Thin Places

"Set your minds, therefore, on things that are above, not on things of the earth." Colossians 3:2

Many years ago, I ran across a concept in Celtic theology called "thin places." It's the idea that certain places are sacred, and that by being in those places the distance between our physical world and the spiritual world is quite thin. The sacred places offer us the opportunity to look beyond the surrounding clamor of empty busyness, both external and internal, and "see" what is true, real, and eternal. Thin places nurture our souls.

I'd like to expand the idea to include thin times. The principle is still the same. Though the physical world is most obvious, it is the spiritual world with its values and relationships that feeds our true hunger. We need times, both regular and spontaneous, that call us to transcendence.

Thin places may be a sanctuary, chapel, forest, or a place in your home. Jesus retreated often to the wilderness, or a lonely place, after a long time with crowds and their demands. Thin times include daily prayer, meditation, and contemplation, a weekly Sabbath, and other annual holy days such as Thanksgiving and Advent.

As Christians are at the beginning of the Advent season, let's focus on this thin time as an illustration of our general need and how we might make this a sacred experience.

The fact that we need such times is intensely evident, but almost universally overlooked. Survey the crowds in the malls or in traffic and you likely will detect a soul-weariness. Yes, nearly everyone is caught up in Christmas, but apparently no one is happy about it. CNN annually runs a story about tempers flaring at Black Friday events, and in these later years we have the blessing of accompanying video. Charming.

But you don't have to immerse yourself in the hoards to experience the emptiness. All of the great spiritual leaders have pointed out our fundamental spiritual need for thousands of years. The Law, Prophets, and Writings all point to God as the sole answer to our spiritual craving. Jesus used metaphors like water and bread to describe Himself as our essential spiritual sustenance. Paul contrasted the spirit and flesh, and exhorted us to fix our eyes on things above, not things below.

The first noble truth in Buddhism is usually translated as "life is suffering," but in my reading it seems a better translation to say that life is longing. We all know something is missing, something is not quite right, and no amount of what the world offers will fill that fundamental emptiness. The unfilled spiritual vacuum is at the heart of all our anxiety, anger, addictions, and acquisitiveness.

Advent offers a special challenge and opportunity. This is a busy time of year, and we usually spend more money than we should buying presents for people who have absolutely everything they need and just about everything they could reasonably want. This season is marked by a garish noise, and the thin places and times get pushed to the background or forgotten altogether.

The fundamental challenge lies at this very point: the world shouts, but God whispers. Our salvation lies in recovering and cherishing the thin places and thin times.

This recovery does not mean entering a monastery from late November to the first of the new year. If we can't catch our spiritual breath in the middle of life then we really don't stand much of a chance of surviving anyway.

What we need is a spiritual and mental shift that allows us to become aware of God around us and in us all of the time. When you go to church, be there. Allow yourself the luxury of singing the hymns, saying the prayers, and listening to the sermon as if in each part of worship God is trying to speak directly to you. He is! The worship service, or hanging of the green, or Christmas Eve can be a thin place if you're simply present, and not mentally wrestling with the list of unmet and usually unrealistic demands.

This shift truly can make a tremendous difference. The lights remind you of the Light that dispels darkness. Presents remind you of the true Gift. Decorations remind you of beauty. Advent is full of symbols. Taking time to remember their significance helps you make the shift.

Most importantly, we simply must make time to be still. Usually that means physically being still so that we become aware of the spiritual world. It's hard to breathe deeply of things that are spiritual if we're huffing and puffing our way through every hour. However, being still can also mean taking a few moments to say a prayer of awareness in the midst of the busyness. I believe God loves this kind of prayer. The clamor of the world does not silence God. It simply means we have to be intentional in listening for the ways God speaks, and He's always speaking.

A scene from Bernard Shaw's St. Joan illustrates my point. St. Joan claims to hear the voice of God, and with that conviction she inspires men to follow her. The prince, however, is jealous. "Why don't the voices come to me? I am king not you!" he whines. Joan answers "They do come to you, but you do not hear them. As soon as the angelus rings you cross yourself and have done with it. But if you prayed from your heart and sat in the field and listened for the thrilling of the bells after they stopped ringing, then you would hear the voices just as I."

Real spirituality is simply a matter of being aware, and you have the opportunity right now. Advent is here. The bells are ringing, and God is whispering. Where are your thin places? What are your thin times?


Dr. Terry Ellis

November 27, 2016

1 Comment
  1. "Jesus used metaphors like water and bread to describe Himself as our essential spiritual sustenance". This was written in the sixth paragraph, Terry….

    I set out today to visit a new church. A coworker had recommended her family's church. After swaying, clapping and singing along to beautiful worship music, a fellow said a few words about communion. I was immediately touched as two young girls came around and offered teeny glasses of grape juice and pieces of flatbread. Not accustomed to the service, I quietly asked my neighbour: "Do we eat this right away or do we wait for everyone to be served?" She told me, "Whenever you feel it is time to take your communion, go ahead".

    I paused and reflected on what this bread and water represented, and my eyes filled with tears. I felt the tears flow down my cheeks, and a big lump formed in my throat. I felt a thin place as you described. I felt closer to Jesus than I had ever felt before….. It was a gift, and one that will be remembered each time I take communion again. I hope and pray I will nurture this passion as a new Christian.

    Thank you for always providing us with a thin place as we reflect upon each week's Gracewaves.

    Terri Jo