Have you ever been in a geographical location where you felt inexplicably close to the divine presence? At the beach perhaps? In a forest? The desert? The ancient Celts had a phrase for such sites. They called them “thin places”. According to the Celtic saying, “Heaven and Earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.” In reality, of course, there is no distance between creation and creator. We are irrevocably entwined. It is simply our awareness that is heightened when we are positioned in the beauty of the natural world.
One of my thin places is in the border ranges of the Gold Coast, Queensland hinterland where our family had a holiday home when I was young. To be in the wild high country with sweeping vistas in every direction has always stirred my heart to the core. But it was the nights that really impacted me. On crystal clear evenings, when the stars touched the horizon, I would stand outside away from the light of civilisation and bask in an intuitive understanding of the interconnectedness of all things.
Iona, Scotland - known as a "thin place"
I have never spoken of this before, but at those times I often experienced what seemed like the collapsing of all space, time and matter until it was as if the whole universe existed within me. At other times it was as though I was expanding until I filled the entirety of the heavens. During such mystical experiences, which had a very physical element to them, I found myself utterly overwhelmed by perfect love, peace and a mesmerising state of bliss, as every sense became fully alive to the wonder of my being.
Although thin places are generally understood to be physical locations, I have also experienced them while taking part in spiritual disciplines such as prayer or meditation. Since I was a teenager I have, again, had distinct experiences when praying in groups that I somehow expanded and filled the entire room or else all of space, matter and time seemed to collapse in on itself until every person in the room was somehow included within me. I don't know how else to describe it.
At such times, when the temporal is momentarily stripped away, it's as if the whole universe is shouting: “We're all connected! We all belong! We can't be without each other!” For me, that is one of the great revelations of true contemplation. When we realise there is no place for dualistic thinking – no “us and them” – then we are better positioned to embrace everyone and everything and thus experience
genuine unity. Actually, I think it is the only hope we have got. And beautiful settings may assist the process, but in reality thin places are not just “out there somewhere”, but a place that exists within.
Thin places – where real transformation can occur – are also to be found, in my experience, when we enter liminal space. This is not so much a physical location but rather a sacred space that we may find ourselves in when we are unceremoniously kicked out the doorway of “life as we know it” but haven't yet entered the configuration of the new normal. The death of a family member, health problems, loss of employment or divorce are all examples of life events that can thrust us into liminal space.
In tribal cultures liminal space occurs during initiation rites when childhood is left behind but adulthood has not yet been attained. It is no man's land. Some indigenous people groups refer to liminal space as “crazy time” and it can certainly feel that way. Liminal spaces are worlds between worlds – something akin to the wardrobe in The Narnia Chronicles – and they are always uncomfortable places.
Linger longer in liminal space
The key to genuine growth, however, is to embrace the discomfort and not be in a hurry to either rush backwards in search of a familiar that no longer exists or forward towards a new normal – whatever that might be. Resist the temptation at all costs. Just let it be. Hold the tension lightly and without judgment. And through the discomfort, linger as long as you can in liminal space and ask what it has to teach you. This is the time to sit in the ashes and engage in contemplation, meditation, silence. Attempts to control the situation are futile. Simply be still and know.
It has been my observation that genuine transformation can occur in the presence of great beauty, love or suffering. And suffering may feel like the “short straw” option, but it will produce growth like nothing else I know of. So cling to those times and allow yourself to be utterly alive to the moment so that the divine outworking of the greater good can be fully expressed in and through you. And in the process, you yourself will become a thin place through which others experience their own transformation.
Mark has a background in psychology and applied neuroscience. He is currently exploring the high country of grace and finding many delightful places of rest for the soul. Mark enjoys surfing, bush walking, making music, good food and laughter in the company of friends. He resides on Queensland's Sunshine Coast and has two grown children.
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