Reading for this service, “Thin Places” by John Crossley Morgan
Sermon preached August 14, 2016
You can find the audio of this sermon here.
The story of my “thin place” is not a tale of a trip to a Celtic abbey, nor is it even about hiking in the Rocky Mountains – or hiking anywhere. I have stories I could tell about these more obvious sites of beauty, but none have stayed with me and transformed me in quite the ways that happened on the concrete-covered, slightly run-down tennis courts in the heart of central Denver.
It was spring of 2009 and I had not too long before returned to my tennis game after nearly 15 years away. I was on the courts near the Botanic Gardens – in that park right across the street, if you’re familiar with it.
There were basketball players in the court next to us, loud and distracting. I was feeling – irritated. I’d been telling myself to get focused, get my head in the game, stop making so many mistakes. If the ball players would be quieter, or if the courts weren’t so junky, or if I would’ve gotten more sleep the night before, or the night before that, or…
see, I had a 1 year old and a 3 year old, and I was in my second year of seminary. Life was hectic and intense, and I just.wanted.to.play tennis.
We were changing sides when suddenly, something happened – something in me changed.
I saw the sunset, and the sky. The sky was so large and I was small. The sun, was sinking down into the Rockies, and the clouds were covered in red, orange, yellow. I felt my feet hit the concrete, one, and then the other, as if for the first time of the whole day, maybe the year.
I was breathing, in, and out, how good the air felt.
And I heard the basketball players, they were laughing.
I saw us all as a whole in the middle of this great park with these giant trees – oh those trees! Why hadn’t I noticed them before? Down the hill from the courts, I saw soccer players in the grass, running and scheming. And looking out beyond the park, this city that I loved, so many stories and lives bumping into each other and becoming something together, trying to learn and grow, struggling and dreaming, stumbling and yearning – it was all just so beautiful.
I felt overwhelmingly grateful, filled with joy. How in the world was I so lucky to be on these courts, at this time, to see and feel all of this, to be alive in the midst of this beauty, to be a part?
I felt both utter calm, and yet also filled with creative, dynamic, and abundant energy.
This brief, and random moment on the tennis courts was a transforming experience for me – because it was a direct contrast to the usual way I’d been playing tennis – a direct contrast to how I had done much of my life. I had never played tennis as an experience of beauty, or joy, or ease!
Growing up, and in the couple of years I’d been playing since returning from my hiatus, I was known for my marathon-length matches that resulted in a great familiarity with Second Skin – the first aid tool you use for giant blisters. Tennis was for me, a test of endurance, will, and tenacity. Just keep hitting back, just be more stubborn than the other player, more determined.
Maybe you won’t be surprised to hear this, but “stubborn will” comes naturally to me,
and I won a lot of matches. But also: I won by way of self-injury – right? And while this worked when I was younger – it wasn’t sustainable, or possible, over the long run.
But on those courts in the middle of Denver, and in that time-out-of-time experience, my will seemed totally irrelevant. Because, I was a part of something – and with this something, I was invited to cooperate, to receive, participate, and love. To love it all. It was – revolutionary.
This is a story about tennis, but of course, it’s not just about tennis.
Just as this is a sermon about “Places,” but isn’t really just about place.
This is the magic of the “thin place.” A thin place is both incredibly local – entirely about the particulars of the sensory experience – the sights, sounds, smells, the touch – this is the opposite of an abstract/ideological concept. And yet this sensory experience simultaneously allows us to access something far beyond these particulars.
A “thin place” brings together the most tangible with the most intangible – the most sacred by way of the most profane.
And although a thin place is about space, it is also fundamentally about time: for in them we recover our past, claim our present, imagine a new future; we learn how to start over,
and we imagine ourselves born anew.
As you heard in the reading, the idea of a “thin place” is a Celtic concept, traced back to the ancient pagans, and later the Celtic Christians, who used it to describe, as travel writer Eric Weiner puts it, those “mesmerizing places like the windswept isle of Iona or the rocky peaks of Croagh Patrick. Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”
Thin places are beautiful, but not every beautiful place is a thin place. They are also not necessarily peaceful places – like in my story on the courts. Instead of the traditional ideas of tranquility or peace we associate with sacred sites, we would do better to engage the idea of thinness – as it points to their connection to life’s fragility – to its vulnerability, the risk inherent in life, and yet the power in that vulnerability.
As I described in my story – thin places invite us into that paradoxical place of both calm ease and abundant energy.
Thin places are not necessarily the places designated as official “religious” or “spiritual” designations. A number of you have signed up to go to the new Mormon temple next week, and I’m guessing that the opulence we find there – while a special religious site – may not be a “thin place” for many who encounter it.
With that said, thin places are often sacred sites – last week my family and I took a tour of Chimney Rock National Monument outside of Durango. At the top of the site, there is an incredibly elaborate Kiva built by hand by ancient peoples for religious and communal purposes. In its view are the two geologic towers for which the monument is named, towers where, every 18.6 years, the moon rises perfectly between them.
Standing at the top, amidst the fragments of a life that was, imagining these people so many centuries ago- I had walked their same path, and was looking at what they looked at, wondering too, breathing too, overwhelmed with the beauty.
This too is a thin place.
Don’t be scared away, please, by the language I used earlier about the thin veil between heaven and earth. Sometimes Unitarians have what Rev. Christine Robinson calls a “wintry spirituality,” by which she means, a spirituality that lives most comfortably in the realm of doubt and absence – rather than the “summery” land of presence, faith, and transcendence.
A “wintry spirituality” can mean that when someone talks about a “holy site,” you respond with a shrug, and figure you just don’t have the “religion” gene.
These same wintry folks, however are often the ones who know the best meandering paths through the Rockies, or the best campsite along the Poudre, or who stayed up late the past few days to see streaming meteors shoot across the sky.
Which is to say – “spirituality” is a word that means all kind of things to all kinds of people – and despite what you might’ve heard, is not reserved for hearing the voice of God or even, suddenly understanding everything about everything. Sometimes a “spiritual experience” is simply the experience of being overwhelmed by beauty along with a sense of being connected to that beauty.
And yet, in that connection, a thin place does reveal something about who we are, and about Life itself – even about – as the quote on the cover of the order of service describes – our “essential selves” – Only sometimes we forget to, or don’t know how to access that revelation.
We are well practiced at describing the beauty or other aspects of a place that has moved us.
But how did it move us? That is harder.
Think back to one of your thin places – a place where you felt connected to beauty, and to everything.
What happened in you when you were there?
What was going on in your life at the time, and how did the place speak to your story?
What feelings were stirred up?
Where in your body did you hold those feelings?
And maybe most importantly, what were the values that you were in touch with when you felt connected to that beauty?
What did the experience teach you about what really matters – matters most?
Our experience of a “thin place” becomes the most transformative when we engage it as a dialogue between our lives, and the place we are encountering -as writer Terry Tempest Williams puts it, “bearing witness is not a passive act.”
Something active is happening in us in our encounter of these places – something is transforming in our spirits, our minds, our bodies – and as we are changing, so is the place we are encountering.
On the tennis courts that evening, I felt ease. I knew grace. I knew beauty and wonder and awe. What mattered most was joy, and love – being a part. Winning a point didn’t matter – hitting a great serve didn’t matter – not really. And yet amazingly, by finding this place, I did end up winning more often, and hit better serves than I’d ever hit – and it was all a lot more fun. It’s one of those great spiritual paradoxes – that in releasing, you receive; and in the not-wanting, you get what you need.
After all this, we might wonder – given our sense of the holy being “everywhere,” why we would consider some places “thin places,” and not others. As Peter Mayer’s song Holy Now encourages – perhaps the challenge in life is not to look for miracles, but to find where there isn’t one. And sometimes, we can keep this sort of attention – we can stay present to the holy in everything.
But – speaking for myself – too often I live in that other place – that place of stubborn will, and tenacious endurance – that “thick” place where it’s hard to remember what really matters.
And so we need a place out of the every day – a place we “travel” to either easily or through a long trek, we need that sense of pilgrimage so that we can – as Paulo Coehlo describes –”travel far in order to return home.”
Which is to say, the whole world may indeed be thin, but perhaps “we’re too thick to recognize it.” (Eric Weiner) We need the time-out-of-time, and place-out-of-place to see the world as it actually always and everywhere is.
As Eric Weiner says, “Maybe thin places offer glimpses not of heaven, but of earth, as it really is, unencumbered, unmasked.” So that the thin veil is about seeing more fully into this world, and this life, and maybe even more, into our lives.
There’s a lot about life today that seems like we just have to “power through,” close off, and “will” our way – if not to “winning,” at least to surviving – even if it leads to blisters and perpetual weariness, even if we know in our hearts it isn’t sustainable, or what we want. We grapple with increasingly chaotic and confusing questions, with both too much and not enough information. We feel both too connected, and yet also profoundly untethered. Too often we have learned how to live with things we shouldn’t have to live with.
Our encounter with “thin places” reminds us that this is not Life’s whole story. Thin places connect us instead to Life’s healing beauty, and remind us that we are a part of this beauty, a part of joy, and a part of transcendent love.
Terry Tempest Williams uses the metaphor of a mosaic to remind us that even in the midst of brokenness, there remains in us and in life a great capacity for beauty – and that in the assembling and re-connecting of the broken pieces -in the ways we encounter and bear witness, and transform, something even more beautiful becomes possible. By claiming and creating “beauty in a broken world” we ground ourselves, and call ourselves again, and again, to the way life should be – and perhaps if we can live into it – already and always is.
Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams