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

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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.

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2 thoughts on “Looking For Thin Places: The Practice of Seeing God In Even Unlikely Spaces

  1. It’s such a beautiful concept. I’ve loved the idea of thin places ever since I was introduced. The challenge for me is to slow down long enough to recognize these moments/spaces when I encounter them.

  2. Just posted a poem on thin spaces this morning and thought I would see if anyone else had blogged on it. I love what you have written–giving the historical and the personal perspective–of this God shaped space. Thank you.

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