There are a few basic tasks that traditionally have been associated with Lent. Many of these have a long history. These include fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. In addition, reading the Scriptures and the Church’s Writings can help one grow during the season. While I haven’t seen fasting and additional almsgiving generally practiced in our contemporary culture, and I confess those are not my practices either, I do try to take the time for additional reading and prayer.
My devotional reading this Lenten season is taking me into the world of Celtic Spirituality, a mindset of practices and beliefs reaching back to the 5th century, originating with the Celts in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. In those days, it was said that these people lived at the “edge of the world”, where the Atlantic Ocean pounds relentlessly against the rocky outcroppings, and all is that is visible is the vast, boundless ocean, often shrouded with cloud and fog. It was the edge of mystery, the gateway into an unknown and unseeable world. It was here that Christianity arrived to meld with the traditional songs and lore and myth. Celtic mysticism is said to become the unique portal into the mysteries of the Spirit.
Among the traditions of Celtic Christian spirituality is the concept of “thin places”. Geographically, to the ancients, the “thin place” was a sacred site where it was said that “the veil that separates our world from the otherworld…is particularly thin”. Others have described a thin place as a location or moment in which our sense of the Sacred is more pronounced, where the space between the transcendent and the commonplace is exceptionally narrow. Another description for these “thin places” is “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses”, as Eric Weiner puts it in his spirituality travelogue, Man Seeks God. They’ve been called “the places in the world where the walls are weak”, where another dimension seems nearer than usual. Or in perhaps more Americanized terms, it is a place where one feels especially the presence of God.
These “thin places” are far more than simply a geographic location. In fact, it is likely that we have all experienced thin places somewhere, sometime, in our lives – those mystical, unexplainable touches with the divine that both test and strengthen our faith. They often find us when we least expect them. The most vivid “thin place” for me was in the small town of Assisi, Italy. As a 21-year-old student, I had the opportunity to take my senior year of college in Germany, with a schedule that encouraged independent travel. Over the Thanksgiving break, I went with my roommate to visit the northern part of Italy. Having recently seen the Franco Zeffirelli film, Brother Sun and Sister Moon, a lush and moving account of the story of St. Francis, I was eager to see the place for myself. Upon walking from the town to the basilica of San Damiano (a significant place in Francis’ faith journey), I experienced what I can now only term as a “thin place”, where I experienced the presence of God as I had never felt it before. Truly God was in that place. And upon returning some 40 years later, with my youngest child, I again felt the overwhelming sense of peace and closeness to God in that city that I seldom find in daily life.
As we look at our gospel reading this morning, I can’t help but wonder if Mark isn’t taking us along with Jesus to some Biblical “thin places”. Mark, in his brevity, first recounts the baptism of Jesus. Here he tells us that ‘the heavens were torn apart, and the spirit descended like a dove” upon Jesus. The voice of God came from heaven to declare Jesus, the Beloved. In Weiner’s words, here in the River Jordan, the distance between heaven and earth collapsed; where God was actually present in the form of a dove and in the voice from above. Scripture is not clear who was present, other than John, and who, if anyone else heard God’s words, but I can’t help but wonder that those who might have been present at the time, recognized the nearer presence of God in the earth. Perhaps even, John’s encampment along the river, in the Judean wilderness, was not unlike the later rocky outcroppings that so mesmerized the early Christian Celts.
No sooner than does John baptize Jesus, he goes out into the wilderness; compelled by the what we take to be the Holy Spirit. The Greek word is ek-ballei, which means a compelling, aggressive pressure. Having blessed him, God now sends Jesus away to prepare for his forthcoming ministry. This “wilderness” is thought to be a place between the Jordan and the Dead Sea, a rough and mountainous area, likely with little water or consumable vegetation, and which is understandably destitute of any human inhabitants. It is here that Jesus spends 40 days, perhaps reminiscent of the 40 years in the wilderness and would commemorate our later Lenten journeys.
But here too, Jesus finds himself in a “thin place”, one of many places where the space between him and the father would break open. In this desert space, however, Jesus finds himself not close to his Father, yet does not find himself alone. For in this barren space, he is visited first by Satan, the perverse adversary of his Father and indeed, his own foe. In this thin space, Satan is able to see into the soul of Jesus, he is aware of his humanity and capitalizes upon it. He knows the temptations that are common to humankind, and in Jesus loneliness and isolation in the wilderness, he attempts to appeal to the human nature of the Son of God. While Mark does not mention the outcome, we know that he was able to resist.
Additionally, Mark tells us that he is also accompanied by wild beasts, which I find interesting given the brevity of Mark’s account. Mark may well have wanted to use wild animals to signify the dangers Jesus often faced. And to remind us that, because God was with him — as God is with us — Jesus was able to overcome these dangers.
It is tempting to believe that God was absent in all of this. None of gospel accounts mention the presence of the Father. I think we have a tendency to consider Jesus’ time in the wilderness a time when God abandoned him in the desert, left to his own devices to do battle with Satan. Yet Mark reminds us: through it all, angels; God’s messengers, attended to him. They were there the whole time, throughout the forty days.
Jesus found himself in the thin places, and despite the difficulty, was able to withstand the temptations that confronted him. In the thin place that was his baptism, he was able to recall his Father’s commission, and draw strength from that. He was aware of his Father’s messengers who were present with him in that place. And Jesus would go forth from the wilderness, to proclaim the good news of God; while taking time throughout his ministry to seek the thin places where he could be renewed, refreshed and restored to continue the work and word of God.
So, in this season of Lent, in all the seasons of our life, where might we find our own “thin places”? The former director of our Presbyterian Conference Center at Zephyr Point likens the Celtic spiritual idea of “thin places” when talking about the palpable sense of God’s presence on the shore of Lake Tahoe. He says, “The Celts believed that there are places of grandeur around the world, ‘thin places,’ where the fabric between heaven and earth is very thin. In these places people can more easily encounter God, see God better and re-envision their relationship to God. Truly, the air is much thinner at that altitude. It is also a place where there are spaces and opportunities to find that closer presence of God on earth.
I have begun to think that here in the mountains of Virginia City, in this building, built for the glory of God, is a “thin place”. We have joked in the past that our geographically closer to God at this altitude, and thus, God can better hear our prayers. But on a more serious note, I have a sense that this is a place where the spiritual curtain has been drawn back, and we come into a tangible, yet spiritual, presence of God. We know for a fact that so many times the prayers we raise are answered in the affirmative; leading us to the sure knowledge of God’s presence with us.
I would challenge you this Lenten season to seek that “thin space”, a place where you can come into the closer presence of God on earth. To come to God with all your burdens, temptations and cares. To find a place, whether in a physical space or spiritual, where you can be assured of God’s love and care for you. Rest assured, it is there. God is waiting to meet you. Go in God’s grace. Amen.