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.

Richard Hooker and the Coronavirus

Here’s a helpful and readable explanation of Richard Hooker’s doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It’s only marginally related to Coronavirus inasmuchas Anglicans who are missing the Eucharist right now actually are missing something Real, according to the English Reformation’s greatest theologian.

via Richard Hooker and the Coronavirus

Virtual communion: Christ and the means of grace

This morning, the Free Methodist Church I attend celebrated virtual communion. The pastor admitted to not being sure about what it means theologically, but he wanted to do it at this time, to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection through the sacrament of Holy Communion. So we all had our tiny cups of grape juice and bits of bread at home.

I’m not sure about this theologically, either.

And I don’t know what John Wesley, who had a high view of the sacrament and recommended receiving it weekly (as often as possible, in fact), and would receive it daily during Christmastide, himself, would have thought, either. His sermon “On the Duty of Constant Communion” is worth reading, though!

Nonetheless, a few thoughts that I had about doing this ran as follows.

At the most basic, if we set aside the questions of Real Presence and what a sacrament is, Holy Communion — we can all agree — is a memorial of Christ’s precious death and glorious resurrection. Therefore, even if someone were to definitively prove that there was no mystery in the bread and juice I consumed this morning, no special grace or Presence of the Lord, it would still service as a vibrant and tactile reminder of our salvation.

That alone might make it worth doing, so long as we aren’t cheapening the sacrament in doing this. (Are we?)

My next thought, however, tells me that, in fact, Holy Communion, even from a symbolist or memorialist position (which I do not hold), is never “just” bread and wine, and never “just” a remembrance. Through the enacting of the recapitulation of the Last Supper and recollecting the body broken and blood shed, in reading and praying the very words of Scripture, the words of the Word, we encounter Him. He meets us.

And in receiving bread and wine in faith, we encounter Him. He meets us, enters us.

Now, is it the same as when we are truly the ecclesia, the assembly of God’s people, constituted precisely in being taken out of the world and gathered together in one place and, as Christ’s mystical body, mystically consuming His body? No, I don’t think so. I’m not sure I can articulate how it is different.

Different isn’t wrong, though.

Taking up dear John Wesley again, he preaches in The Means of Grace that there are three chief means of grace:

  1. Prayer
  2. Reading the Bible
  3. Holy Communion

He says:

By “means of grace” I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.

In a service of virtual communion, we are engaged in at least two out of three means of grace. So when we eat that bread and drink that wine, when we hear our minister pray the words of sacred Scripture, the words of institution from Our Lord Himself, when we pray the other prayers — I think we meet with Jesus.

Reading Clement of Alexandria, in fact, I am realising that the Church Fathers are not always uniform in their interpretation of Scripture (no surprise), and I also realise the polyvalence of certain passages, especially John 6 — “I am the bread of life,” etc. I cannot, at this stage of church history and raised an Anglican, I cannot read John 6 as anything but Eucharistic. Clement of Alexandria, I have found, reads this sometimes as Eucharistic, sometimes as about encountering the Word in Scripture, sometimes about meeting Him in prayer.

All three of Welsey’s means of grace are means of encountering Jesus as the Bread of Life from John 6, as far as Clement is concerned.

I have also noticed that the mystic and ascetic Evagrius Ponticus also sees encountering Christ at prayer as equal to meeting Him in the Eucharist. Furthermore, Origen also believes that we can meet and commune with Christ in Scripture as well as we can in the Blessed Sacrament.

So, at this weird moment in history, when virtual communion is all we can get — Jesus will be there with us, in us, through us, for us.

Taste and see that Lord is good. (Ps. 34:8)

A little Richard Hooker on the Eucharist

I cannot shake this idea of writing something deep and involved about eucharistic soteriology, so I just Googled “Richard Hooker on eucharist”, whereby I found this article from The Continuum on just that topic. It is mostly about Hooker’s understanding of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Hooker (1554-1600), if you don’t know, is one of the greatest theologians of the Anglican tradition, and he is one of the people who really set the stage for what the Church of England would grow to be over time. He has been called a Catholic Protestant. Or perhaps a Protestant Catholic.

Anyway, I have lifted a quotation from the aforelinked article for your perusal, hoping that you can handle the Elizabethan English. It is worth reading. Hooker is a man of his age, and he does not shy away from vivid imagery such as ‘in the wounds of our Redeemer we there dip our tongues.’ The bit that relates to my research trajectory is at the end; I have bolded it for easy skimming. 😉

Let it therefore be sufficient for me presenting myself at the Lord’s table to know what there I receive from him, without searching or inquiring of the manner how Christ performeth his promise; let disputes and questions, enemies to piety, abatements of true devotion, and hitherto in this cause but over patiently heard, let them take their rest; let curious and sharpwitted men beat their heads about what questions themselves will, the very letter of the word of Christ giveth plain security that these mysteries do as nails fasten us to his very Cross, that by them we draw out, as touching efficacy, force, and virtue, even the blood of his gored side, in the wounds of our Redeemer we there dip our tongues, we are dyed red both within and without, our hunger is satisfied and our thirst for ever quenched; they are things wonderful which he feeleth, great which he seeth and unheard of which he uttereth, whose soul is possessed of this Paschal Lamb and made joyful in the strength of this new wine, this bread hath in it more than the substance which our eyes behold, this cup hallowed with solemn benediction availeth to the endless life and welfare both of soul and body, in that it serveth as well for a medicine to heal our infirmities and purge our sins as for a sacrifice of thanksgiving; with touching it sanctifieth, it enlighteneth with belief, it truly conformeth us unto the image of Jesus Christ; what these elements are in themselves it skilleth not, it is enough that to me which take them they are the body and blood of Christ, his promise in witness hereof sufficeth, his word he knoweth which way to accomplish; why should any cogitation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this, O my God thou art true, O my Soul thou art happy!” Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.67.12

This is the great, central, catholic, classic teaching on the effect of Holy Communion in the life of the believer. This is what I want to expound..

Mysticism and Eucharist (some Pseudo-Dionysius)

Ages ago, when I was an undergrad, I was thinking about mysticism and the idea of union with God being the goal of mystical activity. And then I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t that make Holy Communion the most mystical act of all?’ After all, whether you bring Aristotle into it or not, Holy Communion is an encounter with and union with Christ. This is, in fact, the explicit teaching of the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles, so I’ve not turned Papist just yet.

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (ca 500), The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy confirms this idea (emphasis mine):

…it scarcely ever happens that any Hierarchical initiation is celebrated without the most Divine Eucharist, at the head of the rites celebrated in each, Divinely accomplishing the collecting of the person initiated to the One, and completing his communion with God by the Divinely transmitted gift of the perfecting mysteries. (ch. 3, trans. J Parker)

What matters here is not the initiation but the Eucharist — where the person who partakes is collected to ‘the One’. ‘The One’ is part of the Dionysian vocabulary for God, for unity and simplicity are two of the things he most associates with the Divine. Our union with God, then, is the goal of much in Pseudo-Dionysius.

Later he writes:

For the Blessedness, supremely Divine above all, although through Divine goodness it goes forth to the communion of those who participate in itself, yet it never goes outside its essential unmoved position and steadfastness.

Further, it gives to all, according to their capacity, its Godlike illuminations; always self-centred, and in no wise moved from its own proper identity. In the same manner the Divine initiation of the Synaxis [service of Holy Communion], although it has an unique and simple and enfolded origin, is multiplied, out of love towards man, into the holy variety of the symbols, and travels through the whole range of Divine imagery; yet uniformly it is again collected from these into its own proper Oneness, and unifies those who are being reverently conducted towards it. (ch. 3.3)

Here, Pseudo-Dionysius is doing at least two things. First, he is guarding the simplicity of the Godhead — don’t forget his apophaticism! Nothing can change God, not our union with Him, not His movement out to us. He is eternally Himself. I cannot help but think of Exodus: ‘I am that I am.’

Second, by participating in the Eucharist, we are participating in God, being united to Him, and being unified to one another.

I am still working through this treatise — there is likely more of relevance to come! Nonetheless, this is more than enough to mull over the next time you partake of the most holy mysteries of the body and blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, that oblation once offered, a full and perfect sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world. (If I misquoted the BCP, forgive me; it was by memory.)