At the Thin Places

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” So wrote the eternal Henry David Thoreau in his classic work, Walden. His experience of solitude in the New England woods led him to the conclusion that heaven, that spark of the mysterious Divine, is everywhere – if people only have the eyes, ears, and hearts to experience it.

Thoreau, for all his wisdom, was not the first to make this observation. For the quarter-million year history of homo sapiens, our species has sought the Other, the Higher, the “Wondrous More.” And too often, what the spiritually-minded call “God” has been locked inside a stone building; pinned down on a written page; or codified in such a way that religion becomes restrictive at best – a weapon at its worst.

Yet, it seems to me that God breaks all boundaries, fails to comply with convention, and dances beyond the illusionary command and control we think we have imposed on heaven. Thus, rather than being something one can describe or explain (the usual route taken by religion), I think that God is something that one discovers – frequently with great surprise. As the Hebrew Patriarch, Jacob exclaimed: “Surely God is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!”

In the Celtic tradition, developed at the edge of the known world far away from institutional religion, these surprising discoveries were called “thin places.” Meaning, that the barrier between this world of physical and tangible – and the transcendent world of mystery, wonder, and the inexplicable – was torn asunder. The dark glass separating the two cleared, if only momentarily, as heaven and earth mingled. 

These still mingle whenever one holds a newborn baby; when a sunrise is watched in quiet solitude; when the hand of a loved one is held as he or she slips peacefully from this life into the next; at a baptism or bar mitzvah; at the setting of the sun over the Grand Canyon; in the beauty of a magnificent work of art; in the middle of an ocean or under a starry sky as one contemplates the terrifying greatness of the world. 

All of these “thin places” are where even the most cynical must confess that there is an astonishing Mystery in this universe, a Mystery still able to surprise, shock, and overwhelm. And while I am inclined to call this Mystery “God,” I have no argument with those who will not or can not invoke the Name, as religion has largely earned its discredited reputation. 

I make only a simple appeal, to the religious and non-religious alike: Open your eyes. Bend your ears. Unlatch your hearts. “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads,” holiness is all around us, wonder is the very air we breathe, and creation still pulses with all that is spellbinding. Contrary to what we might read in the headlines, there is not a lack of sacred grace in this world. There is only a lack of awareness.