thin. Suddenly our eyes open, and we see, not just the whole world, but even its smallest corner as Gerard Manley Hopkins saw it, shot through with "God's grandeur," "charged" with the sacred, "like shining from shook foil," bright, shimmering, radiant beyond imagination. Or we might come to ourselves in a dingy ordinary place, like a prodigal recovered. If you pressed me on the question, then, I'd have to say that the utility room in your basement could just as readily become a "thin place" as an ages-old monastery chapel on a secluded mist-shrouded island.

The other point I want to make is just as important.

We meet God someplace. Some "place." We don't meet God nowhere. We don't meet God merely in abstraction. God meets us amid this matter in which we live and move and have our being. God does not abhor nature, but wallows hoggishly in the stuff. I might find it hard to credit some of the elements of certain pagan beliefs, but the idea that God can be found in an oak or a windy granite ridge or a peat bog I'll never contest.

Often, we remember a place where something extraordinary though hard to define happened, and we remember and treasure the place because of who met us or what happened there. The place becomes wonderful to us, perhaps awesome, maybe thin to us - even holy ground.

You may be surprised, as I hinted earlier, by the eccentricity of the selection of thin places in this collection of blogs.

The reasons these places were selected have to do with my own spiritual life and my very limited experience as much as with the lives of saints and sages past. There are other places explored here in which the distant pagan past overshadows the relatively brief Christian history, where our common prehistory speaks in holy whispers. There are other places still at which my engagement with Stoic philosophy and Asian spirituality has taken on larger significance. All these places have become thin to my tread.

You may be surprised by the lack of chronological ordering of these reflections. I have chosen to present them as they occur to me rather than to present them in any sort of sequential scheme. For me, at least, this is how reflection often operates. One recollection leads to another, but frequently by circuitous paths.

I'll leave it to you to determine if the exploration of places that have become thin for me is at all helpful in your discernment of the presence of God in your world. I hope, if nothing else, that these stories will assist you as you seek to be attentive and receptive to the mystery that lurks "just beyond" or "just beneath" until it breaks through. As for me, I shall entrust that which I cannot know to that which I cannot name.

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