Penetrating Thin Places

“Pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

– Aeschylus

I’m writing about something different today.  Since my mother’s death, I’ve been thinking about thin places.

“Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer” was the headline of a New York Times article from earlier this year.  The writer highlighted divinely infused places near and far–but added that they need not always be sacred in nature.  One might find an airport, a bar, or your front porch at sunset just as soul inspiring as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

In fact, he held that such significant places may even contain “the confluence of the sacred and the profane”—such as Jerusalem, for instance, combining the timeless profundity of the divine with the historical weight of unending conflict.  And Weiner added, “Getting to a thin place usually requires a bit of sweat. One does not typically hop in a taxi to a thin place, but sometimes you can.”

While I agree with the sweat-equity notion, the actual voyage required can vary significantly—depending on the measure of time, physical distance, heart, mind or soul required.  I have written about the phenomenon of locations as thin places in the past – Mo Ranch and Montreat, the locales that Presbyterians revere so passionately.  Mo Ranch is nestled deep in the heart of the Texas Hill Country on the Guadalupe river and requires  many, many hours in a car (a particularly lengthy trip when traveled with a rambunctious collection of adolescent boys.) And Montreat is cradled in the lush, majestic Black mountains in North Carolina’s remotest wilderness.

Yet in recent months, the thin places I have experienced have been characterized less by place and more by spirit. Curiously, they have been almost ubiquitous—those mystical portals to the realm of the soul—where the gossamer veil that separates us from our Source feels more permeable somehow.

These are places where God’s presence is palpable.

I believe I have been encountering this phenomenon with increased frequency—not because there are more around me—but because I have been graced with their recognition as a means of comfort through an extraordinarily difficult time in my life.

The priest who officiated at my mother’s memorial service in August referenced “a thin place” as he endeavored to placate my family in the poignant moments prior to stepping into the St. Michael’s and All Angels Chapel, where my mother’s public waited.  Father Kevin Huddleston framed it in almost Spielberg-esque  terms—as if we might notice the stained glass windows behind the altar dissolving into a hazy image of heaven—thus providing a glimpse of my mother’s welcome release from pain and earthly struggle as she crossed to the other side.

I deeply appreciate the concept of thin places, but ironically, they have a cumulative weight.

But now I know—the thinnest places of all are not on a hill, in a river, or in church building. They are not behind a stained glass window or on a beach. Don’t get me wrong. These can be small pockets of heaven—true glimpses of the divine creation. But, I now know the thinnest places we can know are in the heart.

Somehow, for most of my 50+ years, I lacked the heart connection I so yearned for with my mother and father. There are many reasons and circumstances around this reality, but they are in the past. This makes the bittersweet gift I received during the last few weeks of my mother’s life even more precious and meaningful.  I literally felt the hand of God in our interactions. Undeniable and visceral. Though her stroke completely destroyed the brain cells responsible for her speech, cognition and movement, she was able to make noises, cast her gaze and react—caught in a physical prison offering few options for more than two and a half years. In the moment with my mom, her state was simultaneously devastating and sublime to witness—truly the confluence of the sacred and profane.

It was pure, raw, authentic spirit– unfettered by any conscious understanding of her paralyzed confinement in a wheelchair. Her essence seemed to transcend her circumstances—the angry bed sores, deep purple bruises and expanding edema that rendered her atrophied limbs almost unrecognizable. Even with the misfiring synapses and unpredictable responses, her heart and soul were discernible.  She could not be squelched or muted. Her life force burst out through her eyes and enlivened her playful, coquettish smile. She reached out to me in a way she never had—expressing volumes in a simple squeeze of her hand.

Swollen, paralyzed, aphasic, and racked with by infection in those final days, my mom was unable to comprehend the world around her in conventional ways. But I was certain I was seeing her soul. My eyes would well with tears as I acknowledged the holy privilege of witnessing my her pure spirit – her unvarnished, unadorned, raw being – her Divinity.

What is this heart connection—this exquisite vulnerability that defies description? It is the unique imperative of our being, and yet, it eludes so many of us in our lives. Who are we – beneath the words, languages, thoughts, and unconscious programming? Who are we behind the artifice of the person we think we are, the person we feel we need to be or the person who we want to be? So often, we seem to allow our fears and the perceptions of  others define us—obscuring who we are at the very core. What a remarkable sight to have seen.

It’s nothing short of a miracle – this very thinnest of places, this glimpse of eternity.

8 thoughts on “Penetrating Thin Places

  1. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and insight, Elaine. Our theme at Mo-Ranch this year centered on Thin Places. Mo-Ranch is indeed one of those places for so many. I wish you could have been with us.

    1. Gary, I really missed Mo this year, but I was where I needed to be – my absence particularly poignant given the topic thin places. The incredible generosity you and the Mo team share contributes to what makes Mo among the thinnest of places. Thank you!

  2. This was a remarkable piece that captured exactly what I saw as I watched my mother pass. Somehow as her body failed her the essence of her spirit burned brighter than ever. I will never forget those last days with her and what they taught me.

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