Thursday, December 13, 2007

Thin places

The Irish and other Celts often speak of “thin places.” As Jim Forest writes in The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life (Orbis Books, 2007), “A thin place is one where ordinary matter seems charged with God’s presence…. What marks any thin place is the time-stopping awareness of God’s presence.” This week I had an intimation of one such thin place.

Monday afternoon, December 10 – Human Rights Day, by chance – Sor Inez and Sor María Jesús, two of the Spanish Franciscan sisters who live up the street from me, invited me to join them in a trip to a rural community that was celebrating the first anniversary of the killing of one of the evangelizers in their community. They knew the family because one of his nine children had lived with them. (One of the sisters’ ministries is to provide a place for girls from the countryside to stay while they study in Santa Rosa de Copán.)

Victor Arturo Peña was a evangelizer and minister of the Eucharist in the remote village of Dormitorio Dos in the municipality of Florída. It is not clear why he was killed on December 10, 2006, but it was clear that he was much loved and is missed by his family and the community which packed the church. I had a deep sense of God's presence there, especially during the Eucharist. The priest spoke of Arturo’s deep faith and devotion to his ministry; he recalled how he has cherished the towel stained with Arturo’s blood and how he prays whenever he passes the sight of the killing. During the presentation of gifts Arturo’s family brought forward his bible, his alb, the wooden container which he used to carry the Eucharist as he went to rural villages, as well as the bread and wine for the Eucharist. At the consecration I sensed the mystery of the Word made Flesh present in the bread and wine. In fact, the entire Eucharist left me with a deep sense of God's presence.

Here was a thin place, in the midst of suffering and loss. As Jim Forest writes, “Thin places are hidden in dark places.”

There is a beautiful description of another thin place in Ron Hansen's A Stay Against Confusion, in the essay “Hearing the Cry of the Poor,” on the Jesuits killed at the Central America University in El Salvador in 1989.

A few weeks after the cold-blooded assassinations of November 16, an American Jesuit visited the hillside residence where the murders occurred. The house interior had been torn apart by the soldiers, chunks of wall were shot out by stray bullets, wherever he looked there were signs of wreckage and violence, and yet as he paused in a hallway he was suddenly overcome with a feeling of immense and surprising joy. Whatever anger, despair, and sadness he was feeling gave way to a mysterious happiness and peace. The America just stood there for a moment, fully absorbing it, and then he noticed an older Jesuit resident who smiled as he walked past and simply said, “I see you have found the spot.”

Wednesday, during an early morning walk, I began to think about the mystery of “thin places” in this season of Advent and Christmas. In one sense, the whole world is a “thin place” because the Word of God became flesh and lived among us. God has walked this earth with and for us; it all can be a sacrament, a sign of his presence. What is lacking is our attention to this healing mystery.

In his book, Jim Forest quotes from a talk of Thomas Merton on “Life and Solitude” that makes this clear:

Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through all the time…. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it, maybe, frequently. God shows himself 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 him. It’s impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it.

May Christmas be for all of us a time when we open our hearts to the “thin places” and let the Word become flesh in our hearts.

1 comment:

Michael Krahn said...


I just put up a series of posts about Thomas Merton that I think you’d enjoy at: