Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Thin Places (Not About Dieting!)

I had paused in some TV channel surfing to watch a program about Louisiana American Indians. A man spoke about a lake which is very significant to his tribe and he spoke of his uncle who said that on the lake the space was thin. This was not explained, but immediately I understood what his uncle meant.
Perhaps I had heard the phrase "thin place" before. A little research and I found that the term is often used in Celtic (Irish and Scottish) spirituality. In an article by Sylvia Maddox, she writes:
"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. A contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge gives this description:
‘Thin places,’ the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between this world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.’"
There is something indescribable about certain places where that door between our world and the next does seem to crack open for a moment and in enters Mystery.
Tomb of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy
I experienced such a place in Assisi where St. Francis was born and where he was buried. There is a large Basilica Church of St. Francis and in its crypt is the tomb of Francis. It’s not a very large space if memory serves me correctly. I knelt on a simple wood kneeler. It was quiet–this in itself was most unusual in Italy because Italians are usually noisy in church. Or are those tourists?
As I prayed and people simply walked around the tomb, I had the distinct sensation that St. Francis was there. Well, of course, his body was buried there. But that’s not what I experienced. His living presence was there and I felt the most incredible peace. From the world in which Francis lives (heaven) and the world in which I live (this life) the "separating wall" seemed very thin, porous even, in that crypt.
I seem particularly prone to such things–when I slow down and pay attention.
The Eucharist as Portal
In one of my blog entries (May 10, 2013 HERE)) I spoke about the Eucharist in terms of a portal (or door, if you prefer) between heaven where Jesus is Risen and Ascended and earth---the place around the altar and the Sacrament. I would describe the space occupied by the altar and the elements of the Consecrated bread and Wine to be a thin place.
Of course to be truly orthodox I must confess that the Eucharist is more than a spiritual portal into heaven. Jesus himself is the Portal and the Door; just as Jesus is not merely symbolized by the Eucharist but is the Eucharist by virtue of his Real Presence.

These matters always require attentiveness. If I come to Mass and am inattentive and worried about many things, I may feel nothing when hearing the Word of God or when Christ is truly Present at the altar. If I had merely come to the tomb of St. Francis that time and rushed through or was anxious to get to lunch or to some other activity, I probably would have missed the grace of that "thin place."
Prayer itself can assist us in becoming attentive to grace-filled moments in our life. This will be part of Advent's message (Advent begins this year on December 1). There is also a mind set, difficult to sustain, which looks for the Presence of God always and everywhere (though it is often only sometimes and some places). Proven "thin places" help us with this: pilgrimages to holy places, visits to a church for prayer, wild places in nature like mountains or deserts.
We seek the Reality behind the realty; the invisible God behind the visible world. We call this the "sacramental approach."
Today I might ask myself: "Where shall God appear in my world today?"