Have you ever been somewhere and been suddenly overwhelmed by the sense that somehow you are closer to God than you have ever been? That sense that you are ‘floating’ between heaven and earth—a feeling that cannot be easily described. When this happens, the circumstances have been called ‘thin places’. Eric Weiner, an American writer, in an article in the NY Times in March 2012, said: “The ancient pagan Celts, and later, Christians, used the term to describe mesmerizing places like the wind-swept isle of Iona or the rocky peaks of Croagh Patrick, a place of pilgrimage in Scotland. Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.” If we think about it, I am sure a lot of us have had these moments. I have had some of these experiences, sometimes only fleetingly, and sometimes for longer. It has sometimes been at a particular place and sometimes listening to music, religious or secular. I remember it happening once when Elizabeth and I were at a weekday Evensong at King’s College, Cambridge. The congregation was seated up in the choir--behind the choir--and the psalm for the evening was psalm 119. They chanted all 176 verses and we were transported into that thin space. It can happen looking out at a beautiful vista, and we live in a part of the world that offers many of these. It seems to me that Jacob, in the story in our first reading, was having this kind of experience. Remember that Jacob was not always a particularly nice person, and at the time of this story was fleeing home because his mother had warned him that his brother Esau, who he had tricked a couple of times, was out to kill him. He was in a lonely spot with his head on a stone for a pillow. As he sleeps, he has a vision, probably much to his surprise! Earth and heaven were connected by a great ladder upon which angels were going up and down. It is a vision of connectedness. He is aware of the presence of God, who in spite of all that Jacob has done, and for that matter what he will do in the future, promises him the land and His presence and protection. When we experience these connected, or thin, places, we, like Jacob, can say ‘Truly the Lord is in this place.’ We tend to think of these times as occurring as I have described—in places or circumstances that are particular, and may very well only expect them in those certain circumstances. But it can as easily happen in a small country church as in a great cathedral, in our own back yard or home, or in a small cramped place as in somewhere with a mighty vista. It does not sound like Jacob was in a particularly spectacular place. Eric Weiner in his article writes “Yet, ultimately, an inherent contradiction trips up any spiritual walkabout: 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 places offer glimpses not of heaven but of earth as it really is, unencumbered. Unmasked.” Our wonderful psalm today, Psalm 139 tells us that God has known us from the beginning and traces our journeys and our resting-places. So, the ‘thin places’ we encounter are really places where we become aware that God is with us—because we have opened ourselves up to God, not that God has chosen that time or place to open himself up to us. I am sure Jacob was not looking for, and certainly not expecting, his experience. But it happened and he exclaims “This is no other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven.” Perhaps this would be a good week to think about when or if these experiences have happened for us, and go forward being more open to experiencing the ‘thin places’. Who knows, maybe they will occur more often.
Lord be with us in the week ahead. Keep us safe and help calm our fears. Above all, help us to be open to your presence with us and in the world around us. Amen