Samir Selmanovic

Looking For Thin Places: The Practice of Seeing God In Even Unlikely Spaces

[Please SHARE this blog with people who might be interested!  Hit the button on the right to subscribe or to share the post] My wife and I have been reading a book by one of our friends, Samir Selmanovic, It's Really About God:  Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian.  It's a personal exploration of a very different way of looking at religion which has historically too often degenerated into "self-serving God management systems."  To Samir, "To learn to live together on this fragile earth, authentic believers of all traditions need to see that it's really not about their religion, it's really all about God - God who is about all of us and cannot be owned by any of us."

To suggest a powerful spiritual paradigm that enhances this sense of the Sacred that refuses to be corralled and caged, he references the introduction of Christianity to Ireland by Saint Patrick around 431 C.E.  St. Patrick discovered that God had already been among the Celts before he arrived.  So instead of completely dismantling their spiritual experience in favor of his brand, he found the presence of God outside the walls of his religion and explored a more contextualized spirituality that ended up in a brand of Christian spirituality that is still popular to this day.

Celtic Christians sought after what they called "thin places," spots where the "membrane between mere physical reality and the reality of God's presence thins out to where it can seen, touched, tasted, or sensed in some unmistakable way."  The Celts often found these "thin places" at shorelines, fjords, rivers, and wells.  And later, they experienced them in cathedrals, prayer gardens, sacred groves and plots of ground - places where "the veil was so sheer, one could almost step through it" into the presence of God.

Another author I read recently said:  "There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God."

The contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge gives this description.

"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.

I'm moved by this concept of Thin Places.  A corresponding spiritual practice would be to develop a more intimate awareness of the Sacred wherever we are, an ability to find where the veil of the Eternal is pulled back to give us a glimpse of the divine, a place of encounter with the divine presence.  Discovering and exploring "God shaped space."

What would that look like in your life?  It could be at a busy intersection downtown San Francisco as you prepare to cross the street getting back to your office after lunch or running an errand.  You could come across a divine portal while you're walking your dog or washing dishes at your sink.  The veil could suddenly be pulled back in the midst of a conversation with a friend, a dream at night, standing on Ocean Beach, or pushing your cart down a Costco aisle.  You might discover a God-shaped space in the middle of a discussion with friends or in the middle of a song or while doing some personal internal work of self-discovery.  Thin Places where you suddenly find yourself pulled closer to God.

Have you ever come upon a Thin Place?  What ways have you found to enhance your awareness of the Sacred, places where you've encountered a portal to the divine?  How might you develop a spiritual practice to embrace more intimately the God of your journey wherever you are along that path?

The Jews were masterful at recording stories of their experiences with Thin Places.  My spiritual community Second Wind engaged in a Saturday morning discussion series a month ago about one such Thin Place which occurred at an unlikely spot called the Jordan River.  After having wandered and wilted in the desert for over 40 years, trying to get themselves to their land of promise in Canaan, this large band of ragtag nomads finally found themselves standing in front of the raging, swollen Spring waters of the Jordan, their land of promise unfortunately on the other side - no bridges, no footpath, no boats, no way across.  And yet it was in the face of this seemingly insurmountable obstacle that they encountered an amazing portal to the divine.

As per instructions from their God, the moment they stuck their anxious toes into the raging waters (in an act of bold faith), the veil between heaven and earth was suddenly blown back.  A dramatic Thin Place appeared.   The waters of the Jordan River split in two and dry ground stood before them all the way to the other side of this impossible river, straight to their promised land.  After everyone had crossed over, a group of their tribal leaders walked back into the middle, selected 12 large stones, placed them on top of each other as an altar of remembrance to this Thin Place of encounter with their God.  Then they walked back to the river bank and built another stone altar.  Why build these altars, with one of them remaining in the middle of the river?  They were to be visible reminders of their encounter with God, a Thin Place, a divine portal where they saw and felt God work on their behalf.

“In the future your children will ask, ‘What do these stones mean?’  Then you can tell them, ‘This is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the river right before your eyes, and he kept it dry until you were all across, just as he did at the Red Sea when he dried it up until we had all crossed over.  These stones will stand as a permanent memorial for all the people."  (Joshua 4)  Every time future generations would come upon those stone altars, it would be a Thin Place for them where they would be reminded of God's presence, past, present, and future.

Where are your Thin Places?  Might they even be in moments of deep crisis and difficulty, like those wandering nomads at the riverside?  What are some reminders you might develop for your encounter with Thin Places?  How might you be more curious and aware of possible divine portals all around you?  Imagine the powerful impact this could have on your personal spirituality as you discovered places where you could step beyond the veil and savor a glimpse of the glory of God.

Is There More To Life Than What You See?

There's a profound dynamic to sailing that goes beyond the scale of the boat, the engineering, the rigging, all the equipment that helps the boat go fast and stable, that goes beyond even the condition of the water and even the crew.  It is in fact, ironically enough, that which cannot be seen.  And without it, there would be no sailing.  Figured out what it is? Exactly.  Wind.  It's the whole force behind sailing.  You can't see it.  You can only feel it and notice its impact.  And believe me, it's quite a force to be reckoned with.  I've at times cursed it and hailed it (depending of course how well I'm doing leveraging it).  And I've been deathly afraid of it (when my boat appeared to be "going down" in the storm).  All of these responses to something you can't even see - but obviously acknowledge is there.

There's an intriguing spiritual dimension to this reality.  And of all people to acknowledge it is Christopher Hitchens, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, most known for his self-proclaimed role as one of the New Atheists called to debunk the world of religion and religious thought, as most recently revealed in his manifesto book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  His primary sparring partners tend to be religious conservatives and apologists for fundamentalism.

In a recent interview with a liberal Christian minister he made some surprising philosophical and spiritual observations of sharing a mutual appreciation for "the transcendent" and "the numinous" (which literally means, "surpassing comprehension or understanding; mysterious; filled with or characterized by a sense of a supernatural presence: a numinous place; Spiritually elevated; sublime"):  terms that Hitchens himself introduced into the conversation, not vice versa.

When asked about this, he commented:

"It's innate in us to be overawed by certain moments, say, at evening on a mountaintop or sunset on the boundaries of the ocean. Or, in my case, looking through the Hubble telescope at those extraordinary pictures. We have a sense of awe and wonder at something beyond ourselves, and so we should, because our own lives are very transient and insignificant. That's the numinous, and there's enough wonder in the natural world without any resort to the supernatural being required."

And then he surprisingly took it one step further.  "Everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there's more to life than just matter." More to life than just what you can see?

This is quite a profound observation from a person who has refused to embrace acceptance of anything supernatural.  More to life than just matter? Is Hitchens really saying what he seems to be saying here, that "the numinous" refers to the sense that there's something more to our existence than just the material world?

The ancient Hebrews (in Jewish scripture) had no problem acknowledging this reality.  In fact, to them, the scriptures never talked about "spiritual life."  Spirituality was NOT simply one of several aspects of life.  All of life was Sacred, God-breathed, infused with divine wonder and awe.  So they talked about only life.  As my friend Samir Selmanovic points out (in his book It's Really All About God), "the Hebrews loved both God and life.  Obeying God meant being fully human, with every fiber of one's being alive.  One could not experience one without the other...To tune in to human life is to tune in to God.  Existence itself is a sacred place."

There's more to life than just matter.  There's a Spirit to all life.  So embracing life deeply and passionately is a highly spiritual practice.  And historically (among spiritual traditions), this practice has been called "worship."  Living life with a sense that life is sacred, intentionally giving value to life and the Giver of life, embracing the awe and wonder that there is More than simply our existence, that there is a Life Force that flows all around us and in us and through us.  Worship is the spiritual practice of embracing God and showing value to the Divine life.

There's more to life than just matter - worship - embracing "the transcendent" and the "numinous" - giving honor to Life.  Renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens acknowledges this reality (in his own way).  I definitely concur.

In the spiritual community in San Francisco I'm a part of, Second Wind's "W" core value (in our core values acronymn S.E.C.O.N.D. W.I.N.D.) stands for "W.orship."  It's a desire to value living life with a sense of the divine, learning the art of living all of life as sacred, embracing the worldview (as Einstein pointed out) that the Universe is in fact "friendly," that God is the ultimate Force of love and compassion and goodness.  So we're trying to find meaningful and intentional ways to live out this value and important paradigm.  We think this value will empower us to love extravagantly and serve unselfishly to make this world a better place.

And in the end, isn't there something centering and grounding to sense that there is more to life than just matter?  That, as my friends in AA are so wise to regularly affirm, there's a Higher Power beyond myself, greater than myself, that nourishes and sustains and empowers my life toward greater self responsibility leading to wholeness and transformation?

When it comes to sailing, I can tell you that the most effective sailors are those that not only acknowledge the wind but learn how to live with it well, who embrace it and honor it and respect it - who learn the art of leaning into it.

What would it look like in tangible terms for you to embrace this core value, to affirm that there is more to life than matter and what you can see?  How would it impact your daily existence, your relationships, your concerns, your hopes and dreams?  What are specific ways you tend to show deeper value for Life, to carve out space to acknowledge and pay attention and affirm the Sacred in life?  When is the last time you actually thought about there being a Power greater than yourself and expressed respect and honor for It?