The ancient Celts had a term for a space where Heaven and earth almost touch. They called such a space a “thin place.” As the Celtic saying goes, “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.” As I have become more aware of the presence of God in my life, it has been almost impossible to ignore the presence of God in the world around me. And, I’ve come to realize that, all too often, we relegated God to a golden cage — whether a beautiful sanctuary or a well-worn liturgy. If we come to only expect God in the sacred spaces we create for God, we will never see the thin places all around us where Heaven and earth are colliding.
This past weekend, a friend invited our centering prayer group to her home in south Montgomery County for a morning retreat. The whitewashed antebellum farmhouse sits amid rolling pastures bordered by a thick, dark wood. We gathered on the wide, shaded porch, and I noticed how a small picket fence framed the herb garden, nestled down near an ancient clapboard tool shed. With the exception of a light breeze that gently bent the heads of blooming day lilies along the fence, everything was still. As I watched three Cooper’s hawks lazily circle overhead, I was struck by the beauty of that space, and time seemed to stand still.
My thoughts wandered to Dakota, where the pastures stretch more than they roll, and where there is no thick, dark wood to hem them in — the prairie knows no boundaries. In Dakota, there are no lilies to be bent by a gentle breeze. Only wave after wave of buffalo grass, driven across the plains by a restless wind like a tide pushed out to sea. Yes, there are Cooper’s hawks in Dakota, but they circle with gulls that seem to long for the ancient inland sea that once covered the Plains.
Back in south Montgomery County, we wandered down the crushed gravel path to the pasture’s edge, where a jasmine covered arbor opens into the thick wood. Beyond the arbor, towering old cedar trees form a vaulted canopy under their boughs, raising up a chapel of sorts made of God’s own creation. We sat in silence in that chapel, as dappled sunlight dripped through the leafy canopy. In the boughs above us, a choir of songbirds warbled and all around us the woods were abuzz with song. A cow in the nearby pasture grunted her refrain, and my thoughts turned to Psalm 139.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me.
In some places, it is almost impossible to escape the presence of God. But we usually miss it. In our endless pursuit of the things we think will make us happy, we can’t slow down long enough to look around. We refuse to spare one extra moment for anything that doesn’t check off a box on our to-do lists. We can’t take our eyes off our devices, even for a second, lest we miss that next text or tweet or status update. In all our striving, in all our doing, we forget that there is a great, big old world outside ourselves in which God is making himself known.
The Lakota have always recognized the presence of God, or “Wakan Tanka” (the Great Spirit or the Great Mystery) in the natural world. In the Dakota Badlands, there is a stretch of mountains and canyons called the Paha Sapa in Lakota, or “The Heart of Everything That Is,” also known as the Black Hills. For the Lakota, the Paha Sapa was a thin place, where the Spiritual world and the earthly world were almost indistinguishable. Even today, that tradition carries forward to acknowledging the presence of Wakan Tanka in the raw beauty of power of the Plains.
As a twelve year old boy, I first looked on the face of God there on the Dakota Plains. In the beauty of a endless horizon of color and texture and light bringing forth the creation of a new day. In the vastness and solitude of the night sky, where stars and galaxies and planets whirl above your head in endless array of patterns. In the raw power of a sudden summer storm that drops torrents of rain and hail onto the Plains and whose straight-line winds rip up any creature or creation in its way. I believe there is not a day that goes by somewhere in the Dakotas where Heaven and earth do not meet. Dakota is a thin place, indeed. But it is not the only one.
What would our lives look like if we slowed down and opened our eyes? If we listened to the sounds of creation all around us and listened for our place in the chorus? If we put down our devices, and looked up at the sky every so often? We might be surprised at what we find. We may not know the day or the hour, but if we keep watch, I suspect we just may see Jesus coming.