A few weeks ago, I wrote on Thin Places. My wife Cheryl has now written on that theme, and says it better and with richer insight than me. So I'm posting her thoughts here. Enjoy.
Early Celtic Christians recognized “thin places,” places where the veil between heaven and earth is very sheer, or tissue paper thin. Places where prayers were easily uttered, and perceptibly heard. But even before Christianity came to the Celt’s, there was recognition of these places as well as thin times. The equinoxes and solstices’ were such times, with October 31st/ November 1st being the thinnest of the calendar year. Thin places included mountain tops (high places), and well or springs which were entrances to the underworld. Consider how many Biblical encounters with God occurred on mountains – Moses, Elijah, Jesus – all had several mountain top experiences.
After the Celts embraced Christianity, these sites became places to meet with God, to pray and listen, as they felt such a close connection to the spiritual realm. The Celt’s were a people of prayer and blessing. They had prayers and blessings for every mundane and routine task of their day, from milking the cow, to making the bed because they recognized the presence of God always with them, visible in all created things. One particular place of blessing was the hearth in the home. They blessed the fire each morning as they lit it, and then again in the evening as they damped it for the night. The hearth was the place of warmth and life, where the family gathered to eat, to play and to pray. The hearth often became a thin place, a place to meet God.
Two of the themes that were prevalent in Celtic Christianity were recognition of ‘presence’ and in response ‘praise.’ Thus, thin places became destinations of pilgrimage to meet with and encounter a closer presence of God. Today many still make pilgrimage to these locations: in the UK these include several places in Ireland, such as Armagh and Glendalough; St. David’s and Ffald-y-brenin in Wales; Iona in Scotland; and Lindisfarne in Northern England. As I have visited some of these Holy sites I definitely can attest to the closeness to God, a sense of the Spirit’s nearness, and the Word of God becoming freshly alive. One particular thin place I discovered was the library at the Abbey on Iona. Each morning I would spend 30 – 45 minutes in solitude, tucked in this ancient dark paneled room, positioned in the brilliant morning sun-beam as it streamed through the east window. Here, as I opened my Bible, it was as though the Lord had written the words specifically for me, the Word was living and active and touching a deep place in me.
I know I have been in many thin places throughout my years. I have had similar encounters with God, and not had to travel half way around the world to meet Him. The Sunday before we came to Wales, we worshipped at our friends church “The Forge” in Victoria. For me this was also a thin place. Amidst the chaos of running children, interruptions and distractions, the presence of the Spirit was so tangible and I could hear God very clearly.
As I have visited, experienced, and reflected on thin places I have encountered, three prevalent characteristics have emerged. Thin places are places that have been soaked in prayer. 1500 years on Iona, 500 years at Ffald-y-brenin but maybe only 10, 50 or 100 on Vancouver Island, but the longer and deeper the intercession the thinner the veil.
Thin places are places without fear. There is no fear of man, fear of the stranger, fear of evil, instead they are places of faith, of hope, and of blessing.
Thin places are places without pride. The leadership in these places is not driven by an authority figure or charismatic personality, but there is equality among staff. On Iona, the worship services were mostly led by young people and volunteers, each asked to bring the gift of themselves as an offering. At Ffald-y-brenin, though Roy and Daphne Godwin are the leaders, they know when to back away and allow their team to minister, and even more so, when to allow the Holy Spirit to do His work of convicting, restoring and healing and they step away completely.
I have been challenged to consider not where I need to go to find a thin place, but how I can begin to create thin places both now and for future generations. Is my home, my hearth, my church soaked in prayer? Do I live more in faith or fear? Am I controlling my life, my image, my family, my ministry, or do I truly trust that God is in control?
We're off to Scotland this week. Both Cheryl's and my forbears hail from this lonely country of wild men and skinflints, and more than a few fiery preachers. When we came here for a week in 2010 it was a spiritual homecoming. This time, over the next 10 days, Nicola and I are doing a road trip. It will take us west from Glasgow across the Isle on Mull to the tiny remote island of Iona, then back east and north to the forlorn shores of Loch Ness, then due south to the medieval quaintness of Edinburgh, then west again, through the imposing grandeur of Stirling Castle back to the industrial grubbiness of Glasgow, where the Buchanans once held some kind of sway, at least to have the main street and city square named after them. I hope to bring back a leather journal with Celtic embossing, a scale off Nessy's back, an autograph from William Wallace, and a kilt, so I can start dressing proper for the pulpit.
But the greater adventure, I suspect, will be all Cheryl's. We're leaving her for a week in the austerity of Iona, at the Abbey which has stood since the 13th century, and where a Christian community of monks has existed since the 5th. She is signed up for a 7-day prayer retreat. While Nic and I are off taming ancient serpents or figuring out how to snitch the Stone of Scone and reassert Scottish sovereignty, Cheryl will be on an altogether different journey, higher up, further in.
Iona is a thin place. That's a term Celtic Christians use to describe places where the barrier between earth and heaven is only gossamer, not the brick wall or iron gate it usually is. In a thin place, God is louder, closer. You can hear his voice. You can feel his breath. You can sometimes see his eyes. Story after story of such places (we are staying about an hour from one, Ffald-y-Brenin) recount how saints become more saintly in them, and hardened sinners fall to their faces in reverence and repentance. They're places of healing and restoration and revelation.
I don't fully understand them. I guess that's the point. God doesn't work by formulas. These places are crucibles of divine mystery, where God, by his own counsel, has chosen to tip his hand. Still, the one thing all thin places have in common is they're prayer-soaked. Every one is birthed in a movement of intercession and sustained by a living heritage of prayer. Every one represents decades, sometimes centuries, of men and women faithfully seeking the face of God, in season and out.
I've been in churches sometimes that, if not thin places, are thinner: a wall of balsam, not bricks, separates heaven from earth. Even thinner places are breathtaking.
Maybe the greater mystery is not how they work but this: If prayer is the only thing we can bring to the making of thin places, why aren't we soaking more ground with it?