St. Patrick's Day is on the horizon, and thus a meditation on Celtic Spirituality is fitting. Bruce Epperly shares with us a meditation on the concept of thin places, those places where we are able to draw close to God are revealed. May this be a blessing to all those who read in preparation for this reminder of the depth of the Celtic faith tradition.
Thin Places Everywhere:
A Celtic St. Patrick’s Meditation
Like many students of spirituality and theology, I have been intrigued by the Celtic vision of “thin places.” You might say that my recent book, The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality in the Postmodern World, is a poetic meditation on experiencing thin places in daily life.
According to the Celtic sages, thin places are spaces where the divine and human, the creator and creature, intermingle and are entangled. I suspect, like Annie Dillard’s “tree with lights,” such thin places are everywhere but they burst forth in those intentional or unguarded moments when the divine becomes transparent to us. The world is charged with electricity, energy, and grandeur and we are transfigured by the experience.
You may have heard the rabbinical question, “Why was the bush [that spoke to Moses] burning but not consumed?” After much discussion, one of the rabbis noted that “the bush was burning and not consumed, so that one day as he walked by Moses would finally see it!” We can imagine that Moses walked past the bush day after day on his way to tending his father-in-law’s flocks. One day, he saw the fire and heard the voice and discovered that he was on holy ground.
Singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer captures that same experience in her songs “Betty’s Diner” and “Holy as a Day is Spent.”
Eggs and toast like bread and wine.The empty page, the open book.Redemption everywhere I look.
These are words voiced from the thin place where we cleave the wood, butter the toast, touch the skin, and hear the cry and know that God is here.
Reality can be boring, and often is to many of us, but omnipresence as a doctrine intended to be lived and not argued, reminds us that “the whole earth is filled with God’s glory.” (Isaiah 6:1-8) Every place can be the holy of holies and every spot is equally close to God.
Having spoken of God’s presence, it is equally clear that certain times and places have a unique feel to them. In our own lives, these might be holding a grandchild, the day you fell in love, the death of a loved one, the moment God became real. In the language of spirituality, these moments are incarnational and enlightening: the birth of Jesus, the empty tomb, the Buddhist Bo Tree, the baptismal waters, the Eucharistic meal.
Still these times and places, deeply inspired by a Spirit that choose to reveal her or his vision more fully in some spots than others, are continuous with all other places. Contrary to Barth, there is always a “point of contact” between creation and revelation. There is no homogeneity about revelation, but there is universality.
Accordingly, the doctrine of omnipresence challenges the traditional dichotomy of general and special revelation. As William Temple once stated, we can recognize the revelation in the Son because God is also revealed in the sun. Or, as John’s Gospel proclaims, the true light, enlightening everyone was coming into the world. We may turn our backs this holy light but the light is still hear, illuminating and inspiring, and providing the energy that we often misuse.
Thin places everywhere! These are tough words to affirm when you’ve lost your job, been passed over for a position, spend afternoons with a spouse or partner in the chemotherapy clinic or Alzheimer’s ward, or continue to be dismayed by the violence and divisiveness of our nation’s culture ways. Our Celtic friends knew conflict and danger, but they also recognized that within difficult moments, divinity still shines, and by God’s grace we may find our way through the valley.
An ancient Greek philosopher noted that you will never see the unexpected unless you are open to it. The same counsel could apply to perceiving thin places – open your eyes to holiness, awaken to bless, bless often and pray the changes of each day. Let me conclude with the words of one who no doubt experienced thin places from time to time. May the words of e.e. cummings be a St. Patrick’s blessing for you. Let them be an inspiration to seeing and being a thin place.
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of all nothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: A Participatory Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.