Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Thin Places: An Introduction

Part 1 of series: Thin Places
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I first heard someone use the phrase “thin place” about fifteen years ago. She had become a devotee of Celtic spirituality, from which source she had discovered the label “thin place.” She was terribly enthusiastic about the idea of “thin places,” and proceeded to use this phrase to excess, which didn’t add to my enthusiasm for the phrase. Nevertheless, she got me thinking about thin places for the first time.
Celtic spirituality, by the way, has nothing to do with Boston’s basketball team. The word “Celtic” (pronounced KEL-tik, in this case) refers to a variety of Christian devotion practiced in Ireland and Scotland since the fifth century A.D. In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in Celtic spirituality, partly because of the popularity of Celtic religious art, and partly because of the wide influence of the Iona Community, a Christian community on the Scottish island of, you guessed it, Iona. (Photo: A Celtic cross on the island of Iona.)
The woman who introduced me to the phrase “thin place” explained its meaning. “A thin place,” she said, “is a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin. It’s a place where we can sense the divine more readily.” I wondered why this person, a respected Christian leader, seemed to have a hard time speaking of relationship with God. “Thin place” almost functioned as a circumlocution, a way getting around actually saying “God is especially present here.” I also wondered about the whole idea of thin places. Are there such places? If so, why are they thin? Something about the whole notion of thin places made me nervous, theologically speaking, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the problem.
Since my first exposure to the phrase “thin place,” I’ve probably heard it used five hundred times, maybe more. In certain Christian circles, Celtic Christianity has become wildly popular, and so has the use of “thin place” to describe places where people experience God (or “the divine,” if you prefer). I have tended to resist this language, partly because of its trendy overuse, and partly because of my nagging discomfort about its meaning.
Well, in the irony of God’s sovereignty, I’ve ended up in a place that people love to identify as thin. In my eighteen months as Senior Director of Laity Lodge, I’ve heard Laity Lodge described as a thin place probably a hundred times or more. When people say this, they mean to compliment Laity Lodge as an unusual place that fosters intimacy with God. For them, the barrier between earth and heaven does seem to become very thin at Laity Lodge. They have experienced God with more immediacy and intimacy when on retreat in the Frio River canyon than in their ordinary lives. In many cases, people have had life-transforming experiences at Laity Lodge through the presence and power of God’s Spirit.
Beginning today, I want to reflect a bit on the notion of thin places (sometimes called thin spaces). I’m not starting this blog series with a clear sense of where I’m headed. And I’m not planning to grind any particular axe. Rather, I want to think about the idea of thin places, especially in light of Scripture. I want to consider what makes a place thin, and how this description might be helpful (or not).
As always I’m interested in your comments. What do you think of the language of “thin places”? Have you ever experienced something you might call a thin place? Where? What happened?
Stay tuned . . . .

  • Thomas Buck

    I’ve never heard the expression before today. There seems to be no harm in it, as long as people understand it’s not a physical place, but spiritual condition resulting from a gathering of believers. Otherwise it ends up being like the statues of St. Joseph some people bury in their yards to sell their house.

  • Dale

    I think we have to be careful as Christians when we call a place more “Thin” or “holy” than another. We may find ourselves missing out. I think we do the same thing with clergy. If only every place our feet took us were thin. That would be transformed living.

  • Chuck

    While “thin” may be descrictive in a useful way experientially, I would recommend avoiding its use in describing Laity Lodge. In reviewing the Iona website, it looks in someways to be similar to sites that are connected with the Emergent Village in the US. And just as E.V. has hijacked the term “conversation” in such a way that the use of that word to describe an exchange among Christians raises an eyebrow, the term “thin space” may begin to connect Laity to some of the more unorthodox tollerances and liberal causes of Iona.
    I’ll be interested to see where you take this series.

  • Chuck

    While “thin” may be descrictive in a useful way experientially, I would recommend avoiding its use in describing Laity Lodge. In reviewing the Iona website, it looks in someways to be similar to sites that are connected with the Emergent Village in the US. And just as E.V. has hijacked the term “conversation” in such a way that the use of that word to describe an exchange among Christians raises an eyebrow, the term “thin space” may begin to connect Laity to some of the more unorthodox tollerances and liberal causes of Iona.
    I’ll be interested to see where you take this series.

  • Patrick Hare

    I think of the temple and the various altars God commanded his people to build as thin places. I think of the creation in Israel of places where it is said, “This is where we remember that . . .” Jesus declared “where two are three are gathered in my name” to be a thin place, although sometimes it’s hard to discern his presence with all the dysfunction.
    For me, a beautiful sanctuary, moving music, church camp, funerals and geographically stunning locations like Yosemite are thin places – places where I cannot help be struck and moved by the presence of God.
    Which is not to say that God isn’t present everywhere or can’t be experienced everywhere. It’s just my experience that certain places produce a certain undeniability and overwhelming awareness of God’s presence in me.

  • Patrick Hare

    (perhaps less ambiguously, certain places produce in me the awareness of God’s presence)

  • Mark Roberts

    Great comments and questions above. Thank you. I’m stewing on these as a write.

  • Daron

    The whole idea of there being special places where God’s presence is more evident or abundant seems absurd to me, as a Christian, seeing as how God is present in my body in the person of the Holy Spirit, and that to no varying degree. I have the Holy Spirit the whole Holy Spirit all the time. The body of a Christian is the Temple! When you view it this way I suppose “thin places” would make more sense for a person who is not a Christian. For them a “thin place” would be any place where Christians are gathered.

  • Kozak

    Following Daron, I agree that we should not think of “thin places”, frozen in their “thinness”. God should never be distant, since Christ came to earth and promised us that his Spirit would be with us. Indeed, there are those (e.g. Frank Viola) who argue that in Christianity there should be no “holy places”, not even churches.

  • Josh Brage

    I actually kind of enjoy the phrase thin place. It doesn’t cause me to shirk at all. I have heard it used a bunch. There is a 24 hour prayer center in St. Joseph Missouri called The Upper Room. It is a wonderful prayer center. Over the years whenever I am in town I walk in there and you can just immediately feel like God is ready to talk to you. It is a place of so much comfort and immediate peace.
    Onto the topic of should we have thin places. Sometimes when I need to talk to my father about something important (school, life, ministry, etc. . . ) I know that it is best to get him on his deck early Saturday morning or away at this bar we like to spend time at. The places themselves are not terribly special, they are just somehow make it easier for us to communicate and connect. That seems to be the point of a thin place to me.

  • Barb

    unfortunately this makes me think of the “vortexes” that some go to find around Sedona AZ. If there are thin places–then there must be thick places–and I just don’t think that is how the triune God sees our planet.
    If we are new creatures in Christ isn’t every place thin?

  • Barb

    Continuing my thoughts–I think of “retreat” as an action we take rather then a place that we go.
    I love to go to camps and spend my time in the beauty of nature and would gladly live there forever if I could. But in my daily life I must find “retreat” sometimes in the midst of man’s ugliness.

  • Dianne

    I’ve heard of thin places used to describe the energy vortexes in Sedona, AZ – very new-agey. It seems it might be better to talk about me being particularly receptive to God’s presence, rather than a place. Sometimes that’s in a church, sometimes in nature, sometimes in my car at rush hour (really!) Hey, does that mean I can talk about SOMETHING in me that is thin (since I can’t seem to get my body there)? :-)

  • Nathan Roberts

    I think the idea of a thin place in terms of Laity is not bizzare- depending on how we define it. This is because, its not the place itself that God to people, but the whole mindset and atmosphere of a place can create a place where people are more open to God. God can work however he chooses, but we can go to places (“thin” places, you might say) that help us open ourselves up to God’s love and presence. This, I think, would accurately describe Laity.

  • Nathan Roberts

    That brings god closer to people, i mean. :)

  • Jenni Vater

    “Celtic ” services seem to be becoming increasingly popular in the Anglican and Episcopal churches here in the UK. I have heard ministers speak about the thin veil between heaven and earth. An Episcopal Rector lent me a book about celtic worship , the name of which I have unfortunately forgotten, but it bordered on pantheism.There is much emphasis on nature, the sun and moon and old pagan belief. I found it quite disturbing and said so.
    There are many retreat centres similar to Iona, springing up around the country. I will read your blog with interest.

  • Mary liz Kehoe

    My pastor has spoken in his sermons about thin places. Our church is particularly a “thin place” because it is filled with the communion of saints. But for me anywhere my pastor is I would call a thin place. I have never known anyone like him before. The unity of thought, words, and actions between us is phenomenonal. He has tried to figure it out with his analytical skills while I just know the mystery of God is there. He will start talking about something and I will stand there grinning because I have the same witness at the same time. Eugene Peterson calls it homothumadum in his book “The Jesus Way.”

  • Your “Thin Places”? |

  • David Lee Kirkland

    There is quite a vital distinction to be made. It is perhaps even silly to mean by thin place some point, whether time or space, where God is more present. Conversely, it seems perfectly okay to me to understand thin places as places and/or times where the ordinary day to day world does not so insistently try to drown out our openness and awareness to God. To some extent, is not a principal motive in building churches to create thin spaces? Or when ten come together to form a minyan? Or the intensive quiet in a Quaker Friend’s gathering? It is true that certain places can evoke evoke a deeper sense of the awareness of the Other, but whether that happens by accident (a glorious spot in nature) or by intent (which could be architecture, or by meditation or prayer practice,and so on) the idea is simply that in thin places we have (or allow ourselves) greater openness to God.

  • Carmen

    I ran across the concept a couple of years ago and blogged it (here, if you are interested). Bottom line for me is that I think there is both value and caution in the concept. Most of the places we think of as as “thin places” are connected to structures and buildings. They seem to be altars (in the biblical sense) to a certain time and space that call us to remember where and how God acted and the Kingdom breathed. Or, as in case of Laity, a place where that continues to happen. And what I like about that is that I think these “thin places” can call us think about God’s presence and here-and-now Kingdom living. They can remind us to seek out and walk with those in our own time and space, to live together where we are now, to seek what God is doing here-and-now.
    But the caution in all this is not to get too hung up on buildings and structures. I think that if we build or emphasize a place to “contain,” or create (or recreate) Kingdom life, we might be getting it backwards. The Kingdom doesn’t breathe in buildings—-it breathes in people. If our goal is to recreate a certain time and space in which God once acted and the kingdom breathed, we can’t because our time and space is different. And the Kingdom’s skin, by its very nature, changes. And if our goal is to create a place where people can experience God’s action and the breathing of the Kingdom, we must be careful not to think we must go to that place to meet God when he is working and meeting us everywhere we go.
    That said, I see the value in having a place to gather, remember and wrestle with the call to here-and-now Kingdom living. Perhaps, ultimately, when we seek what God is doing here-and-now and live together in that journey, we ourselves become thin places—-those spaces where we feel like God is more vivid, where we notice the Kingdom breathing. And that calls others to God and the Kingdom here-and-now.
    My .02 worth, anyway. Blessings.

  • Brint

    (I suspect Carmen expressed my sentiments much better than I will…)
    I like the covalence of caution and value. When I visited Iona, we weer told about it being a “thin place.” I’m not arrogant enough to say that I am immune to the virus of suggestibility. In truth, while I understood the concept as it was explained, I had no preconceived notion as to what it would look/feel like. But when we set foot on the island, I felt it hard, and it was terrifying — as in, “in the presence the Lord.” Experience alone cannot substitute for critical reflection. But I would submit that, if we are in agreement with Paul as to the reality of our existence (Eph 6:12), is it not reasonable that such forces are sensible to our souls in some measure, at some times, — and in some places? As a missionary in Thailand, returning to my dorm from language school, I walked down streets in Bangkok lined with sex shows, thronged with hawkers, and felt a deep oppression beyond that of simply the heat, the humidity, and the stench of the open sewers. And yes — I would not be reluctant to call that a “thick” place.
    Yes, caution is warranted, lest we seek on our own to create and idolize thin places. Yet, I suggest the same caution is warranted against an approach that would categorically “ghettoize” spiritual realities in a realm beyond our senses, lest we casually ignore a God who, undoubtedly, uses every measure in existence to reach out to us.

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