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.

Holiness: A Reflection on All Saints’ Day

Typically, in the liturgical churches of Protestantism, we are reminded on All Saints’ Day or All Souls’ Day (which is tomorrow) that all Christians are saints, based on how St Paul uses the word, not just those who get ‘the big ST’. This is true, but what does that ‘big ST’ mean?

Saint comes from the Latin sanctus and means holy.

There are different ways of looking at holiness, and I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. One is the typically Protestant way of viewing it, jumping off from Luther’s ‘justified by faith alone’ — we are viewed as being already holy, set apart, by God in light of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and our putting our trust in Him. Something similar is maintained by Maximus, that we do not merely imitate Christ but become like Christ through faith in him (as blogged by me here).

The other is the idea of our ability to progress in holiness. This is sanctification. We are being made clean or set free from the presence and power of sin in this lifetime, as Bp Eddie Marsh once said in a sermon; justification is our being set free from the penalty of sin; glorification is the final liberation from the presence of all sin on Judgement Day.

This type of holiness is something we are all to strive towards, ever mindful of the need for the grace of God. It is, I believe, what St Paul means when he says to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). Resting in the power of God to transform us, we are to lead holy lives, trusting in the grace of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to transform our inner person.

The sorts of things that are part of holiness are, I believe, going beyond basic moral virtues as we think of them. We tend to think of morality being a question of the Ten Commandments and attendant actions, of being nice to others, of honesty, of ‘putting ourselves in the other fellow’s shoes’. These are certainly part of a holy life.

But I think Christ calls us beyond that to more, to a holiness where we can actually turn the other cheek, rejoice when others persecute us, never look at a woman lustfully, never gossip, pray without ceasing, pray for our enemies, bless those who persecute us, refrain from speaking and thinking ill of others, and so on and so forth. I’m not espousing Wesley’s ‘Christian Perfection’ here, but I think holiness is a goal we are to seek, what Cassian in the fifth century calls ‘purity of heart’.

Holiness is, therefore, a matter of our hearts and minds. Our thoughts are to be turned to Christ at all times and in all things. As the title of a Serbian Orthodox book says, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. I believe that the classic spiritual disciplines are a valuable aid in helping us pray continually and set our minds on things above.

Besides the obvious discipline of prayer, in his book Celebration of Discipline, evangelical Quaker writer Richard Foster lists meditation, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. I am better acquainted with some of these than others, but I can say that days I start with prayer or pray early on, days I fast, days I spend in Scripture or devotional books, days I choose the simple over the complicated and unnecessary, days I actually submit to others and seek to serve — these are the days I feel nearer to Christ and more ready to tune my heart and thoughts to him.

I encourage you to take up a new spiritual discipline as of today. Perhaps fast once a week? Pray at the canonical hours (whether with a liturgy or not)? Start volunteering at a homeless shelter? Spend time meditating on different Scriptural passages throughout the week? If you’re not in a Bible study, can I recommend you join one?

Today I remembered to pray Morning Prayer — a discipline I want to cultivate but frequently forget. What will you do?