Thin Places


The term “thin place” has occasionally been overused, but it does seem to me to contain a truth that has everything to do with pilgrimage. Iona, Lindisfarne, the ruined priory of Llanthony in the Black Mountains of Wales: these are places whose transparency to the divine goes back to the earliest days of the faith in these islands – perhaps beyond. Alex Klaushofer calls them sites “where the boundary between heaven and earth [is] permeable”; Mark D Roberts says, “a thin place is defined as a place where God’s presence is known with particular immediacy.”

Michelle Van Loon writes of getting lost with her husband in Jerusalem, and ending up at the Western Wall, the last intact remnant of the Temple that was destroyed in AD 70, during the First Jewish-Roman War:

We were standing in a thin place.

Many of us have had these experiences even when we haven’t travelled a step. These moments during a time of worship or prayer, during a period of great sorrow or trial can undo us with an overwhelming awareness of God’s nearness, holiness, and love. Eternity invades time, and the membrane between heaven and earth seems thin as silk. It takes a pilgrim to breathe the atmosphere there.

To me, this is the very essence of pilgrimage. Perhaps such places are not reachable without an inward journey; which can, it seems, be brought about as much by stillness and prayer as by an outward, physical journey.

I have found the thinnest of places along the shore of Lake Galilee, on the beach where Jesus is said to have cooked breakfast for the disciples (John 21.12), on the morning when he restored Peter. I have found the membrane drawn thin as the green light under the trees in the grounds of Walsingham Priory. And I have found the silent air in my own room barely concealing the nearness of God. Pilgrimage contains its own homecoming, even in the journey itself.

CS Lewis suggests that our own soul may be shaped, like a key, to unlock a particular door in the house with many rooms (John 14.2). Each of us is utterly unique, and the route of our pilgrimage, whether it is as apparently well-trodden as the Camino de Santiago, or as well-hidden as our own room (Matthew 6.6), is our own thread in God’s nearness, kept somehow for each of us alone. I think sometimes that these places carry such a charge of numinosity for each of us because they are, like God, outside time as we understand it – without duration, still, inaccessible to understanding or to thought.

A Long Pilgrimage

This is one of the last posts I made on both my earlier blogs (see this blog’s About page) and since it led directly to my establishing A Long Restlessness, I thought it would be right to begin with it here:

Over the years I have had more than thirty homes. Eight of the moves, starting before I was able to walk, were fitted in before I was 20, thanks to my peripatetic mother. I must have caught the bug, for I simply carried on, as jobs and personal circumstances moved me around the country; my church affiliations have changed too – not quite so often! – sometimes along with my address. And yet I have longed for contentment, envied those whose settled lives enabled them simply to stay put and watch the seasons change, and the years bring the patterns of history across a settled landscape.

Michelle Van Loon, in her moving book Born to Wander: Recovering the Value of our Pilgrim Identity, quotes Søren Kierkegaard:

Faith expressly signifies the deep, strong, blessed restlessness that drives the believer so that he cannot settle down at rest in this world, and therefore the person who has settled down completely at rest has also ceased to be a believer, because a believer cannot sit still as one sits with a pilgrim’s staff in one’s hand – a believer travels forward.

Pilgrimage, though, is more than moving on. Van Loon (ibid.) distinguishes three “parallel, sometimes overlapping streams” of pilgrimage in Scripture:

  • Moral pilgrimage focuses on everyday obedience to God.
  • Physical pilgrimage emphasises a bodily journey to a holy site in order to seek God.
  • Interior pilgrimage describes the pursuit of communion with God through prayer, solitude and contemplation.

Restlessness, as Michelle Van Loon points out, is potentially a powerful compass. As she reminds us, St Augustine of Hippo wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” My own restlessness has been an odd alternation between my own self-will, and (often misplaced) longings, and God’s calling me back on to the path to “communion with [him] through prayer…” Again and again I am reminded of Proverbs 20.24: “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?”

But how can we know that we are on the right path? Gradually, I am coming to the conclusion that we cannot. When God called Abram, he merely said, we are told, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you” (Gen 12.1) “The land I will show you…” Not the land I have shown you, the land to which I have given you directions and a grid reference. “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…” (v. 4) And Abram wandered around all over the place, from adventure to misadventure, not knowing the way; but in the end he came to the place where God could say to him, “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northwards and southwards and eastwards and westwards…” (Gen 13.14) and Abram saw the land to which he had been called.

We cannot know the way; but our steps are indeed ordered by the Lord, if we love him, and will only draw near to him in prayer. He simply says, as he always does, “Go”, or even “What is that to you? Follow me!” (John 21.21)