Monday, March 12, 2012

Thin Spaces

This piece is not about slimming down, although that would be something I should do, but about finding places, anywhere, where the distance between heaven and earth narrows so that we can get a sense of the timeless presence of God.

I am grateful to Eric Weiner's travel article in yesterday's New York Times for introducing me to the idea of thin spaces, but the origin of the term, as he notes, is ancient: the early Irish, who did so much to spread Christian civilization in the Dark Ages, have a saying: Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.

Like Mr. Weiner, I have my list of favorite places where I have felt the presence of something transcendent, where time seems to stop. One of the major ones happened in Ireland, at the tip of the Dingle peninsula called Slea Head, where I stood on the edge of the world, so it seemed; actually, it was the western-most part of Europe, looking past the rocky Blasket islands toward America, mindful of the vast, wild landscape behind me as well, a landscape marked with prehistoric and medieval artifacts as well as the abandoned cottages of farmers forced to flee during the rough days of the potato famine.

I was mindful of the sad history but was able to transcend it and be, under perfect blue skies on a windy day, aware of only the ocean before me, with its suggestion of infinity. I could not have anticipated such an experience, though I had read a bit about the land and the history; nothing, as Weiner says, gets in the way of genuine spiritual experiences as much as expectations.

When I encounter a quiet courtyard, with a fountain, as in the Frick Collection in New York, or in one of the many palazzi in Florence, I have gained entry into a thin place. And the memory of those places lingers, like the memory of scenes read about or seen in films, like the Venice evoked by Luchino Visconti (with a big assist from Mahler) in Death in Venice.

Usually, as I write in more detail in the journal Cithara (May 2010), silence is the language I use to describe such moments when my relationship with time is somehow altered, extended. This happens often in older churches, especially Gothic cathedrals like Chartres (it's no wonder Weiner includes St. Patrick's in NYC in his list)--places of prayer where the vast space of the nave and vault are intended to be uplifting, even affecting non-believers.

My list of thin spaces is long and includes the experience of reading as well as listening to music and looking at paintings or films in which language becomes irrelevant to having a keen sense of God's presence in the here and now. So for me, travel is not necessary at all, in the usual sense, although seeking thin places is a wonderful reason to travel, to search for unexpected peak experiences, moments that remind us that we are all mystics sometimes, that take us out of ourselves so we can (in Weiner's words) loosen our death grip on life.

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