Moving thinward (Pt. 1)

February 25, 2015 | Viewpoints
Troy Watson |

I’ve always been intrigued with “thin places” long before I ever heard the term “thin place.”

Since childhood, I’ve been curiously drawn to old churches, temples, cathedrals, monasteries, ruins, holy sites, natural “wonders,” remote wilderness, solitary night skies—anywhere that evokes a sense of sacred space. Part of the appeal has been the beauty and mystery I so often find in these environments, but occasionally I’ve been so overwhelmed by divine energy in these places it was as if I’d stumbled upon holy ground.

I’m not the only one. Countless people have experienced God in places like these. Sometimes in exactly the same place.

Almost two years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Island of Iona. Iona has long been considered a thin place by people from various religious and spiritual backgrounds. Every year hundreds of thousands of people flock to this small island off the coast of Scotland on a spiritual quest or pilgrimage. During my stay there I got to know dozens of people and I came to the conclusion that I was the only first-time visitor on the island. Everyone I talked to told me they had returned because of how special this place was for them, a place of divine healing or peace or wisdom. One middle-aged woman from Denmark told me that it was her 18th time visiting and that she’d experienced a special time with God on every trip.

One of the things that struck me most about my time on Iona was how open, vulnerable and engaging everyone was with one another. I was only there a few days and yet I sensed a deeper connection with many of these strangers than I do with people I’ve known for years. It seems not only the barrier between heaven and earth is thin on Iona, but the barriers between human beings are much thinner as well.

I left Iona pondering the possibility that there was indeed something especially thin about this island. When you experience God so powerfully in a place where thousands, perhaps millions, of other people have also experienced God, you have to wonder if there is something about that particular place that makes it holy or thin.

Of course, the suggestion that certain physical locations are inherently sacred sounds like malarkey, or even heresy, to some. Yet this is exactly what the ancient Christian Celts believed. They were convinced that certain locations existed where the barrier between the spiritual and material realms was thinner, where the line between the holy and human collapsed. And this ancient perspective seems to be making a comeback in contemporary spirituality.

An abundance of literature has been published on thin places over the past few decades, including a few articles in Canadian Mennonite. In 2012, Eric Weiner wrote a piece entitled “Where heaven and earth come closer” in the New York Times. I certainly don’t agree with everything Weiner says about thin places, but he makes some interesting observations that are worth repeating:

“So what exactly makes a place thin? It’s easier to say what a thin place is not. A thin place is not necessarily a tranquil place, or a fun one, or even a beautiful one, though it may be all of those things too. . . . Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us—or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.”

This certainly reflects my experience on Iona. People seemed to be unmasked, empowered to be vulnerable, “naked and unashamed,” free to be their true selves.

Weiner also writes about our act of journeying to thin places as significant to their transformative power: “Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a ‘spiritual breakthrough,’ whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings . . . we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world.”

Again this rings true for me. Places become thin when they shake us out of our autopilot modes, opening us up to the vast expanse of the eternal moment in which we live and move and have our being.

But all of this raises a few questions for me:

  • Are places inherently thin or do they become thin when one is experiencing God’s presence?
  • Do thin places instigate spiritual experiences or do our spiritual experiences cause a sense of thin place?
  • And what does the Bible say about thin places?

To be continued . . . . See Part 2 of this series

Troy Watson is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.

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