As many of you know, I am a student of Celtic spirituality. I have walked the paths of Scotland’s Isle of Mull and Iona, Findhorn near Inverness, or even looked for the beastie at Loch Ness. I have meditated at Stonehenge and climbed the Tor or Glastonbury, otherwise known as the Isle of Avalon. The Celts and Gaels believed the world was populated by spirits. Nature was alive. Birds and badgers could deliver divine messages. And groves of trees could usher you into the mystic.
One of the words that both the indigenous Celts, and their Christian successors, employed to describe their sense of the holy was “thin places.” A thin place was a junction of heaven and earth, sacred and domestic, God and daily life. A place where ordinary reality became transparent, revealing Spirit in space and time.
On his own and fleeing from the anger of his brother Esau, who was out to get him because Jacob defrauded him of his birthright and blessing, Jacob camps out in a solitary place with nothing but a stone for a pillow.
And has a dream. He dreams of a ladder of angels, an escalator of divine beings from earth to heaven and back again. Earth angels and heavenly messengers, and then the Very God speaking – the God of the Universe, the God who sent his grandfather Abraham and grandmother Sarah, on an amazing adventure. God is in this place, promising him a hopeful future, and affirming his companionship wherever Jacob goes.
Jacob awakens, awe filled and astonished, and exclaims, “God was here and I did not know it.” I will call this place, Beth-El, the house of God and gateway to heaven.
Jacob has found himself in a thin place and his life is forever changed. He doesn’t yet abandon the character described by his name Jacob, the trickster, the slick salesman and canny trader. But he now knows that there is a divinity that guides his path, as crooked as it may currently be.
We live in a broken world, a world of incivility and division, violence and competition, and sometimes the enemy is us. But more importantly, we also live in a God-filled world in which God can come to us at any moment, in which every encounter can be holy, in which there are thin places everywhere.
Thin places everywhere! Beth-El, the house of God in every household. A wardrobe, as C.S. Lewis notes, where four children can enter and discover themselves as heroes in the land of Narnia. A beckoning from a wizard that sends Bilbo the Hobbit on the journey of a lifetime! And track 9 ¾ that propels Harry Potter to Hogwarts.
Yes, there are thin places everywhere. Thomas Merton, the spiritual guide who spent most of his time in silence at a Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky encounters a thin place on Fourth and Walnut streets in Louisville:
“…at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”
It was like waking from a dream of separateness…The whole illusion of separate holy existence is a dream.
Right where you are is a thin place. Even on Zoom we can find a thin place. Heaven is all around you. And you are heavenly. When we pray, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, we are praying that our world become a thin place, where God is visible in every encounter. We are praying to know the holiness of life itself and to see angels everywhere.
There are thin places – and thin persons, regardless of waist line – wherever you go! The Holy One is in every person and encounter and guidance comes when you need it, because it’s already here. In the new dimensions of our life as a congregation, remember the thin places. Remember that God will give you the insight you need in the conduct of your daily life and the life of this congregation. This church – on Zoom or in person – is a thin place.
The steeple reaches to heaven, the bells resound across the planet, good news radiates from the Thrifty Niche, casseroles, canned goods, school supplies for children…the Celtic saint Pelagius said that in every child you can see the face of God, and that applies to us adults. Who knows? The next time we meet in person we may open the sanctuary door and find ourselves on an unexpected adventure.
In seeing God’s face, in discovering Beth-El everywhere, we will be like Jacob on that solitary night, with an uncertain future ahead of us, and we will feel God’s promise and believe – “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” Thanks be to God!