Thin places: Learn who you are, what life is about

If you’ve ever been to a mountain top, you probably understand immediately what a thin place is: It’s a crossing point between the world of the ordinary and mundane and the world of the mystical beyond. The Celts used to talk about such places as bridges between heaven and earth (which, as they always knew, are only ever only 3 feet apart, according to tradition). So when you enter a “thin place,” you can expect something in your life to morph.

That’s what happened to William James, the father of American psychology, as he walked up a mountain trail. Suddenly, the whole world seemed to change before his eyes, glowing with iridescent color and asking him questions he could not answer. He felt that “all was right with the world” and his part in it. James was not “on drugs,” and he was in good health just sauntering on a beautiful path in the Eastern woods on an afternoon in autumn. The result. He spent the rest of his life working to try to reconnect with that experience. James wrote an incredible book relating tales of these occurrences by many other people. You should read it, “The Varieties of Religious Experience.”

Abraham Maslow, another psychologist, called these kinds of occurrences “peak experiences.” Peak experiences come without our consent and whether or not we are ready for them. The thin places of this world are always a surprise and cannot be sought out. Thin places are a gift of the spirit. The truth is that we always stand on holy ground (like Moses, maybe?), even though we hardly ever know it.

Sometimes, we cross between worlds when we are reading a poem by T.S. Elliot, or listening to Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. I know many Native Americans who will tell you that Medicine Hole near Killdeer is a thin place. They also talk about seasons of fasting and sweat lodges as doors into the numinous. Another sacred place for them is Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Some people who go to church or read the Bible, or pray deeply, have entered into thin places, as they emptied themselves to let God’s voice speak to them.

Sometimes these thin places burst in upon us when we are in great distress. In a hospital room in Bismarck a dying man waves and speaks greetings to someone on the other side. Sometimes they come in a season of great joy, like the birth of a child, or the first time your beloved tells you she loves you and only you. Sometimes during the most routine of days in the most everyday of moments we are suddenly catapulted into another world where heaven and earth touch. Just washing the dishes with a clear mind can change the way you see everything in your life. We get a glimpse of the glory of the real reality. It will make you want to see that place again, feel those feelings again.

But the most important thing to understand about thin places is that they exist. They exist for all human beings just as surely as reality with a small “r” exists. Don’t expect them; don’t seek them out; don’t force the issue. But when you encounter one, as I believe we all do at some point, open your mind and heart. Allow the thin places to tell you who you are and what life is all about. Thin places are where God is still speaking to each of us in this quotidian moment we call life.

The Rev. Marilyn K. Levine is pastor of United Church of Christ, New Town, and Memorial Congregational Church, Parshall.