In the calendar of the church, November 1 is celebrated as All Saints’ Day. (The old name was All Hallows Day. That’s why the night before is called All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en.) For me, as for many, this time of the year in the life of the church is a thin place.
What is a thin place? The term comes from Celtic Christianity, which flourished in Ireland and parts of Scotland, Wales and northern England, beginning in the 5th century. There are many ways of describing “thin places”. Essentially, a thin place is a place or a time or an occasion in which we experience God more closely. The boundary between this world and the next world becomes more permeable. We sense the divine more readily.
Thomas Merton talks about a “world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.” But we don’t always notice God shining in the world. In thin places, we are more readily aware of God’s presence. The veil momentarily lifts and we experience God “more nearly, more dearly, more clearly” in the words of St. Richard of Chichester (1197–1253).
A Celtic saying has it that “heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places, that distance is even smaller.” Contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge writes, “‘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.”
A thin place doesn’t need to be a place, necessarily. It can also be a piece of music, a work of art, or a certain person in whom we experience the presence of the Spirit. For me, mountains are thin places. So is Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony. So is this time of year, All Saints’ Day.
Why this time of year? It’s hard to say, but I have a sense that I’m part of a community which stretches not only around the world, but also throughout time. In this thin place, I ponder the past and give thanks for those saints who have gone before me. I am mindful of all those saints who have peopled my life, and I am grateful.
What is a saint? Laurence Housman, the early 20th century English novelist wrote, “A saint is someone who makes goodness attractive”. Nathan Soderblom, Bishop and Primate of the Church of Sweden from 1914–1931, said that “Saints are persons who make it easier for others to believe in God.” The Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard says that a saint is someone whose life manages to be a “cranny through which the infinite peeps”. That’s a wonderful way of talking about thin places.
In the New Testament, saints are people who have been made holy and who have been made whole by God’s love. A saint is someone loved by God. For me, that includes everyone.
All Saints’ Day becomes a time to remember those who have gone before me who have been thin places in very personal ways in my life.
But there’s something more. All Saints Day reminds me again that the church remembers people differently than the world remembers. Secular history is usually the story of conquerors. The world measures their greatness in terms of power. How many wars have they won? How many peoples have they subdued? Will Cuppy says that Alexander III of Macedonia “is known as Alexander the Great because he killed more people of more different kinds than any other man of his time.”
But the church remembers people differently. We honour those who sought to make the world a better place, who suffered unjustly, who alleviated or prevented the suffering of others. We remember people like St. Hugh of Lincoln. In the 12th century, King Henry II of England elevated Hugh to be prior of a new monastery the king had built. Hugh refused to accept the office until the king housed and compensated every peasant who had been evicted in order to build the new monastery. Imagine what might happen if we held our government accountable in the same way when the homeless are evicted for public spectacles like the 2010 Olympic Games.
In that way, All Saints’ Day renews in me the priorities of the gospel.
I invite you to reflect on the thin places in your own life. Where are the thin places, where your spirit is refreshed and where the door to the threshold of the sacred is opened?
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook