Finding “Thin Places”

by Ruminate Magazine May 31, 2016

I learned about “thin places” on a farm in West Virginia.

I spent a summer there between semesters of grad school, kneeling among vegetables and weeds and groups of students who volunteered in week-long shifts. In the evenings, we asked them to share their experiences of thin places. In the Celtic tradition, thin places are moments in which the space between the material and the divine seems very small. Thin, even.

A delightfully broad range of things emerged. Things like shared tables and spidery toolsheds and afternoon breezes. Things like conversation. Fresh garlic. Old folk songs.

The same image always came to my mind, though. It was always a wrap-around porch, and it was always in the early part of the morning.

The still cool part.

The part with soft sounds on soft floorboards. Ridges that looked like clouds that looked like ridges. Coffee shared among first risers. Too-warm bread and too-sweet honey, never mind the dripping.

I slipped into this space each day before we gathered for prayer and morning chores.

***

It wasn't a ritual that I intended to create.

In fact, it began with a book of beginner’s French.

I would need to pass a language exam in the fall, and I had enrolled—not in the offered summer course—but in eight weeks of garden work and bucket showers, far from campus. Days on the Farm, though wonderfully rich, were long; they left little time for language-learning.

Reluctantly, in anticipation, I began carving a twenty-minute block into the quiet hour between waking and the day’s work to spend with my book.

And a strange and lovely space developed.

For twenty minutes, there were only words and sounds and uncertain hues. I examined vocabulary lists to the rustle of chickens waking. I copied idioms while farm dogs slouched at my feet. I drank two cups of coffee, strong ones, watching hills surface from fog.

I didn’t think about the day’s tasks or the things that I had set aside, ten hours north, for the summer. I copied my words again.

Le matin. Le soleil. Le monde.

“Can I rest in this place?” I began to ask the morning. Every day, I would ask. And, as the summer wore on, “Will you be my thin place? My sacred place?”

The answer was always “Yes, yes!” but it was important that I ask. It was important that I acknowledge my readiness to receive the world in its daily, extraordinary grace. To look for thin places was to engender their presence. To pay attention to them was to create them.

I crawled through only half of my text that summer. I steeped myself in barely blue mornings and the stirrings of the farmhouse as it settled into its rhythm. I found
a here-ness that was fragile but full. It was a place that belonged to me at the same time it remained wholly untethered, ungraspable, and mysterious.

When the summer ended, I tried to carry these mornings with me. Back home and back to school and back to all that I left in these places. They proved difficult to carry, though. My thin places. They asked that I look for them again and again.

***

Two years later, I am living in Portland, Oregon. The mornings are chilly and often damp.

When I can, I wake twenty minutes early. I make strong coffee that will never be as strong as farm coffee. Sometimes I read something, and sometimes I write.

Always I look for those things that tug at the morning's corners, unearthing the light and tranquility that remains available, even readily available, underneath all the rest. Among the day's many parts, this part is as necessary as it is auxiliary. It is fragile and full. It offers.

“Will you be my thin place? My sacred place?” I ask. Every day, I ask.

--------

Anne Boyle is a Campus Minister at the University of Portland. She arrived in the Northwest by way of South Bend, Indiana, where she received her Master of Theological Studies from the University of Notre Dame. Anne also considers herself an occasional gardener, regular writer, and everyday coffee enthusiast.

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