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Thin Places: Opening the Heart

There is more to life than what we can normally see. In our heart of hearts, we know this to be so, or we at least hope this is true. When our hearts are heavy with sadness or grief, or buzz with confusion, or when we feel the need to cry out our pain, our anxiety, our desire for relief- we cry it out to that greater reality. In times of great elation, when our hearts jump for joy and sing with gratitude- we are singing and dancing towards that greater reality.

Thomas Merton said:  “Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows (God’s) self everywhere, in everything- in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without (God). It’s impossible….” (Merton quoted in “The Heart of Christianity”, by Marcus Borg)

This week’s chapter of The Heart of Christianity is called “Thin Places: Opening the Heart”. As  Carl Petter Opsahl, the Norwegian jazz clarinetist and ordained minister noted in the video, Celtic Christianity speaks of places where the line between divinity and humanity is very thin. Opsahl deliberately looks for thin places in his urban setting.

Sylvia Maddox, a retreat leader from Texas says, “There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.“

There is more to life than what we can normally see. We rely on poets and prophets, artists and mystics to point us toward the “something more”. In an article written in 1928, Mohandas Gandhi, also called Mahatma, or Great Soul wrote:

There is an indefinable mysterious Power that pervades everything.
I feel It, though I do not see It.

It is this unseen Power which makes Itself felt and yet defies all proof,
because It is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses.
It transcends the senses….

That informing Power or Spirit is God….
For I can see that in the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth, truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists.


Hence I gather that God is Life, Truth, Light. He is love.
He is supreme good.
But he is no God who merely satisfies the intellect
If He ever does.

God, to be God must rule the heart and transform it. (Young India, October 11, 1928)

A travel writer named Eric Weiner, asked a good question in a New York Times article about thin places, and then began to answer it for himself: (http://travel.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html?pagewanted=all)

If God (however defined) is everywhere and “everywhen,” as the Australian aboriginals put it so wonderfully, then why are some places thin and others not? Why isn’t the whole world thin?

Maybe it is but we’re too thick to recognize it. Maybe thin places offer glimpses not of heaven but of earth as it really is, unencumbered. Unmasked. “

Is it the world that needs to be unmasked, or is it something about us? As Borg discusses in this chapter, a lot depends upon the condition of our heart. “The heart, the self at its deepest level, can be turned toward God or away from God, open to God or closed to God”.

We do not see clearly when our hearts are closed. In our own world, we miss a lot. A closed heart lacks gratitude. If successful in life, a person with a closed heart often feels self-made and entitled. If life has gone badly, they feel bitter and cheated. A closed heart is insensitive to wonder and awe. The world looks ordinary.

The closed heart is an image for our human condition. Borg describes the closed heart as a natural result of growing up. As we develop self-awareness there also comes an increasing sense of being a separated self. It is as if we live within a transparent, but tough shell that separates us from others. For those who knew a chaotic childhood or radical instability the shell may be even harder.

A closed heart forgets God. It loses track of the Mystery always around us. A closed heart lacks compassion. Compassion is the ability to feel the feelings of another at a level lower than the head and then to act accordingly. A closed heart can be charitable but does not feel the suffering of others. A closed heart is also insensitive to justice.

We need our hearts opened. In the Bible the open heart is a symbol of renewed life with God. Psalm 51 says, “ Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

In Ezekiel, God speaks these words through the prophet, “ A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

In a thin place, something happens to us. The presence, the power, the love, the mystery of God breaks through, not only into our world, but through the hard shell we may have around our hearts. The something that happens is a touch of God’s grace. A writer I mentioned earlier, Sylvia Maddox described a moment in which she found herself at a thin place.

“As I set out on a solitary journey for Columba’s Beach (on the Island of Iona), I could feel the presence of all those who had gone before me in their quest for a greater vision of God. Wandering over the mountains and the valleys, I suddenly realized I was lost and a long way from my destination. The mystery of the thin place was already revealing itself to me. The outward journey was mirroring my inner journey. I was lost but not afraid. There was a peaceful presence in the eternal rocks that seemed to offer me shelter and guidance. As I stood on the pebbled beach, the waves of the ocean seemed to whisper Jesus’ words,” I am with you.” (http://www.explorefaith.org/mystery/mysteryThinPlaces.html)

In the gospel story we heard today, the disciples who climbed the mountain with Jesus experienced him, or the situation, perhaps both, as a thin place. They felt and saw the glory of God. The way they later told the story involved his clothes glowing white, and important figures from the religious history of Israel appearing. Whatever we make of all of that, we get the message that the disciples, experienced in there time with Jesus a powerful, life-changing encounter with the power and mystery of God.

The thin place does not actually have to be a place. A person, like Jesus, or Gandhi, or you or me, can be a thin place, for others, if God is shining through. Poetry, visual art, especially photography, literature, dance, music, drama, movies can all be thin places, “in which the boundary between one’s self and the world momentarily disappears.”

Many people experience worship as a thin place, especially the music, and often the sung hymns. In our church we name both baptism and communion as sacraments- things that we do with the belief that these actions are a way to be in touch with the grace of God. The things we say in a service, such as the creed, or the Lord’s Prayer, “can become a thin place as we join ourselves in the sound of the community saying these words together.”

Our exposure to thin places may help us lower our inner defenses, and allow God’s love to work within our deepest selves. I have been learning some Christian practices, that are about making space for God in our lives. I have felt renewed in my own life, and in my work as a minister, to see what centering prayer, journaling, spiritual direction, group bible study, silent retreats, and other practices can do, to help the shell around the heart crack, to allow the light of God to shine.

When our hearts are more open, we can see God, in our own lives, and in the world around us. An open heart is more alive to wonder. An open heart knows radical amazement. An open heart and gratitude go together. We can feel this in our bodies. Borg says, “In the moments in my life when I have been most grateful, I have felt a swelling, almost a bursting, in my chest.” I recognize what he is talking about.

An open heart also feels the suffering and pain of the world and responds to it. Jesus said, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” As Borg says, “the Christian life is about the ‘hatching of the heart,’ the opening of the self to the Spirit of God”.

This chapter about thin places and opening the heart ends with a beautiful prayer from the journal of Dag Hammarskjold, a Swedish diplomat and Secretary General of the United Nations:

Give us pure hearts, that we may see you;

Humble hearts, that we may hear you;

Hearts of love, that we may serve you;

Hearts of faith, that we may abide in you. Amen

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