02 November 2008

Thin Places

In Celtic tradition there is a saying that heaven and earth are three feet apart.

If the intersection is that close, why is it that we so often miss it?

The sermon at church today -- the Feast of All Saints -- was about thin places, Celtic Samhain or the day with daylight, and the Christian tradition of All Saints' Day, which was surely influenced in its practice by the Celtic tradition.

Thin places are those places where earth and heaven are close, the barrier permeable.

Many years ago I was in a prayer & study group with an adult woman who had Down's Syndrome. I remember her saying once how she had been in church and was moved by a gloriously sung anthem. I was young, not very patient, and I think it is safe to say that I was somewhat dismissive at first of her description. But then she started to talk about how she was sure that she saw ghosts or spirits flying around the choir and the alter, floating through the rafters, filling the pews, singing. She spoke about how she wondered if everyone she saw that day was alive, or if some of the physical bodies she saw were actually spirits of the dead, the saints of heaven.

I am a bit of a Doubting Thomas. This is the type of story that has me trying desperately to refrain from rolling my eyes. I don't believe in ghosts, for chrissakes! And yet, nearly 20 years later, I still remember her story and I think that there could be something to it, even if it was only the way that she was capable of perceiving a glimpse of the eternal.

If there are thin places where there is an intersection of heaven and earth, the temporal and the eternal, perhaps we are too often not naive enough to notice. Three feet isn't a great distance, but it might has well be an uncrossable chasm if we fail to see it.

There is a questionnaire that James Lipton uses during each episode of The Actor's Studio, adapted from a questionnaire by Bernard Pivot. If heaven exists, what do you want God to say to you when you arrive? The first time I was asked this, I said: "Your Dad is right over there. He's waiting for you with a whiskey sour".

If heaven exists, I think that we can't possibly wrap our minds around what it is like. All descriptions will fall short. If it is eternal, it is not the afterlife, but the here and now, the constant forever that we haven't yet reached. But, I think, it is okay to think of it in terms that bring us pleasure -- like meeting a loved one and sharing a good drink and a laugh. We can only be aware in this world that we might encounter a thin place, a place so near yet so far, that we can only glimpse the possibilities, and be open to what those few and far between glimpses mean.


Emily Barton said...

What a wonderful post. I have so much trouble with the concept of heaven (even more so with the concept of hell. Basically, I just choose to believe that doesn't exist anywhere but here on earth). It can't possibly be a "place," right? I mean, everyone's definition of it would have to be different. However, I love the notion of a loved one greeting me when I die with a whiskey sour (or maybe a mint julep -- one that would never produce a hangover).

Cam said...

Emily, Have you ever read C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce? It is an interesting allegory of heaven and hell. Although others might interpret it differently, I think that in Lewis' allegory, there is not really a separation -- that heaven and hell are both what those present believe them to be. Those in his hell have glimpses of heaven, but can't get there because they won't give up their stubborn ways to free themselves.