On Heaven’s Edge
[Gen.22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Rom.8:31b-34; Mk.9:2-10]
‘Stop the car!’ my wife said, as we drove through the red desert of outback NSW. She got out and mysteriously vanished down a track.
I was quite bewildered then, but I understand now. She had been drawn towards a sacred space where she had an intense spiritual experience. She had found a ‘thin place’, a holy moment where the gap between heaven and earth is so thin that she briefly experienced God’s awesome presence.
This idea of ‘thin places’ comes from the ancient Celtic Christians. They had a saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that gap is much narrower. In Gaelic, they call it caol áit (‘kweel awtch’). [i]
The poet Sharlande Sledge describes it this way:
‘Thin places,’ the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy. [ii]
A ‘thin place’ is a time, place or event where the veil separating heaven and earth is lifted, and just for a moment a person gets a taste of God himself.
The author Mary DeMuth describes thin places as ‘snatches of holy ground, tucked into the corners of our world, where we might just catch a glimpse of eternity. They are aha moments, beautiful realizations, when the Son of God bursts through the hazy fog of our monotony and shines on us afresh…’ [iii]
My mother experienced this once, in her lounge room. For only an instant, she said, an invisible veil lifted in front of her and she found herself surrounded by hundreds of shimmering, fluttering angels. It was a moment of mystical wonder at heaven’s edge, and it filled her with immense joy. But it didn’t last.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus goes with three disciples to pray on Mount Tabor. This must have been a ‘thin place’, because Peter, James and John briefly witness Jesus talking with Moses and the prophet Elijah. They’re dazzled as the light of God’s glory shines through Jesus’ face, and his clothes are as bright as the sun. For only a moment they see Jesus as he truly is: The Son of God.
Peter wants this moment to last forever, and suggests that they stay. But such mystical moments aren’t meant to last. Their purpose is to give us a taste of God’s awesome reality and to encourage us in our journey towards heaven.
So, Jesus and his disciples leave the mountain.
But where might we find these ‘thin places’ today? They can be anywhere. For some people, they’re in sacred places like St Peter’s in Rome, or in Bethlehem, Lourdes or Fatima. However, you really don’t have to travel far to find them.
They can also be on a beach or in a park close to home. And our experiences can be thin places, too, wherever we are. Listening to inspiring music or seeing a remarkable painting can transport us to heaven’s edge. So can sickness, grief and suffering.
I once experienced one of these mystical moments after Mass in our Cathedral, and the feeling was almost electric. But if you think about it, this shouldn’t be so surprising because everything about the Church and the Christian life aims to help us find thin places.
Consider the silence, the prayers, the music, the art, the Holy Eucharist, and of course, the Bible itself. All these things are thin places, inviting us to encounter the awesome mystery of God.
Indeed, the sacraments are thin places. Many people sense that something very special happens at baptisms, weddings and at Mass, for example, but they can’t quite explain it. That’s because God is always present at these times.
No-one can control when or where they experience such mystical encounters; they are always a gift from God. It’s God who decides how he reveals himself to us.
But we can make ourselves more open to them. We can do this by creating more space for peace, quiet and reflection in our lives; by slowing down our lives, and taking more time to pray; and most especially, by opening our hearts to Jesus, because that’s the one place where God most wants to be.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘There’s an indefinable, mysterious power that pervades everything. I feel it, though I don’t see it. It’s this unseen power that makes itself felt and yet defies all proof, because it’s so unlike all that I perceive through my senses. It transcends the senses.’
Lent is the ideal time for us to think about thin places.
Let’s prepare our hearts and minds for a mystical visit from God.
[iii] Mary E DeMuth, Thin Places: A Memoir. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI. 2010.