coverMany 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


10 Comments on Thin Places

  1. Religio – Love it. The great re-connect. It is almost as if a new language is needed in which to articulate what the re-connect looks like… one that moves us past modernity, it’s language and systems, that seems so fundamental to many institutional churches.

    Your post also makes me want to visit Iona.

  2. christiana says:

    I agree, we run the risk of losing the core meaning and beauty of the term when we use “thin places” in relation to community or spiritual experience but disconnect it from a particular place. The stories in the Thin Places book are simple stories of God’s Kingdom realities in our neighborhood. We’re just regular people, fascinated by how real Jesus is in our every day life, on our every day streets, with our every day neighbors. And we’re pretty grateful that we get to experience these things with a group of people who’ve committed to try and live like Jesus did in this place that we call home. Thanks for the reflection on Celtic spirituality and the root of “thin places.” I’m encouraged and challenged.

  3. len says:

    Christiana, v cool. You are on good path!

  4. Pat says:

    Well, the Celtic concept certainly is grounded (pun not intended, but it works) in a sense of geography. The early concept is that there are geographical places where the veil between heaven and earth appears particularly thin, or even nonexistant.

    That’s why places like Newgrange, Iona, a plethora of sacred groves and sacred wells made the transition from pagan and druidic history into early Christianity without being destroyed; rather, the early Christians ‘baptized’ those places and redeemed them, rather than seeing them as evil. It’s why there’s still a sense of sacred geography in many of those places there, and elsewhere.

    But there’s also a similar experience in the sense of time, where a celebration like Samhain reflected a moment during which the gap between the living and those who have died is particularly thin. In this flavor of Christian spirituality, there’s a deep sense of God’s immanence, and a powerful incarnational sense which obliterates the common western sacred/secular split.

    The idea’s a bit different than sacred moments. All that said though, I’m looking forward to reading Huckins’ book, and love that it’s describing spirituality lived in the neighborhood, not just in the individual soul. He’s using thin places perhaps a bit differently than the more traditional definition begins but that doesn’t seem concerning to me.

  5. [...] – Friend Len Hjalmarson asks some important questions about the significance of place and space and what it takes to reconnect our faith with our world which God redeems.  Very useful and practical wonderings with implications on missionality!  Thin Places [...]

  6. Pat says:

    Hi Len. I appreciate reading the deeper conversation here than our initial chat on Facebook. In particular, I like your connection with pilgrimage (and love Cousineau’s book). And the warning about perpetuating a disembodied Christian spiritaulity is certainly worth spending time on.

    My initial thought was similar to yours: That the use of the term “thin places” can be negatively impacted by being blurred. I wish to give as much grace as possible to Huckins’ work and community and book.

    Another fascinating piece of the puzzle on Thin Places from the Celtic perspective. It’s very interesting to me to see that the Celtic view of Thin Places isn’t only a Christian phenomena. Iona, as an example, is taken to be sacred by not just Christians of a Celtic bent, but various new age spiritualists as well.

    On my last pilgrimage to Celtic lands, I had a fascinating conversation with a barkeep in a pub in Dunblane about her experience of ley lines, and odd experiences of physical phenomena in sacred sites. I tread lightly there, but it’s worth calling attention to the fact that folks of various heritages sense spirituality in some physical places that we hold in common.

  7. len says:

    Pat, yes, that came to my mind as well. An intriguing indicator – that this sense of sacredness of place can cross religious boundaries. This Friday I am sharing a coffee with an older friend who has been to the Celtic sites as well as the best known Franciscan ones, and a few Benedictine. I’m planning to ask him about his take on “thin places..”

  8. [...] not the only one ruminating in this field.  Len Hjalmarson at NextReformation is also.  His post is very [...]

  9. Pat says:

    Len, I’m keen to hear more.

    On the other end of this spectrum: I also know a few Pentecostals with a powerful sense of place. One group I know of has Wed night revival meetings and has curtained off a portion of the strip mall room they gather in, because the felt presence of God is just so strong right there. Folks can purpose to be in that place behind the curtain. They call it “The Glory Spout”.

    When I first heard the story about it, I didn’t take it seriously, but having visited… they’ve found a place. How, why? I have no idea. I may not have the same depth of sense that they have, but my experience didn’t disagree with theirs.