Sunday, September 6, 2009

Portal to Another Place

Using a term sometimes found in Celtic spiritual writings, people talk about "thin places". A thin place is found intuitively. The philosophy behind it is that we usually live in the material world, but behind, or around, or surrounding that world is a realm of spiritual reality; a place when the Divine presence is deeply present. A thin place is a spot where the usual separation between these two 'worlds' is much less opaque and where it is easy to see through the material to the spiritual.

Some people call Holy Cross a thin place. It's not unusual for us to have people tell us that the first time they turned off the highway into our driveway and started down the hill to the monastery they had a sense that they were entering a place that was 'deep' or 'spiritual' or just 'special'. This weekend several people spoke of our monastery church in these terms. We have a place here that seems to promote the experience of the divine - a place that is "thin".

But there are thin places all around. There are even thin moments - a bit of time that catches you up and carries you away and then deposits you gently back where you came from, leaving you wondering why you never saw things that way before.

I'm thinking about one particular moment when I was in New York City a couple of weeks ago. I've already written about the 2 museum exhibitions that Adam and I visited and the deep impact both of those made on me. But there was another place, one that I wasn't expecting.

We had decided to see a show one night, and went around to the discount ticket place and got a couple of seats to the musical "Chicago". Then we were looking for somewhere to have dinner - a place that would be good but wouldn't cost the earth. As we were walking along, pushing our way through throngs of busy (and loud) people we passed a little church. It was St Malachy's, the "Actors Chapel". I've heard of it in the past, and knew of its work with theater people, but I don't think I've ever been inside it. I'm not really sure I've ever even been past it.

It was a warm day, and the light was fading towards evening. It was pretty hot. The door to the church was open and the interior was dark, but you could see candles burning inside. Then we noticed a sign that said "Adoration this evening", and gave the hours. One or the other of us said: "Let's go in". So we climbed the stairs to the front door and went in.

The church was dark. Candles burned on a small altar in the center of pews that were turned partly inward to make a sort of semi-circle a facing it. Back behind this arrangement more candles burned on a larger altar. A few people knelt there - mostly women. On the smaller altar in the center was the gold monstrance that held the host (consecrated wafer). In the belief of most liturgical Christians, the bread from the Eucharist, or Mass, is a place of encounter with the actual presence of Christ, and in some places the bread is put out like this for adoration of the presence of Christ.

I haven't been to Adoration in a long time. It used to be a fairly popular service, at least in some circles, but it fell out of use for some years. Now it is enjoying something of a resurgence. I'm familiar with the arguments for and against it, many of which go back into the Middle Ages. I'm not a regular devotee of Adoration, but I have attended from time to time.

Old instincts took over. We genuflected, got into a pew and knelt. I found myself with my wrist beads in my hand. "Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy." We knelt there for a while - I don't really know how long, but a while: long enough to get around 23 beads, and a while longer. It was very quiet and very focused in that church. People were there because God was very near.

After a while it felt like we were finished, so we went back out into the street. The same crowds, the same shoving and shouting, the same chaotic jumble, with people tired from the day trying to get somewhere. Adam and I resumed looking for a restaurant. But those few moments changed something in me. I'd entered into a thin place and it had touched me. I had settled and had been gentled down. I threaded my way through those streets with more gentleness and less impatience. There was peace in that church and it had entered my heart so that I could take it with me. The spiritual journey is often made up of transformational moments like this.

I've been looking for other moments since then, and I discover - rediscover - that they're there, if you just look:

- the day that the weather changed here from hot and humid to cool and crisp. Our first fall day. The sky was deep, clear blue from horizon to horizon. The kind of day on which the Tibetans use the sky for meditation, seeing in that clear expanse a reflection of the Presence that they seek in prayer. On the horizon was one tiny cloud, floating there all by itself. It stopped me in my tracks while I was walking from one building to another. It pulled and called to me for adoration, just like that church in New York. I had stumbled into a thin moment.

- one night last week I was sleepless and toward midnight I sat on our roof. The nearly full moon floated high above me and just at its feet was Jupiter, bright and steady. The two of them journeyed across the sky together. The river flowed along, gently ruffled by the wind. The world was mostly silent, with an occasional passing truck or car. And there a depth of peace. I love praying in the middle of the night, because at that time I find the access to that presence very easy. I once lived with a community that prayed every night at 2 am. I was with them for about 7 months, I think, and in the midst of it I had a conversation with the priest who was my spiritual director during those months. He said I looked quite good and I thanked him and said that I really was good. He said: "That must be because you are living a life according to nature." I wonder how many people would feel that getting up every morning at 2 was "a life according to nature", but that was, in fact, how it felt. God was very close.

The more often I look, the more often I find places and times that are thin. I find them in familiar and unfamiliar places. I find them in the eyes of friends or strangers. I find them in moments of relaxation and at times when I'm frantically busy. I think the truth is that God is always reaching out to us. I think all of the world and all of time is "thin". But we have to learn to see it.

That's why we pray - to learn how to be open to the God who is everywhere we go.

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