Reflections on Ascension Sunday

This is the reflection that I put together for my worshipping community, the Urban Abbey in Thunder Bay.

Today we recollect the Ascension of Jesus the Christ back to God the Father where They reign united in eternity. This is the seal of everything else the incarnate God achieved for us during His sojourn on earth. God the Word, existing in eternity with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, in great and glorious compassion for the human race descended, took on flesh, and pitched His tent among us. He dwelt amongst us feeble, frail humans for about thirty years as one of us (in every way but sin!), and then He was abandoned, tortured, and brutally executed—only to triumph over the powers of sin, the flesh, the devil, and death, trampling down death by death and rising to new life in a glorified body that can walk through walls.

And here is where many Gospel presentations stop. We say: Do you acknowledge the great and glorious message of salvation that comes from putting your trust in this Jesus whom the authorities of this present darkness killed but whom God raised to life? And we repentant sinners answer: Yes. God, be merciful to me!

In Acts 2:24-36, St Peter ends the first proclamation of the whole Gospel by an Apostle thus:

For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
    until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ (Ps. 110:1)

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Jesus is not just some guy or even some god who came down and died and rose again to save me from my sins. He has returned to the Father where He reigns and hears our prayers and is with us always to the very end of the age. By ascending, Jesus empowered the apostles to take up His mission to preach salvation to the ends of the Earth. An earthbound teacher would not be able to do that, but a risen, ascended, and reigning Lord could.

Given the importance of the Ascension, I would also like to say that this is a real, historical event, as real as Julius Caesar being stabbed to death on the Ides of March, 44 BC. While this probably should go without saying, I mention it because meditating on the reality that lies behind the words of Scripture can help us see the hand of God at work as well as the hearts of the Apostles. So, based on the narrative in Acts 1, Jesus rose up from the ground with the Apostles watching. Then a cloud hid Him from view, and He disappeared from sight.

I hope that it is a well-known fact that Heaven is not actually “up there” in the sky. We live in a one-storey universe. If “heaven” is the dwelling place of God Almighty, where Jesus now reigns with God the Father, it’s right here and now. In his book Miracles, C S Lewis posits the idea that, whatever the historical reality of what happened to Jesus at the Ascension, the Apostles perceived it as Him rising up from the earth because that’s what their minds can process.

I think He actually did rise up from the Earth, and that when the cloud enveloped Him, He entered the heavenly realm with God the Father (whatever that means!). Without denying the historicity of the event, we can simultaneously affirm its symbolic resonance. Encounters with God in the Bible are often literal mountain-top experiences.

When Moses met God for the first time, He spoke to him out of the burning bush on Mount Horeb, in Sinai. When Moses met with God and was given the Law, it was on a mountain, maybe the same one. When Solomon built a Temple for God to come and manifest His real presence amongst His people, it was on Mount Zion. When Elijah defeated the priests of Baal and God manifested Himself with might and power, it was on Mount Carmel. When Elijah encountered God in the “still, small voice”, it was on a mountain.

And so it goes, up to Jesus.

When Jesus manifested His glory to the disciples in the Transfiguration, it was on Mount Tabor. When He gave the new Law in His most famous sermon, it was on a mountain (it’s not called the Sermon on the Mount for nothing!). Tradition tells us that the Place of a Skull, Golgotha, where Christ was crucified, was a hillish-mountain.

These are just a few examples, but the point is: People meet with God on mountains. And the ascent to God becomes an important symbol and metaphor in Christian spiritual literature, whether we think of St John of Cross’ Ascent of Mount Carmel, or the Syriac Book of Steps, or the lives of monks and hermits who lived on mountains such as St Antony of Egypt, the monasteries of Mount Athos or, most dramatically, Meteora in Greece. St Gregory of Nyssa gives an allegorical reading of the life of Moses in which Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai to meet with God is seen as our own ascent, as we leave behind the various things of this world, including even sense perceptions, for Moses enters the cloud on the mountain—as the title of a mediaeval mystical book calls it, The Cloud of Unknowing.

God is the Lord of all history; He has engineered these symbols to draw us to Himself. Christianity is the myth that comes true. So when we consider this pattern, it is only fitting that when God, Who inspired Scripture and Who made Himself manifest to the human race in these locations, chose to return to the Heavens, He would rise up from the earth. And then, as Moses entered the cloud on Sinai, so also did Christ enter the cloud before leaving our plane of existence and joining the Father in eternal glory.

Our response to this? Worship, comfort, assurance. Let us take to heart these words from Hebrews 4:14, 16:

Seeing that we have a great high priest that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

The Ascension by Phoebe Anna Traquair at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, one of Edinburgh’s empty churches

Prayer-Book Augustinianism

I had the blessed opportunity to attend a lecture by Sarah Coakley at the Vancouver School of Theology back in 2018 about Trinitarian theology and mysticism. During the Q & A, somehow liturgy comes up (amongst Anglicans, not very surprising), and Coakley said something that has lurked within me ever since — setting aside the BCP would be a great loss, in part because of the rich Augustinian theology of the collects.

This struck me this week in particular because the Prayer Book collect is this:

ALMIGHTY God, who through thine only begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life: We humbly beseech thee, that as by thy special grace thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Canadian BCP 1959/62

The opening to this prayer is taken from the Use of Sarum, with origins at least as early as the Gelasian Sacramentary (7th-c):

O God, by Your only-begotten Son you have overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life; grant us, we ask you, that we who celebrate the solemnities of our Lord’s resurrection, may by the renewing of Your Spirit arise from the death of the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

My modernised version for congregational use.

I have to confess that I prefer the medieval version, but perhaps I am too cautious of moralism.

I did not ask Professor Coakley to elaborate with examples, of course, but I wonder if this collect, or collects of this sort, are what she means by “Augustinian”. According to Barbee and Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, the very opening of this prayer is anti-Pelagian, for the -ism associated with the name of Pelagius argues that we can by our own merit live good enough lives to reach heaven, thus rendering null and void the mystery of the cross.*

Cranmer then writes his own petition for the collect. In his version, we actually have an interesting little phrase that was excised in 1959/62, “as by thy special grace, preventing us, thou dost…” Preventing us in contemporary English sounds like God’s grace is stopping us from doing something. In fact, though, it is a thoroughly Augustinian concept that has been hijacked in modern theology — prevenient grace.

Prevenient grace in the context of 1549 when Thomas Cranmer wrote the prayer (thus eleven years before Arminius was even born) is the idea that the grace of God goes before us (pre-vent, go before, praevenio) and thereby empowers us to choose the good. The term has been adopted by Arminian side of the Arminian-Calvinist debate, it would seem, but here in Cranmer’s collect, it rides closer to Augustine and Luther than Jacobus Arminius.

How does it do so? Well, Cranmer is using the phrase “preventing us” to describe God’s “special grace” in its activity in our lives. And, by that preventing grace, God does “put in our minds good desires”. The question if the resistability or otherwise of God’s grace does not arise, but what we do see is that our good desires are a direct result of the action of God’s grace in our minds.

The petition proper is also itself of the school of Augustine — “so by thy continual help we may bring the same [ie. good desires] to good effect”.

I think that the phrase “preventing us” renders this prayer solidly with Augustine — but does it exclude other perspectives? No, it does not. The nineteenth-century Russian St Theophan the Recluse continually haunts my thoughts on grace and prayer:

It is most important to realize that prayer is always God-given: otherwise we may confuse the gift of grace with some achievement of our own.

In The Art of Prayer, ed. Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. Kadloubovsky and Palmer, p. 98

This is not the only time he says something like this. He repeats it in similar words throughout the book. The fifth-century Greek writer, St Mark the Monk (who made it into the Philokalia) says similar things about grace. I think this is worth considering because when we think about “grace” and how we need God’s help to think and do good, we think we are being particularly Augustinian and/or Reformed. And this collect, I would argue, is certainly part of that tradition, expressing these ideas in an Augustinian fashion, so Professor Coakley is assuredly correct in this characterisation.

Yet the wider tradition also sees a necessity for grace in our lives. And I think Prof. Coakley would emphatically agree, particularly that we have a tendency to drive a wedge between “East” and “West” that does not really exist when we look at the deeper agreements of our theological traditions.

*I have not read Pelagius, Caelestius, or Julian of Aeclanum myself, so I set aside judgement as to whether this is a fair statement of what they believe, simply noting that it is what the -ism associated with Pelagius is understood to be.

A rubric worth following

This morning, to save battery on my phone and for a bit of variety, I prayed the morning prayers from A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers instead of the Prayer Book Society’s Daily Prayer App. Some of these prayers are worth praying over and over and over again as well as meditating on. What I want to blog about, however, is the final rubric (which really ought to have come first):

If the time at disposal is short, and the need to begin work is pressing, it is preferable to say only a few of the suggested prayers, with attention and zeal, rather than to recite them all in haste and without due concentration.

A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, p. 11

I think this is a very important instruction. In fact, in Living Prayer, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom goes so far as to say that it is better to pray just one line of the Lord’s Prayer carefully, attentively, and truly mean it than it is to pray the whole thing without much thought.

As any longish-time reader of this blog knows, I am a big advocate of the Book of Common Prayer for both personal and corporate prayer and worship. But sometimes, in the midst of two kids under five, managing a cafe, and the various other pressures of life, I find myself swiftly rushing to reach the end. I often skip the Scripture lessons, to be honest. Sometimes, then, it is a blessing to have something shorter, such as the Canadian 1959/62 BCP’s prayers for use by families, or the book Celebrating Common Prayer, or, when truly pressed, to be Franciscan and pause simply to pray the Lord’s Prayer before life consumes you.

The main thing with praying fixed-hour prayer is to pray the prayers attentively and seek the Lord’s face. If you have the time to do this with the BCP or the Roman Breviary or some other long-ish book of hours — glory to God! If not, do not think yourself a failure in your hour of prayer. Make the most of the time available through attention and devotion.

Of course, there’s another facet to prayer life that’s a topic for another post, and that’s the fact that we have more time available than we think…

Athonites at prayer

A quick thought for St Gregory the Great

The top of St Gregory’s crozier

One of the blessings of the  saints’ feasts is how they turn our hearts to the faithfulness of God. Today we commemorate St Gregory the Great, who was pope from 590 to 604. Gregory’s great desire in life was to be a monk; to still alone in stillness and contemplate the greatness of God. Instead, he was called from the monastic life to be bishop of Rome. The fruit of St Gregory’s contemplation is visible in his written works, from Bible commentaries to a life of St Benedict. But it is perhaps most visible in . . . ourselves. In 597, St Gregory sent the abbot of his Roman monastery with twelve companions to convert the pagan, barbarian English people. This was the beginning of the conversion of the English people, thanks to the grace of God in the life of a man who would rather have been faithful in some other way.

I, a descendant of those English barbarians, had the opportunity to encounter what may have been St Gregory’s shepherd’s crook (art historians say it isn’t). In thankfulness to God for this man’s faithfulness, I kissed it alongside the monks who live in his old monastery today.

God will be faithful to our own spiritual lives, as he was to Gregory, even if our only challenge is making it to Easter without chocolate.

On the Mount of Transfiguration

Today for Morning Prayer (Wednesday after Septuagesima), the Canadian 1959/62 BCP had as the Second Lesson the Transfiguration from Matthew 17. First this:

Manuscript image from the Theological Works of John VI Kantakouzenos. Byzantine, Constantinople, 1370-1375

Since I’m in the midst of teaching a course on the Nicene Controversy, I look at the Transfiguration and all the things I’ve been reading in St Athanasius, St Ephrem, St Basil, and their modern interpreters comes flooding into my heart. Indeed, this icon even reflects the Nicene Creed:

God from God, light from light, very God from very God.

As Edith M. Humphrey puts it,

It is in the shining face of Jesus, and in the glory seen most profoundly on the cross, that we catch a vision of the likeness of God.

Ecstasy and Intimacy, p. 91

And St Gregory of Nazianzus (the Theologian):

He was bright as the lightning on the mountain and became more luminous than the sun, initiating us into the mystery of the future.

Oration 3.19, “On the Son”, quoted in Edith M. Humphrey, Ecstasy and Intimacy, p. 98

As at all times, the appropriate response to Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration is to worship.

St John Chrysostom and worship old & new

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

Today is the Feast of St John Chrysostom, so when I prayed Morning Prayer (using the Prayer Book Society of Canada’s Daily Prayer App!), the prayer included at the close, taken from his Divine Liturgy, stood out more than usual. This prayer is where Anglicans will have most likely seen his name, if ever:

ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto thee; and dost promise that when two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou wilt grant their requests: Fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as may be most expedient for them; granting us in this world knowledge of thy truth, and in the world to come life everlasting. Amen.

I have not delved into the secondary literature on late antique and Byzantine liturgy too deeply, but I do know that this prayer is also in the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great — so either it is deeply traditional and included by both, or it is newer than both and incorporated later. Both are options; I do not have the facilities or research skills to answer the question.

Nonetheless, it is a great prayer, and it reminds us of how powerful a thing it is when we pray together, be it Morning Prayer or Evensong, a prayer before Bible study, family prayers after a meal, or a husband and wife before bed. When two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, He will grant their requests. The next time your church service has a low turnout (as in, this coming Sunday, what with lockdowns and all), praise God for His mighty power that is present!

This prayer, as I noted above, is from the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the Eucharistic liturgy used by the Eastern Orthodox Church as its regular liturgy. It is not quite as long as that of St Basil (but it’s still a time commitment, O Protestants who want things short and snappy), but it is beautiful and theologically powerful AND ancient.

When I say this liturgy is ancient, I’m not just repeating what an Orthodox priest once told me (although, in fact, I am). First, of course, the Words of Institution from 1 Corinthians 11, used in/adapted for traditional liturgies, are an actual apostolic liturgy. This passage is not St Paul’s own words; this passage, like a few others in his epistles, is a liturgical quotation. St Paul heard this at church — probably from St Peter and St James, frankly.

Second — setting aside for a moment the question of wording — the very structure of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, like that of the Roman Mass, the Book of Common Prayer, the Divine Liturgy of St James, the Divine Liturgy of Addai and Mari, etc., matches what we find in first- and second-century descriptions such as the Didache and Justin Martyrs.

Third, various traditional parts of this liturgy pre-date St John Chrysostom: the sursum corda — that part of the liturgy that includes “Lift up your hearts” — and the Sanctus — “Holy, holy, holy Lord” — come immediately to mind.

Fourth, in an illuminating article the reference to which I do not have, Robert Taft demonstrates, using data analysis, that at least the anaphora of this Divine Liturgy, beginning with the sursum corda and continuing to at least the epiclesis is actually by St John Chrysostom, being his own reworking of traditional material from the Church of Antioch. Chrysostom died in 407, so this is also ancient.

Fifth, a variety of the prayers found elsewhere in the Divine Liturgy, while not by Chrysostom, can be traced to other ancient figures or ancient moments in history, such as Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century and John of Damascus in the eighth.

What’s the upshot of all this? Well, if you want to encounter ancient Christian worship, here it is. I mean, not entirely. For example, if you go to an Orthodox church, the icon screen and the serving of the elements with a spoon are mediaeval developments. But the vast majority of what goes on here is, in fact, ancient or has ancient precedent.

We are reminded of the power liturgy can have to help transform us by renewing of our minds. An example of how it shapes our theology is when it echoes Chrysostom’s work On the Incomprehensibility of God:

You, O God, are ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, existing forever, forever the same, You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit.

Straight from there, we find some of the main themes of St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation being bodied forth:

You brought us out of nothing into being, and when we had fallen away, You raised us up again. You left nothing undone until you had led us up to heaven and granted us Your Kingdom, which is to come.

Throughout, the theology of the Eucharist and of salvation by Christ our God, is pressed home in the Divine Liturgy. At this moment in time, I see nothing in the Anaphora that should trouble me. Indeed, most Protestant liturgies I’ve met pale in comparison! This is a spiritual worship.

Also, and here I get controversial — what worship is shaping our congregations? Are we cutting verses to hymns because they’re too long? Swapping theologically rich worship for emotionally satisfying singing? Putting on a feel-good show but neglecting the spiritual act of worship? I encourage you to read this text and meditate on what you do on a Sunday morning, especially if you are clergy or a worship leader. What might change in light of the theological thunder of Chrysostom’s liturgy?

I circle back to the Prayer Book. The one question that has been lurking all day is — where did Cranmer get it? I mean, he must have had a copy of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Print? Manuscript? Where did it come from? How widespread were Byzantine liturgical books in England at the time? Who knows the answers to these questions?

Epiphany: Lectionaries Keep Christ at the Heart of the Feast

Adoration of the Magi, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. Normally we say, “This is when the Wise Men visited Jesus and brought him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” And we’re not wrong in that.

But why is it called Epiphany?

Simply put — it is the revelation of YHWH to the Gentiles, represented by the Wise Men. It is the proclamation of the glorious God to the nations, found in the person of Jesus, the God Word Incarnate.

I’ve been mulling over lectionaries and Bible readings lately. One friend was encouraging people not to do a typical “Read the Bible in a year” plan but to use the daily lectionary from the Revised Common Lectionary because it puts the Scriptures together in Christological, Christocentric perspective. I have a built-in skepticism about the Revised Common Lectionary, so I started evaluating other options, looking for something pre-modern. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with my friend Andrew (a mediaeval manuscript guy who is a theologically conservative Anglo-Catholic pondering Eastern Orthodoxy [you can see why we get along]), I learned from him that the Canadian BCP 1962 lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer is basically medieval.

Anyway, although this exchange also resulted in him sending me a 343-page Mass lectionary based on BCP-Sarum, I am going with BCP 1962, in large part because of the wonderful new Common Prayer Canada app from the Prayer Book Society! And its Scripture readings are doing just what my other, non-Anglican friend was lauding RCL for doing: Christological, Christocentric Scriptures.

Epiphany has been really exciting as a result — Psalms and Prophets proclaiming the recognition of YHWH by the nations, his revelation unto them, and Israel to be a light to lighten the Gentiles. You read this, and then you read …

not the three Wise Men.

This morning, the Second Lesson at Morning Prayer was the Baptism of Christ from Luke 3. And how does this end? “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.” The revelation of Christ as God the Son!

The Eastern Churches use a different Greek word for today: Theophany. Today is the Holy Theophany of our Lord Jesus, and it explicitly includes the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan.

Baptism of Christ, Arian Baptistery, Ravenna

Some closing thoughts, then. First: Psalm 87 sees a day when Philistia and Tyre, Babylon and Ethiopia, will worship YHWH. Isaiah sees in multiple places the nations coming to worship the Lord, coming to his holy mountain. The nations, the gentes (hence gentiles), will see the glory of the Lord and recognise him. The wise men who met the child Jesus and bowed and worshipped him were the firstfruits of this crop. We are of the nations as well. What was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures is being fulfilled here and now as the glory of the Lord is made known to the ends of the earth because of the ongoing life of Christ, himself the Lord, in his mystical body, the church.

Second: Babylon is gone. The ancient kingdom of Israel is gone. The Persian Empire is gone. The Roman Empire is gone. Some day, the Dominion of Canada, the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will all pass away. “Earth’s proud empires pass away,” as the hymn puts it.

But the kingdom of God, the kingdom of the Heavens, revealed and made manifest in Christ at his holy Theophany — this kingdom will never fade. Let us hold to this hope and this citizenship above all.

St Ambrose, the Bible, and Discipleship

Fresco of St. Ambrose in Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (photo by me!)

Yesterday, the Second Sunday of Advent, was Bible Sunday — so called because of its collect that is focussed on the Bible. I, myself, read a passage from St John of Damascus (feast day December 4) about the Bible at Evensong. Today is the feast of St Ambrose of Milan (the Fathers are coming on heavily this time of year — St Nick was yesterday), and scanning his works (particularly On the Faith) makes me think of some themes that have been coming together lately, often because of my friend Rick’s provocations(!).

First, then, St Ambrose and the Bible. St Ambrose was what some today might call a devoted Bible teacher and preacher. But when we look at how he fulfilled the episcopal office of preaching, we see that his methods, his hermeneutics, his exegesis, are not what we would expect from a modern “Bible teacher” — St Ambrose was committed to the allegorical or spiritual exposition of the Old Testament.

Without getting into all the various details of St Ambrose’s sermons and commentaries — some of which are almost verbatim translations of his older contemporary St Basil of Caesarea — what I want to stress here about St Ambrose’s commitment to sacred Scripture is the very heart of spiritual exegesis:

The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is about Jesus the Christ.

When ancient Christians pull out allegory or typology or any other spiritual meaning, almost invariably their teaching points us in the direction of the Saviour. Martin Luther’s criticism of allegory as making Scripture into a “wax nose” is not entirely fair. In fact, many of the Fathers reproduce the same allegory from the same passages, as do the mediaevals, either independently or because they all read Origen.

Second, then, St Ambrose and discipleship. When you look at those texts of the saintly bishop of Milan that are about what we might call “discipleship essentials” — On the Faith, On the Mysteries, On the Sacrament of the Lord’s Incarnation — we do not find him giving extended treatment to the doctrine of sacred Scripture. He spends a lot of time arguing for the fullness of the Godhood of Jesus the Christ. He discusses the meaning of baptism and the Eucharist. He argues for the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

And, although he spends a lot of time arguing from Scripture for the content of the orthodox faith, although his vision of discipleship essentials is derived from Scripture — the Bible is not the object of his faith, it would seem. The Bible, rather, informs the content of his faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith, on the other hand, starts at Sacred Scripture.

St Ambrose’s faith lies instead in Jesus the Christ. His invitation to the Emperor Gratian, to the people of Milan, to the Emperor Theodosius is an invitation to holy obedience to and reverent worship of God the Word Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth.

This is important. Healthy Christianity is fundamentally about encountering Jesus Christ, about seeking to live under His Lordship, about meeting the living God in and through Christ the King.

We are called to be and to make disciples of Jesus, not the Bible.

A worthy meditation for this week following Bible Sunday.

Thin Places, Saints, and Eucharist

On Sunday, my Northern Irish colleague who preached the homily brought in the concept of thin places (or thin spaces — I’ll stick with places) to his exposition of Revelation 7. I wasn’t there, what with my whole family ill with colds (although somehow it feels wrong to simply be ill these days), so I don’t know what he said. Nonetheless, given that it was All Saints’ Day on Sunday, when he mentioned that this was going to bring thin places into play, the thought crept into my mind that the saints are, in essence, thin places with legs. Moveable thin places.

But the Eucharist is the thinnest place of all.

Except I don’t believe in thin places, so let’s go through these ideas systematically — What is a thin place? Why don’t I believe in them? What is a saint? What goes on in the Eucharist?

What is a thin place?

A thin place is a place where people have intense encounters with God (or the numinous or whatever) that are stronger, more palpable, more clear than how they experience and encounter God elsewhere. In a lot of popular discussion of thin places, thin places themselves are objectively thin, that the numinous is more easily encountered there than elsewhere by anyone.

If the concept fits with historic orthodoxy, the thin places of Scripture would be Bethel, Mount Sinai, the Tabernacle, the Temple, and the thin places of Christian history would be places like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Mount Athos, St Antony’s Cave, St Peter’s in Rome, Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela, Lourdes, and other famous pilgrimage sites.

However, most people use the term in a looser, more subjective sense — thin places are where I feel God’s presence more tangibly. The chapel at Wycliffe College in Toronto, the Rocky Mountains, Bede’s tomb at Durham Cathedral. I take no issue with this concept as to whether or not it is true.

Why don’t I believe in them?

Nonetheless, after reading this thorough investigation of the topic by Mark D. Roberts, I came to the conclusion that there was no scriptural support for the idea that specific places in and of themselves are closer to God. Rather, God, Who is an entirely free Agent, has chosen to interact with human history at specific times and places.

Furthermore, I have been having trouble finding a source for the concept in the literature of Early Middle Ages, despite it being dubbed “Celtic” — but I am, as noted elsewhere, a Celto-skeptic, anyway. If someone could direct me to primary source literature on the topic, I would be grateful.

Third, if there were “thin places” in the Old Testament, Jesus destroyed them all. I am fairly certain that this is biblical theology — that, although God is a free agent, people before Jesus had to go to the Temple and that is where the Presence of the LORD truly resided. But in Jesus, who is God-in-Flesh, the veil was torn in two, and the Temple became unnecessary. Jesus, being the God-man, is a walking Temple. Wherever Jesus is, there is fulness of the Presence of the LORD. Roberts makes this point, and I keep coming back to it whenever people bring up thin places.

And where do we find the Body of Christ today? Two places: The mystical company of all his faithful disciples and in the Lord’s Supper.

What is a saint?

Saints, literally, are holy persons. They are those people who we know are already with Jesus beyond the shadow of a doubt. They lived and/or died here on earth in such a way that it was evident to everyone that the saints were especially close to Jesus.

The original saints commemorated and celebrated by the Church were those witnesses to Christ who died for the faith — martyr being a word for witness. Later, other Christians who had led noteworthy lives of holiness were also celebrated, adding the missionaries, monks, and mystics alongside the martyrs.

As a result of their closeness to our Lord and Saviour, God has performed miracles through saints, whether directly, as when St Peter says to the paralytic at the Temple, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”, or indirectly, such as cloths blessed by the Apostles being used to heal the sick in Acts.

I am not, however, entirely sold on relics. Yet. But it makes sense to me that if there are places that are intrinsically closer to God, then they won’t be the Rocky Mountains but those Christian persons who dwell there.

It is the Christian, the holy person, the saint who is a thin place. No piece of creation is closer to God than any other.

Eucharist

There is only one other candidate for thin place that I am comfortable with, and that is the Sacrament of the Most Blessed Body and Blood of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ — the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion.

In the words of St Ignatius of Antioch, the medicine of immortality.

The Eucharist, instituted by the Christ:

who, in the same night that he was betrayed, took Bread; and, when he had given thanks, he brake it; and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat; this is my Body which is given for you: Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise after supper he took the Cup; and, when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all, of this; for this is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins: Do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me.

Book of Common Prayer, quoting 1 Corinthians

Is means is. Now, I am currently leaning towards Richard Hooker’s theology of the Eucharist, as explained in this post. However we parse the Real Presence, it has always struck me as sound, biblical theology. Where do we meet the risen, ascended Lord of the cosmos?

His body, broken by our teeth.

His blood, spilled into our mouths.

Whether we “feel” it or not.

Me versus subjectivity

In the end, I think I dislike the concept of thin places because of the subjectivity of it all. Christ, being the heart of creation as well as its creator, embraces the whole world, as in the Ebstorf map. If we start to think that he is actually more available to us on Holy Island or at Melrose Abbey or sitting on a Munro in the Scottish Highlands, then we’re missing Him singing off-key at church beside us, and maybe not realising what a dread and beautiful thing we do every Sunday morning with the bread and wine that are more than bread and wine.

Christ is objectively present in His body, the church, whether we like the Church or not.

Christ is really present in the Eucharist whether we feel it or not.

Thin places focus on how I feel closer to God and where I feel that I have encountered Him. And I’m not saying that God Himself has not made Himself palpable to people at various “thin places.” I can, myself, think of places where I have been more able to focus my thoughts and pray thereby becoming more aware of His Presence — some of the less famous churches of Rome where you can slip in and pray quietly and meet with God without hustling and bustling tourists and pilgrims.

I’m just saying that He is equally available in places where you may not be ready for Him — your fellow believer and the Eucharist, even at churches with poor singing, bad music, and wretched preaching.

The saints went to tombs and pagan temples to wrestle with demons and meet with God. They sought ugly, barren, barely sustainable places to meet with God. And they met Him. St Seraphim knelt on a rock, for Pete’s sake! (Actually, one could non-blasphemously say, “For Christ’s sake!”)

This is what the tradition hammers home to me all the time: God comes in power and can do so anywhere. Most of the time, it is not the physical place that matters but the spiritual.