Many of my conversations lately have been about “place” — and I find myself living in the center of a paradox. To talk about “place” apart from talking about particular, real, storied locations is to deal in abstractions. But to talk about “place” ONLY in terms of particular, storied locations is to fail to make the connections and to see more broadly what are the theological and practical issues.
But I have had enough conversations to realize that “place” is not “space.” I was helped a little by Phil Sheldrake in this, but equally by Michel de Certeau. In Western history “place” became “space,” was universalized and abstracted, for pragmatic reasons, but reasons that were buttressed and helped by the gnostic tendency to separate matter and spirit. In other words, “place” was spiritualized and separated from life in this world and became neutral and unstoried “space.” This disconnection led to further abuse of our planet, and further separated the life of God from life in this world. One of the tasks of practical theologians today is to religio these terms : re – ligio = reconnect – true religion connects life in this world with the life of the One who first created it and then redeemed it.
And so along comes a new book, growing out of the Nieucommunities experience, written by Jon Huckins and Rob Yackley. (Watch the trailer HERE). This looks like a great bunch of people, doing a great work and doing it well! And so what I am about to say in critique is less about the book than about this issue of place and the need to rediscover its meaning in this new postmodern, post-colonial and post-Christendom location.
The title of the new book is “Thin Places.” One might assume that the book builds on the Celtic tradition of spiritual life, and then uses the phrase within that way of seeing the world. However, having viewed the trailer, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Rather, thin places become something that happens regardless of place, with no necessary connection to physical location or history. And that worries me.
Why? Who cares how Jon and Rob use the term?
I care, because I think there is something at stake in this issue, and at stake in the continued blurring of “place” with “space.” To begin to get a handle on this, and to root our discussion in a theological stream that was itself very rooted, let’s consider the phrase “thin places,” and the way the Celts and their living followers still use it.
Dennis, one of those pilgrims who loves the Celtic tradition, writes of his experience in Ireland.
“Perhaps it is because of the centuries of Christians who gathered in intensive prayer and learning on that tiny isle that Iona has a reputation of being a thin place. As one recent pilgrim noted, “It has been said that the millions of prayers offered over the centuries echo in the very stones of the walls and the presence of God resonates from the ground itself.” This was certainly a sense I had, both while wandering around the island with Beth, and when worshiping in the Iona Abbey with other pilgrims.”
Yes, this is a very subjective experience. Dennis came expecting a spiritual experience related to place. But let’s listen to his report. He talks about “thin place” in relation to an actual physical location. Moreover, that location conjures up memories and history. The physical location is storied in the life of a people, and that story has both history and currency. This is the Celtic sense of “thin places.”
But secondly note how he frames his story and experience in a larger tradition: that of pilgrimage. Why is that important? Phil Coniseau writes,
“Pilgrimage is the kind of journey.. that moves from mindless to mindful, from soulless to soulful travel. It means being alert to the times when all that’s needed is a trip to a remote place to simply lose yourself, and to the times when what’s needed is a journey to a sacred place, in all its glorious and fearsome masks, to find yourself. (The Art of Pilgrimage. San Francisco: Conari Press, 2000).
This gives us a clue to something else in the history of Christian spirituality, and makes a connection that is really important. Christian spirituality is embodied. Pilgrimage is a physical journey. You can’t go there in your head alone. You can’t just have an experience, even of sitting with friends and praying and knowing the presence of the Spirit. There must be a journey involved, and it must involve geography, time, and effort. Parker Palmer helps us out here.
“In the tradition of pilgrimage … hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself. Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost — challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge. If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to find the sacred center he or she seeks.” (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation)
Pilgrimage, in our faith tradition, is a bodily experience; and for very good reasons. (Dallas Willard, James Bryan Smith and others have given us some of those reasons.) Moreover, pilgrimage is itself storied and connected with physical locations.
And this begs a larger theological question, of the disconnect from OT to NT of Spirit and Temple. In the history of Israel God designated special places where worship should occur. But in Stephens speech in Acts, and then later in John 4, worship location is radicalized. I myself argued in Missional Spirituality, as earlier writers like Howard Snyder had argued, that there are no more Holy places, only Holy people. And this begs a larger philosophical question: if every place is Holy, is any place Holy? Or, the more specific theological question: Does Jesus word to the Samaritan woman in John 4 imply that particular places cannot be “thin places?” What is the relationship between Spirit and place? I suspect that old Christian concepts like “sacrament” can help us out here, and provide a via media to get at a paradox that we won’t get at in any other way.
Did the Celts believe in a special connection between place – physical locations – and Spirit? Yes. Do we risk losing something if we reduce “thin places” to spiritual experience that is related to community, but not to place? I think so. Can we find a way to embrace a sacramental third way, taking the end of the Jerusalem Temple and Jesus words seriously while developing a robust theology of place? We must.
Related: this Study by mark Roberts