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.

My stray theological thoughts

Last night, a friend was giving a wee talk/sermon/whatever at church about Q1 of the bigger Westminster Cathechism:

Q. 1. What is the chief and highest end of man?
A. Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

He spoke a bit about the Trinity and the divine attributes, and why it is that God is always ‘happy’/’blessed’/’joyful’, and what it must mean for us to enjoy Him. It was quite good, full of references to Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin. Surprisingly, no Bavinck, though.

My mind being what it is, I also drew in the following:

  • In response to how we are created in God’s image, I said we are created for communion, since God is a communion of persons (thanks, Zizioulas)
  • God and creation are utterly different and separate, yet we are able to encounter God in specific ways on earth through his activity — couldn’t help but think of Gregory Palamas and the essence and energies of God, especially since there was a Venn diagram involved, with two unconnected circles but arrows going from ‘God’ to ‘creation’.
  • How do we most enjoy life? By finding the summum bonum, for this is where happiness lies. So far, Aristotle. God is the summum bonum — Aquinas. Christ is God, and He says that we will find Him by serving the poor.
  • Christ saves us and makes us able to know God as He knows Himself. Couldn’t help but think of Leo and two natures.
  • The goal of Christianity? To see God. I thought immediately of the beatific vision of St Bernard, Moses. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,’ I thought. This leads straight into John Cassian, Conference 1, where we learn that the goal of monastic (Christian) life is purity of heart as a way of achieving the end of the beatific vision.
  • Finally, he spoke about how living in knowledge and love of God, and actually enjoying Him and Christian life will transform all our relationships, and we will love others differently. I think, ‘Keep your heart at peace and a multitude around you will be saved,’ St Seraphim of Sarov.

Pretty sure the Free Church of Scotland (‘Wee Frees’) rarely has so many Eastern Orthodox, mediaeval, and patristic references running through parishioners’ minds. Except, of course, mine.

St. Columba Revisited

Two years ago, I published the first Saint of the Week, St. Columba. At the time, I focused on St. Columba’s missionary excursions which were primarily centred upon Pictland north of the Grampians (hence his sighting of the Loch Ness Monster). I have extolled the great goodness of missionaries on this blog often and feel no need to do so at present.

St. Columba, however, besides being a missionary, monastic founder, and first-recorded sighter of the Loch Ness monster was also a wonderworker. In Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba, we read a whole host of tales about St. Columba’s miracles.

Indeed, Adomnán’s Life is unlike any other saint’s life I have yet encountered. It consists entirely of miracle stories divided up thematically into three books: prophecies, miracles of power, and visions of angels. Within these categories there is no attempt at being chronological — indeed, he begins the prophecies with a posthumous vision of St. Columba had by King Oswald before Heavenfield Battle.

Most hagiographies contain an abundance of miracle stories — or at least a few. They take their cue from our dear friend St. Antony as a literary inspiration. But they also set events out in some sort of chronological order — usually. So, for example, Cyril of Scythopolis’ Life of Savvas contains its share of miracle stories, but these are interspersed throughout a coherent narrative that tells us of Savvas’ monastic profession and monastic foundations.

This coherent narrative is of no concern for Adomnán. He’s here for the miracles, pure and simple.

The prophecies at times help people. Sometimes they are foretelling the future, but also they at times tell the truth about something happening elsewhere from wherever St. Columba happened to be at the time. They also come accompanied by the odd miracle of power or two. These are miracles of knowledge whereby God demonstrated His own omniscience, His abiding presence with St. Columba, and his concern for people who may otherwise have fared poorly.

The second category of miracles is more familiar, being miracles of power. Miracles of power are what we tend to think of when we hear “miracle”. In the course of Book II, St. Columba turns water into wine for the Eucharist, he purifies a well for drinking, scares the Loch Ness Monster, brings good winds to friends, heals the sick, resuscitates the dead, and more.

Book III contains the category of miracles I did not expect — visions of angels. These actually are relatively few, and are often visions other people had of Columba interacting with angels (vs. Shenoute hanging out with Jesus on a regular basis). This book also includes visions of light — visions of St. Columba shining with light from his face. While not unheard-of, this sort of phenomenon is not par-for-the-course hagiographic fare. It makes me think of Moses’ shining face at his descent from Mt. Sinai and St. Seraphim of Sarov who, himself, is reported to have had a shining face.

Whenever people discuss hagiography, the admission that this stuff is not necessarily all true comes out. The Bollandists, since the seventeenth century, have been at the fore of the movement to extract the legends from saints’ lives and provide us with the genuine article.

The path of Bollandist may be futile.

The trouble is that, if we admit miracles, even a miracle that seems to be a literary topos could turn out being true. There is no way of being 100% certain which miracle stories are true, and which are false.

When we look at St. Columba, we have to accept the fact that all three varieties of miracle gathered by Adomnán are present in the biblical record, in the Old Testament historical and prophetic books and in the Gospels and Acts. We have to admit, as well, that they abound throughout hagiographical literature from the third through the sixteenth centuries. And we have to admit that they are part of the charismatic and Pentecostal worlds, especially as seen in Africa and South America.

So, if St. Columba is said to have been able to prophesy like St. Shenoute, or can raise the dead like the Prophet Elijah, or can calm a storm like our Lord Christ, or still the jaws of a fierce creature like Abba Bes, who are we to argue with Admonán?

Instead, let us think upon these miracles. What do they tell us?

Adomnán tells us that St. Columba turned water into wine for the Eucharist. This tells us two things: Christ’s followers can do deeds like unto his, and Holy Communion is an integral part of the Christian life.

St. Columba raised the dead. Well, in this instance, it was the child of a recent convert from paganism. This tells us that God looks after His own and is the King of All, holding the keys to life and death.

St. Columba prophesied the deaths of men, violent for the violent, peaceful for the peacemakers. This reminds us that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword, and that the kingdom of heaven belongs peacemakers (as well as the cheesemakers, I suppose).

St. Columba calmed storms. Christ is the Lord of Creation, and His power runs through the lives of His followers. We need not fear destruction as Columba’s fellow-passengers did — for, even if we perish from this earthly world, God will not allow his holy ones to taste destruction.

St. Columba closed the jaws of the Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Monster is a thing of great speculation, but a miracle concerning the closing of the jaws of a fierce beast was performed by Abba Bes in fourth-century Egypt once regarding a marauding hippopotamus, another time against a crocodile (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto 4.2). I have also seen a photograph of Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain with a sparrow perched on his finger. These miracles concerning animals are a reminder that Christ reverses the curse from the Garden, that humanity was made to be master over the animal kingdom.

These are the lessons we can learn from Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba, although we shall never be certain which miracles are true.

The Essence and Energies of God: Seeking to Understand Gregory Palamas

When a Western Christian first encounters talk of the ‘energies’ and ‘essence’ of God, this concept seems bizarre, foreign, silly, even heretical.[1] However, if we examine the writings and ideas of St. Gregory Palamas within the great tradition of theologians and mystics within which he stands, we find that, rather than being heretical, his ideas are, in fact, sensible. They are a synthesis of the dogma of the theologian and the experience of the mystic, steering a course that is able to maintain both the transcendence and immanence of God; such a task is very difficult and fraught with many dangers, as we may be tempted to fall off the horse of orthodoxy in either direction, making God the transcendent creator of deism or the immanent spiritual force of pantheism. Palamas gives us a holy, transcendent, immanent, loving God — a God to believe in.

One of the fundamental realities about the patristic and Byzantine understanding of God is the ultimate transcendence of the divine Person(s). Since God is transcendent, Palamas tells us that our understanding of Him is not, cannot be contingent upon secular, pagan learning[2] — be that learning Greek philosophy or postmodern physics. Rather, our understanding of God is based upon our own initiation into His self-revelation to humanity through the Scriptures, tradition, and the spiritual, mystical experience of the individual believer. Palamas shows us this reality of the unknowable God’s ‘knowability’ through consistent reference to the Scriptures and the sayings of the Fathers, from Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus of the fourth century to John Climacus and Maximus the Confessor of the seventh.

If we begin with the proposition that God is incomprehensible and his essence unknowable due to the vast gulf that separates Creator from creature, then a paradigm for interpreting the mystical life becomes of paramount importance, for mystics throughout history claim to have encountered this inaccessible, transcendent God. The Judaeo-Christian mystical tradition stretches at least as far back as Moses who saw the back of YHWH on Mt. Sinai (Ex 33:18-23), and includes Isaiah (Is 6) and Ezekiel (Ez 1) as well as the experiences of the disciples upon Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt 17:1-9, Mk 9:2-9, Lk 9:28-36), and Paul who was ‘taken up to the third heaven’ (2 Cor 12:1-5) — these last two being of great importance for Palamas in The Triads. Finally, Christ Himself says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Mt 5:8). The biblical roots of the mystical encounter with God, then, are strong.

The ascetic, hesychastic tradition within which Gregory stands is also focussed upon the mystic’s vision of and union with God. Purity of heart, according to John Cassian,[3] is the goal of all ascetic discipline, the end of which is the vision of God. This mystical, ascetic tradition runs in the East through John Climacus (d. c. 649) to Gregory Palamas to Seraphim of Sarov (d. 1833), John of Kronstadt (d. 1908), and the twentieth-century Athonite hesychasts Joseph (d. 1959) and Paisios (d. 1994), while in the West it runs through John Cassian (d. c. 435) to Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), Lady Julian (d. c. 1416), St. Teresa of Avìla (d. 1582) and moderns such as Evelyn Underhill (d. 1941) and Thomas Merton (d. 1968). The goal of all of these contemplatives and mystics is, as stated above, union with God; the experiences of many of them are reflected in Palamas’ writings.[4] Palamites sought this union through silence and quiet (hesychia), uniting their hearts with their minds so that as purified, psychosomatic unities they could see God Himself through the uncreated light[5] — a potential impossibility, as becomes clear.

Gregory’s chief opponent in the Hesychastic Controversy of the fourteenth century was a Calabrian monk named Barlaam. Barlaam believed that God, the uncreated Creator, was completely inaccessible, making no distinction between His ‘energies’ and ‘essence.’[6] The visions of the prophets, apostles, and saints had merely been of things created by God. The light seen by the contemplatives of the ages was created at best, or a ‘fantasy of the imagination’[7] at worst. St. Gregory accordingly made the important distinction between essence and energies, keeping God transcendent as Barlaamites wished yet immanent as hesychasts had experienced. And so we come to the heart of the matter.

Papademetriou puts it most succinctly when he writes, ‘The energies of God as conceived by St. Gregory Palamas are “manifestations” and “exteriorizations” of God Himself. They are uncreated.’[8] In other words, what Palamas calls ‘energies’ are not some sort of spiritual electricity coursing through the universe into which the mystic can tap — as they sounded to me when I first heard of them. No, they are the actions, attributes, and movement of God throughout the created order, emanating from his very essence and tripersonal self. Those who, like the cherubim, have become all eye,[9] catch a glimpse of these uncreated ‘energies,’ but not of the essence of Him whose ‘energies’ they are.

Gregory gives us a good image to compare with this distinction, that of the human mind, although in my recent readings he does not make explicit the comparison between our minds and God, a comparison going back at least to Basil the Great.[10] Palamas says, ‘the essence of the mind is one thing, its energy another.’[11] This statement is made in explanation of how exactly one can call the mind back to the heart;[12] in its energies, one’s mind can be all over the place, worrying and fretting about things, thinking and considering various realities. The energies of the mind can become externalised. Yet wherever these energies go, the essence of the mind continually resides in the heart. God is similar to the mind, but his energies can go further and do more, given their uncreated and boundless existence.[13] Thus, God is able to communicate to us his properties, his actual ‘glory and splendour,’[14] while remaining inaccessible to us in terms of his essence. The mystics truly encounter the real God, contrary to Barlaam; however, their encounter is with the energies, not the essence of God. We can see a true, uncreated light that is part of God’s uncreated, ongoing, eternal action in this world, yet we cannot see God Himself and the fullness of His glory. This is the distinction Palamas makes, and it enables the dogma of the theologian to dovetail with the experience of the mystic, keeping Byzantine theology from driving a wedge between the two.

St. Gregory Palamas gives his readers a framework for understanding God as both immanent and transcendent. His theology, on the one hand, affirms the apophatic tradition running from Gregory of Nyssa, the tradition that can only describe God in negative terms — i.e. what God is not, e.g. immutable, infinite; God in His essence is unknowable. It also makes room for the cataphatic tradition running from Gregory of Nazianzus,[15] the tradition that can speak about God in positive terms — e.g. God is three prosopa with a single ousia; God in His energies is accessible to the pure in heart. The point of the hesychastic life is to purify the heart through prayer and ascetic ordeal, thereby coming to the beatific vision and the grace of the uncreated light, a wonder so glorious that those who have beheld it often have shining faces to reflect that light.[16] Palamite theology is not heresy, and it is not nonsense. It is a synthesis that enables us to make sense of the undeniable presence of the transcendent God.


[1] Re Palamas and heresy, see George C. Papademetriou, Introduction to Saint Gregory Palamas (New York 1973), 20.

[2] The Triads, ‘Philosophy does not save,’ I.

[3] Cf. Conference 1; Cassian is the only Westerner in the Philokalia. See also Evagrius Ponticus, Kephalaia Gnostica 1.27,70, who argues that contemplation of the Holy Trinity is the greatest thing one could ever achieve. On the influence of Evagrius on Byzantine monastic theology, see John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology (New York 1979), 67-69.

[4] One example of many is Palamas’ statement that ‘the saints contemplate this divine light within themselves,’ reflecting the heart of the experience of St. Teresa of Avìla’s Interior Castle.

[5] This is the system of prayer laid out by Palamas in section C of this week’s readings, and it is one of the types of monasticism practised by the monks of Athos today, as seen in Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Monastic Wisdom (Florence, AZ 1998).

[6] George C. Papademetriou, Introduction to Saint Gregory Palamas, 22-24.

[7] Cf. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ‘The Hesychast method of prayer, and the transformation of the body,’ II.ii.9. This phrase shows the common western Christian bias towards the rational intellect as the only valid road to God.

[8] Introduction to Saint Gregory Palamas, 43.

[9] Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ‘Apophatic theology as positive experience,’ I.iii.21. Cf. Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Kalamazoo 1975), Bessarion 11, p. 42.

[10] Cf. Letter 233.

[11] The Triads, ‘The Hesychast method of prayer, and the transformation of the body,’ I.ii.5.

[12] That Palamas believes the mind to reside in the heart, not the brain, is evidence of his extensive reading not of pagans but of Christians, since pagans had established the residence of the mind in the brain in the writings of ‘Hippocrates’ in the fourth-fifth centuries BC.

[13] Cf. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, II.13.4 on God’s boundlessness as well as on His uncreated light.

[14] Gregory Palamas, The Triads, ‘Apophatic theology as positive experience,’ I.iii.23.

[15] Both Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus could be said to make use of both the apophatic and cataphatic tradition. Nyssa, however, is most famous for his postulation of knowing God in the darkness.

[16] Besides  the biblical precedents of Moses, the Transfiguration, and Stephen, Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Harmondsworth 1963), draws our attention to St. Seraphim of Sarov (pp. 131-132) and Evelyn Underhill (p. 239n.) who both underwent similar experiences.