A Time for Thin Spaces
These are the “thin times” of the year. I don’t know that that’s an “official” liturgical designation for them. But these are times when it seems we cannot help but take notice of the presence of … well, of curiously “extraordinary” events around this time of the year. They’re cultural; and they’re cross-cultural. In one sense they’re not abnormal; in another sense some of them are.
I’m being vague: deliberately, I guess. Let me try to be less vague … if I can. For one thing the days are getting shorter. Next Sunday we will set our clocks back and by 6 pm it’s going to be really dark. Then: trees that were lush and green are no longer so: the leaves have changed color; some of them are brightly colored for a while, but then the leaves have fallen, giving a lot of us reason to get out and rake them. There’s something that “is in the order of things” about that, but there is something a bit poignant: we recognize that “things are coming to an end”, or at least changing. And there is something in that fact alone that primes us for recognizing “thin spaces” around us in communal and cultural life.
“Thin spaces” – or “thin places”. The term comes from the Celtic Christian spiritual tradition. It was known in the Middle Ages that there were places where one could expect to encounter something that was other than human, or “super-human”. Certain wells, for instance, were known, to be places of encounter with “spirits” - “the spirit of God.” One of the things Christians in the west lost in the Reformation was a sense of the real sacredness of such times and places: it was just too “superstitious” to be taken seriously by many of the Reformers.
When Moses stood before a bush that blazed without being consumed by fire, he found that he was standing in such a “thin space”. Then he heard the voice that was calling him say, “Moses, Moses: Take off your shoes! The place where you are standing is holy ground.” But have we not all experienced such “thins spaces”, where we stand in awe and realize that we are encountering … something? Something that we call not less than “God?” We all can name such places; the baptismal font is not the only “holy well”.
It’s not surprising to me that this time of year, with its shortening days, with its chillier winds that sharpen our senses, has a number of days in which the church in her wisdom has recognized for centuries as times in which we “stand on holy ground.” One of them is the Festival of All Saints: one of the most ancient “special days” in Christendom. It was not always Nov. 1; in the Orthodox Church it continues to be the Sunday after Pentecost. But by the Middle Ages in the west, the 1st of November had been recognized as the Festival of All Saints, and prior to the Reformation the 2nd of November was known as “All Souls Day.” (As the Reformation increasingly taught that there was no distinction between “saints” and “ordinary Christians” this day came to be more or less ignored.) In many parishes All Saints has been a time when the names of those who have died in the last year are remembered, often as part of the Eucharistic Prayer. Again, it’s a poignant reminder of the “thin space” between this life and the life to come, and of how quickly we can move from one realm to the other.
It’s a time that settles into National and International consciousness: November 11, we commemorate Veterans’ Day, a day when we recognize the gift of many men and women in times of war, often the sacrifice of their very lives for the values and commitments of the nation. Other countries also celebrate this commitment at this time of the year: Canada and the United Kingdom are only two that come to mind.
This recognition of “thin spaces” is cross-cultural. In a strongly Hispanic culture, such as I live in, there is real solemnity around Dia de los Muertos, or “The Day of the Dead.” It’s a day, not just for solemnities, but for family gatherings, great parties in which photos are taken out, viewed, the dead remembered – and skeletons are lampooned because, as serious as death is, the grave is not the end!
As for “Halloween”: – I bet you never thought of Halloween as Holy Ground! And yet: I think there’s more than the fact that Halloween has become the most commercially successful holiday in our culture after Christmas; there’s more than the cash that comes to merchants for the sales of Fairy Princess and Batman Costumes, and Halloween treats to satisfy ravenous trick-or-treaters. It’s that we all recognize the need to encounter that Other Reality that tells Moses to take his shoes off. Grown-ups too recognize the sheer fun of dressing up as something other than we are. And should that something else be a skeleton or a witch … Well, there was a medieval counsel that was given to men and women of the Middle Ages: Memento More, “remember that you will die.” We watch kids walk down the street in costume, to the extent that they can anymore, and we smile, remembering how enchanting we were in our costumes. But it is appropriate to remember that the most angelic of costumes is tarnished a bit with the ashes of Ash Wednesday. And the up-beat culture in which we live has somehow recognized the need for this for … well, for the last two thousand years. At least.
Appreciate your thin spaces in these days of early November. Let their mystery seep into your soul. Then settle into the brooding of Advent, and prepare for the celebration of something New.
Pastor Allen Heggen