A recent New York Times article in the travel section spoke of the line between heaven and earth dissolving in certain places. As the author describes it, these are ” …locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever…..” The author calls such places Thin Places.
For me, the divide between “heaven” and earth is the “thinnest” not only in certain places, but also at certain times. These are not lean times of depression (financial or metaphorical), but moments of time when the boundaries and separation between worlds of experiences is lifted, and I am joined with groups of people in my thoughts and feelings.
As UUs we celebrate such times, as do the religions of the world. These are periods during the year when the veil between the living and the dead is lifted and we mark the time with Day of the Dead and Halloween celebrations; when the wall between sunshine and darkness crumbles during the solstices and when the worlds of light and dark seem to be balanced with during the equinoxes. As I write this, it is the Spring Equinox, and light and dark are in balance.
Such celebrations and times of year are ones that we can know and plan for because they are marked by dates, or by the natural tilt and turning of our planet. Harder to grasp, less frequent, and completely unpredictable are those thin times or places that we stumble upon. They catch us off-guard. If you wait for them, watching for them they reveal themselves, they prove to be evasive. But when they do appear, a shift, an almost cellular change occurs in me – my hair stands on end, my senses become acutely aware, and I find myself listening and responding at a level far deeper than I had been a moment before.
For me, those times occur in many contexts – when I am reading, when I am watching dance, when I am out for a walk. But most often in the classroom – with adults as well as children – and at the most unexpected of moments. For me these times are when there is an unmasking of emotions; a lowering of guards and a group of people are suddenly more vulnerable and open than they were a moment before. I ask a question – completely simple, straightforward, non-provocative, a question as simple as, “so what do you think about….”. Magically someone responds in a way that makes me not only shift my thinking and rephrase or completely reject my next question, but gives the entire group pause for thought. There is a collective in-drawn breath, a few expressions of appreciation, and then…..silence. We sit quiet for a time, a span that is shorter with kids than with adults. I have learned to watch and wait, to treasure this pause in time and not rush it. Someone else speaks next with a clarification question or comment, and the moment is over. Almost always, we find ourselves referring back to the comment or response that shifted the course of our conversation later in the class. They are fleeting moments, but each time I experience them, I am changed. These moments are different from “aha!” moments in that there is no deep insight or understanding, but instead a collective shared experience of reflection.
Of course, I fall into the wholly human and totally fallacious notion that such times are within my control – that I only have to prepare better, or ask a pointed question, or dig deeper for the thin time to reveal itself for me to claim. And the more I look, wait and watch the fewer times I have such experiences. But I have had glimpses of such times, and it is that which brings me again and again to the classroom, seeking, waiting, watching.
The author of the New York Times article, Eric Weiner ends with these words:
“The divine supposedly transcends time and space, yet we seek it in very specific places and at very specific times. 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 place offer glimpses not of heaven but of earth as it really is, unencumbered. Unmasked.”
Have you experienced thin places or times? How did you know they were thin?
As always, I would love to hear from you.