I have been tempted to scoff, I must confess, at the idea, theology, doctrine, concept of something called “thin places.” The premise is that there are some physical locations on earth where the boundaries fall away between heaven and earth thus providing the visitor or resident an extraordinary experience of oneness with God. While the Bible doesn’t speak of thin places, if we were to think of a biblical example or two, I might suggest going back to Moses having that chat with God speaking out of that burning bush. That was more than just an experience. It required a certain physical place for Moses to have this encounter with God. Same could be said for Mt. Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments and had to hide his face because actually seeing God would have been too much for him to handle.
For those looking for a Second or New Testament example of a thin place, let’s try what today is known as Mt. Tabor in Israel. That’s where a few of the apostles witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus and saw, standing with him, the long dead Moses and Elijah. Of course, from a purely Christian perspective, the Second Testament would be rampant with thin places.
Thin places are claimed by a variety of religious beliefs. I’m just more familiar with some of the Christian ones, particularly among them the Scottish Isle of Iona where many pilgrims make their way to experience that rendezvous between heaven and earth in the Celtic tradition. I haven’t been there, but I have read of the wildness of the location and the Protestant monastery located there.
Yes, I have scoffed, but it is not my place to do so. It is not my place to discern how one or many experience God and know first-hand the confluence between heaven and earth. There have been times that I have been places where I have felt especially close to God or have felt that lack of boundary between heaven and earth. While I have experienced my share of mountains, none of them had the impact on me as that of the Canadian Rockies and, in particular, those within the Banff National Forest. I made our hosts laugh when I observed, “It seems like the sky is closer to the earth up here!” They hadn’t noticed. But it was more than just an observation. It took my breath away and I felt as though Heaven and Earth were meeting and I was a witness to it.
So, yes, there are physical locations that are documented (mine are not) by many of thin places around the world. It must leave one almost without words to have that kind of experience of God’s closeness and the sense of an after-life or the well-being of such even in the midst of the current one.
There are those that say thin places must be physical; that any other experience of a convergence of heaven and earth would be just that: experiential not physical. But I disagree. I believe that we can have extraordinary knowledge of Heaven and Earth meeting in rather ordinary places.
My dad died in 1989. Mom had taken a break from her vigil at his hospital bed and had gone home to get some sleep. My husband Terry and I took up the watch and upon our arrival learned that Dad was in his final moments with us. Terry and I just sat in for Mom and we watched as he took his final breaths.
Now, we were saddled by a very well-intentioned but chatty hospital chaplain who took up residence in the room with us. It was fine that she was there, but I preferred a bit of quiet. I remember one thing she did say as she seemed to babble through our final moments with our dad: “He looks like he was a very nice person.” What the…? He was almost dead. How can you tell by looking at an almost dead person whether he was nice or not? Luckily for her, he was a nice person or she would have been told otherwise. I have since wondered if that turn of phrase has ever gotten her punched in the face.
Nonetheless, rather than just asking her to leave (which I have since learned is a perfectly correct thing to do), we just let her stay and babble on.
Now, you wouldn’t think that it would be possible to experience a thin place at a time and setting like that. But as Dad’s soul left his body, I knew it. I could almost see it. It hovered near the top back corner of the room and it was as though it was looking back at us and at Dad’s body. I knew it was there. And then it was gone.
I wasn’t looking for a thin place. It happened years before I felt called to enter the seminary and take up theological studies. I didn’t even know about such a thing as thin places.
I didn’t say anything about that to anyone including Terry for several years. And then one day I confided in him what I knew had happened in that room that late afternoon. And what had become just a moment of curiosity for me became a confirmation of a thin place when Terry, after hearing my story, said to me, “I knew exactly the same thing happened.” He said he would describe it exactly as I did – with the hovering soul and even the exact same location in the room.
And all of this in the midst of a babbling chaplain and the heavy grief of losing my father. It was a reason to rejoice at the sure and certain knowledge of not only a new life, but a touching of Earth and Heaven as Dad made his way from one to the other.
In the years since, I have often expressed my sense that when we hold vigil for a dying loved one, we are standing on Holy Ground. As a pastor often invited into those settings, I have always felt humility at that invitation. But if we are standing on Holy Ground as we walk with someone from this life into the next, can not that Holy Ground become a thin place where individuals present might be able to physically see and know the convergence of Heaven and Earth?
Of all of the baptisms I have officiated, there have been perhaps one or maybe two where I have had the distinct knowledge that this is not just an experience, but a thin place where God is so clearly present that Heaven and Earth are inseparable. They have become one.
Thin places, I have come to believe, can be places of worship and places far removed from worship. A thin place for one may not be a thin place for another. A thin place rampant with the convergence of Heaven and Earth for one or many can be a thin place between earth and hell for others. Thin places can be hospital rooms, cemeteries, mountains, and valleys. They can be in the midst of a wilderness outing or even in the resounding explosions of war.
Thin places must have a physical component to them, with that I must agree. And that’s how I would sort out a thin place from a simple experience of God’s presence, that is if an experience of God’s presence can ever be simple.
I don’t go looking for thin places. I believe thin places find us.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. – Isaiah 2:2-4