In this COVID-19 lockdown we find ourselves distanced from our normal places of divine encounter – churches, sacred places, holy wells, places of natural beauty.
This situation made me wonder whether theology of ‘Thin Places’ is worth exploring.
Writing about his own experience of a ‘thin place’ a journalist explains,
“There is a name for spaces such as this: “thin places”, a Celtic Christian term for “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses”, as Eric Weiner puts it in his spirituality travelogue, ‘Man Seeks God’. They’ve been called “the places in the world where the walls are weak”, where another dimension seems nearer than usual.”
I’m sure each one of us has encountered a ‘thin space’ many times. Maybe it’s a place of extraordinary beauty, or a moment in time – a sunrise or sunset, or maybe it’s a place where someone deeply spiritual has lived and prayed, or maybe it’s a moment of deep significance in your life.
At each of these ‘thin places’ we sense the presence of God, we know in a way beyond explaining that there is more to life than life. We know, deeply, unshakeably, that the simple reductionism of science that would make existence merely an interplay of atoms and molecules is just plain wrong. In the moment of encounter we are convinced that life is more than merely what we can measure.
the simple reductionism of science, that would make existence merely an interplay of atoms and molecules, is just plain wrong
I have experienced many ‘thin places’ in my life.
Some of these it was the place itself that is ‘thin’ because of what had happened there, or because of its intrinsic qualities.
I remember kneeling in prayer inside the ruins of the church built on the islet where St Cuthbert first retreated to be alone with God when the pressure of leading Lindisfarne Abbey got too much. That was a deeply spiritual moment in my life.
Other places are deeply ordinary but become ‘thin’ in a moment of divine encounter.
I remember sitting in my living room holding my new-born son and I suddenly felt a love sweep over me for this child that rocked me to my core.
As I struggled to make sense of this I heard the voice of God say,
‘If you, as a human father, can love your son this much, how much more do you think that I, your heavenly Father, love you?’
That was another life changing moment where my relationship with God was transformed, my understanding of religion turned upside down, and the direction of my life irrevocably altered.
The very ordinary place in which I found myself had become ‘thin’.
Separated as we are in our isolation I wonder if there are things that we can do, that might make our places thinner?
Are there practices that we could adopt that might transform the places in which we are confined into ‘thin places’?
I believe there are some things that might help;
The setting aside of a space to pray and the regular practice of using it.
Set up a prayer space in a quiet corner. In all Orthodox homes there is an icon shelf in the corner of the room opposite the door, so as you enter a room the first thing you see is a reminder of God’s presence here.
When Jesus was asked to teach his disciples how to pray he gave them these instructions,
‘But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.’ Matthew 6:6-7, NIV
So set up a quiet space to pray, establish a regular practice of prayer – it doesn’t have to be long, just make it regular to start with. Don’t worry about words if they don’t come – use prayers like the Lord’s Prayer, or just BE with God in silence.
Maybe that will help your place to become thinner.
You could also decorate your home with things that draw your thoughts upwards and outwards. There is some good advice on what helps us become more spiritual from St Paul;
‘Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.’ Philippians 4:8, NIV.
Artwork that includes biblical texts, or spiritual themes, icons, pictures of extraordinary beauty – anything that lifts your spirits and your thoughts away from earthly preoccupations and draws them to respond to God in thankfulness and hope.
I have a small icon of Christ that I picked up in a charity shop in Rome, a charity that worked with people living on the streets.
The icon only cost a few euros and it is not a high quality item.
And yet there is something about it. Perhaps it’s about where I bought it and why, but something has made it significant in my life.
It is my regular practice to spend time in prayer before it – it is placed on my desk and I regularly take a moment just to be with Jesus – face to face. It helps.
Listen to podcasts, music etc. that you find has a similar tendency to draw your thoughts upwards to God and outwards to others. Handel’s Messiah I find particularly powerful. An acquaintance told me recently of how Mendelssohn’s Elijah had been spiritually profound in his life. Find something of spiritual quality that draws you to God, that opens your heart and mind to a divine encounter.
Isolation mustn’t become the new normal
Of course all the above is in the nature of making the best of a bad job.
The Christian faith is unalterably communal; we cannot be children of God and not be brothers and sisters to those in a similar relationship with our Father.
In fact, Jesus made genuine Christian community the irrefutable proof of us being his disciples,
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35, NIV
So whilst our private spiritual practices are important and necessary, than cannot be a substitute for corporate spiritual life – worship, prayer, fellowship, bearing with one another, loving and caring for one another.
But maybe in these unusual times, we can find ways of making the places in which we find ourselves holed up ‘thinner’. Maybe this time of isolation is a call to go deeper with God, to open up more of our life to his influence, to be less distracted by the passing from the eternal.
I pray that your and my place might become thinner.
 This column will change your life: where heaven and Earth collide – Oliver Burkeman, Sat 22 Mar 2014,www.theguardian.com