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Only Three Feet Apart

I met with “Jack” yesterday for spiritual direction. The Zoom call was especially glitchy, which always creates a bit of anxious frustration in me as I seek to be a good listener. Jack and I have been meeting for nearly 10 years. Many of those years were in person. However, a few years ago, he remarried and moved to Chicago. Hence the tenuous virtual meetings we’ve both learned to endure.

By biological standards, Jack is an older new father. He has two children, a boy and a girl under five. What he lacks in the stamina of youth, he makes up for with the wisdom that comes from life experience—both its joys and sorrows.

Yesterday we found our way to talking about how his mornings begin. It’s not uncommon in a spiritual direction meeting to begin a conversation in one spot, only to be surprised that the focus has settled in a spot neither planned, nor pursued. I suppose that’s evidence of the Spirit’s leading and tending in and between us.

Jack described how he got up each morning with his son and let his wife sleep in since she got up in the middle of the night to care for their infant daughter. He and his son would then spend the next 30-40 minutes waking up as they watched a PBS kid’s show.

As he recalled this daily rhythm, his gaze softened and shoulders relaxed on the screen. He then said, “It’s a really thin place.”

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the expression, my guess is that you’ve experienced it at some time in your life. One way to think of a thin place is to notice when in a place and the veil between the physical and the spiritual, the mortal and eternal, becomes almost transparent. It describes the Celtic awareness that, “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in a thin place the distance is even shorter.”

Jack went on to recall how when he tucks his children into bed at night he has the same sense. It’s another thin space, bookending his days with a fatherly moment that transforms a routine task into a sacred moment. How many parents experience this typically exhausting morning and evening ritual as a thin place?

It reminded me of the story of Jacob as he traveled toward Haran. As dusk approached he settled down to rest. He found a comfortable rock (Is there such a thing?) and fell asleep. At some point in the night, he had an unusual, divinely inspired dream. The next morning as he woke up, he told himself, “God was in this place and I didn’t know it!” A thin place.

After I listened to Jack’s experience and his description, I told him that God had given him “holy imagination” to see what so many other parents were unable to see. Instead of a cranky, groggy, hungry toddler, he and his son experienced the moment as a thin place, a holy moment.

So what is this capacity I’m calling “holy imagination?” First, imagination is not the same as make-believe or pretending something is real that is not. Imagination is a gift of knowing, and perceiving, or in other words another or parallel way of knowing something to be true or real or significant. It’s a “felt knowing” or a “sensed knowing” that registers in the right side of the brain, which is the visual, imagistic center of experience. This type of knowing precedes what we typically view as knowledge. This knowing is not dependent on words to validate its weight or meaning.

So in the end, our imagination can be viewed as another of God’s amazing gifts that can be cultivated and exercised. But how do we do that? That’s my second point. In light of encountering a thin place, we could just wait until we find ourselves accidentally in some place that seems to register as having the qualities I mentioned above. In fact, that’s typically what we do find happening. We’re almost entirely passive until the sensation of a thin place hits us unexpectedly. But what if there are far more thin places than (you guessed it) we have imagined? How can I increase my sensitivity and attunement to that possibility? I’d suggest that this capacity requires time, presence, openness, curiosity and the courage to see something new, or something old in a new light. Otherwise, we will likely rush past what might become to us a parting of the veil between the physical and the spiritual.

I’ve continued to think about Jack’s thin places. I’ve always thought of a thin place as somewhere. I’ve experienced places like that and they stay with me. Pure gift. Mystery made geographically local.

But what Jack’s experience offered to me was an invitation to see that any experience, activity, or event can be a thin place. My conversation with Jack stoked my imagination to be on the lookout for other thin places throughout the mundane meanderings of my day.

It made me reframe an experience recently when Beth and I went to the hospital to be with Harper during her chemo treatment for leukemia. We played a game, chatted with her and Brandt, amidst alarms beeping and a baby crying in distress up the hall. We ate chocolate chip muffins that Beth had baked for our little girl and enjoyed the shared snack as if it were holy communion. It was wonderful. And now I have a name for the experience. A thin place. A “God is in this place” experience.

Thanks, “Jack.”

Note: As spiritual directors we are dogged about protecting the privacy of those we meet with. “Jack’s” name has been changed and his permission was granted for the writing of this piece.


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