The ‘thin place’ between earth and heaven is all around us
The Rev. Torey Lightcap
A church is first its people, then its programs, then its building ” more an idea or an identity than a tangible thing. But usually when we say “church” (as in “I live down by the Baptist church”), we mean the physical building or property that helps to place a particular congregation in our minds. Assuming it’s even worth going on about, perhaps we’re better off saying “church building.”
At any rate, the church building in which I worship and lead worship was built in the early 1960s. Furnished inside in gorgeous, warm woods and outside in naturally toned stuccos, and with its distinctive pitched metal roof the color of new pennies, it’s an inspiring example of liturgical space from the heart of the Space Age.
I’m told a number of volunteer workers were putting the roof on St. Barnabas when the news reached that John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. That ought to fix the date in your mind, as it did mine.
The sanctuary, as I say, is a warm space ” a good place to hear the plaintive oboe or excitable harp, the choir and piano, and equally kind on those like me whose voices would not normally fill up a room with such a high ceiling. (At least not without a mic.)
It’s also a good place to just sit: to come and pray when it’s quiet, to drink in delicious silence for a few moments, or equally to attend to the noise of industry rumbling by on Blake and Grand Avenues.
On the south end of the sanctuary is the high wall with its statement of rectangles reminiscent of Rothko or Frank Lloyd Wright, and just above its halfway point there is the “rose window,” a gorgeous, round, stained-glass affair. It shows four clusters of grapes framing a cross, with a chalice at the center of the crosspieces. Even if you miss the baptismal font, the pulpit, or the altar, when you see the rose window you cannot forget where you are, or why, for very long.
The concept of “sacred space” is as trusted as oak, and should not be easily dismissed. We all have such places in our lives, be they outright or subtle. We humans are naturally keen to seek them and, upon finding them, to pause to reflect, collect, and remember ourselves.
Those places can be naturally dramatic such that anyone would easily understand their power: the meadow you were married in; the mountain top where you saw your life laid bare; the stream you were fishing when you clearly heard your calling. Or those places might seem mundane to the unaware eye ” Grandma’s kitchen, say, or the spot where your kid took his or her first steps. These things matter. They matter not just because they are connected to memory, but because they represent your life.
When lots of folks agree that a space feels sacred, they’ll sometimes use a wonderful term, “thin place,” to mean any place where the veil between heaven and earth feels particularly sheer or fragile ” a place we might easily spy angels or other holy handiwork at play.
Once you’re accustomed to the idea, you can name plenty of thin places. Just on one hand I could count the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City; the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, N.M.; the Stations of the Cross near Colorado City; I-70 descending into Glenwood Canyon; or the grounds of the seminary I attended in Austin, Texas.
Yet I’d be remiss to forget the less obvious thin places in my life: the high-school English classroom where I first heard Shakespeare read aloud; the rooms in which my children were born; the tent that kept me dry during a hurricane 23 years ago; a certain gorgeous hallway in the Hotel Colorado.
The point is that it is largely a matter of perception that imbues places with their special and sacred energies. More to the point, perhaps we might say that there are places where we are most particularly aware of the God-wrought world as it exists both inside and outside ourselves.
But however you choose to say it, place matters.
Take a little time this weekend to consider the environments in which you choose to be immersed. Even hunt one down. And when you find one, look for both subtlety and grandiosity. Pause, reflect, and collect.
And move on.
The Rev. Torey Lightcap is priest-in-charge of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glenwood Springs (www.saint-barnabas.info). Torey and his wife have two children and live in New Castle.
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