Thursday, April 15, 2010

In search of thin places

On an expedition last weekend to the southern Cascades, my friend Keith and I traveled to the rim of the world and into the bowels of the earth. The volcanic activity responsible for shaping both Crater Lake and Lava Caves was cataclysmic. In one case an entire mountaintop exploded (40 times mightier than Mt. St. Helens) and in the other, rivers of molten lava macadamized whole valleys. Life in both places was literally reset to the third day of creation. The beauty we perceive there today is partly the result of millennia of wind and rain imperceptibly breaking down clinker into softer land forms. On this geological timeline, mankind’s presence on earth is but a brief spring shower after a century of drought.

When we talk about seeing God in nature, I believe what we’re really catching are glimpses of heaven. I’m prepared to believe that in some way we don’t fully understand, earth and heaven exist in separate but proximate realms. What lies between them is less than we might imagine. When I’m snowshoeing at Crater Lake or afloat on Waldo Lake or cycling up Marys Peak, I sense God and his fresh, new world in a way I don’t in ordinary places. As much as I love to garden in my back yard, it doesn’t transport me spiritually. Most places where humans reside are mundane compared to what can be found in wild landscapes.

In the Celtic tradition, locations that afford us an opening into the magnificence and wonder of God are called “thin places.” I like that idea. It gives a name to something I’ve long sensed to be true. There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance narrows. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is parted, if but for a moment, and one is able to receive a glimpse of God’s glory. A contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge gives this description:

“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.

This concept of thin places only works if you believe, as I suspect the Celts did, that what’s being glimpsed is a physical place—an ontological reality, to put it philosophically. It’s holy because it is of God. If heaven is not a real place—physically and tangibly real—then any sense of glimpsing it strikes me as a hallucination or the product of an overactive imagination. When heaven and earth eventually become one, all of creation will be as captivating as those sublime moments we’ve experienced in nature. The earth will become, as God intended it: a garden—replete with volcanoes, oceans, and searing deserts.

When Keith and I were grubbing around inside a cave ominously dubbed “Catacombs” on Sunday, we turned off our flashlights and sat quietly for a moment. The blackness was complete. I could hear nothing but the blood pulsing through my carotids. I sensed God’s presence as I rarely do in church. Fifty feet underground and 500 feet into a lava tube, I felt a deep peace in the shelter of this fire-forged sanctuary. The parted veil on this occasion only opened to more darkness. That, too, is a part of God.

I love wild places for their own sake, but also because they whet my appetite for heaven. When I stumble upon a thin place, it serves to remind me how unthin most of my life is. We don’t live in heaven now but it’s good to know it’s in the neighborhood.


Anonymous said...

Your words about this trip enhance what was sublime and make me again ponder “thin places.”

Steve said...

Good stuff and makes me think more deeply. I think it's good to ponder what Heaven is like, because as good as we can imagine it, it will be far better than that. I never thought of earth being even the slightest reflection of Heaven, but I suppose it can--and does.

Doug said...

The island of Inishmore off Galway Ireland is a thin place. I've been three times and each visit I feel a strong spiritual connection. Undoubtedly the rocks sea and isolated location of the Aran Islands. I also feel it at the Oregon coast in places like the Seaview Motel that allowed our dogs. It's on a quiet stretch of lovely beach.
I am also reminded of Vietnamese Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh who I did a retreat with in '96. He says the Pure Land (Paradise) is here and now, rather than in the future. To me that is heaven.
Good seeing you Saturday.