Of late I been more aware of thin places. Places or moments when the veil between the present and eternity is less opaque and even feels almost translucent. When one can feel the rocks singing, or the air shift, or hear the heartbeat of the universe. Some of these are times when you know that you need to remove your shoes because you are standing on Holy Ground.
Last night, in the midst of family Christmas celebrations amid adults talking and children laughing, Pacabel’s Canon in D (the version from Home Alone) caught my attention. A thin place for me. The Canon, that low, steady 8 note progression that opens the music and stays steady and low throughout is the heartbeat of the universe. The lines that come into play as the piece progresses dance like all of creation. Some lower and slower, some lighter and brighter. I feel the creation of the land and the sea, earth and sky. The eternal is present in the here and now.
When I pass by Mother Mary at the entrance to the Blessed Trinity Shrine Retreat (hereafter referred to as Holy Trinity), the air shifts somehow and I know that this bit of east Alabama ground, so close to Fort Benning, is Holy Ground. I’ve known it since my first visit 50 years ago as an undergrad. I’ve felt it on every trip over since that time, even the times when I myself was in a place in life where I felt isolated and miserable and unloveable.
I’m not alone in recognizing Holy Trinity as holy ground. Very likely, it was the sight of the first mass celebrated by Spanish priests exploring the area with DeSoto. It is the place where Fr. Judge lived and worked in his tiny house. Home ground for a lay missionary ground, an order of sisters and one of priests. It seeps a Presence that attracts one to come, and listen.
I’m not much of a fan of Adoration. You know, where Catholics sit in the presence of a consecrated Host. But, I begin to understand a bit if it is a thin place. Not a place where we have God trapped in the Host, but a place and time where the veil between eternal Love and the present begins to disappear snd one can rest in that love.
There are places I would love to visit in this world to see if they are thin places. I’d like to visit Stonehenge to see if the rocks might sing to me. There are places in Ireland I’d like to experience. Would I sense history as I did at Santiago de Compostela at the end of the Camino? Would I know that God is near as I used to sitting in a pew at St. Mary’s? Would I experience the wonder of the gibbous moon looking down at me at 9 am on a clear winter morning?
I’m drawn to return to thin places I already know, and to seek others and stand quietly where the veil is almost drawn back.
I have no idea who Becky Hemsly is, but she speaks to my soul
‘She sat at the back and they said she was shy,
She led from the front and they hated her pride,
They asked her advice and then questioned her guidance,
They branded her loud, then were shocked by her silence,
When she shared no ambition they said it was sad,
So she told them her dreams and they said she was mad,
They told her they'd listen, then covered their ears,
And gave her a hug while they laughed at her fears,
And she listened to all of it thinking she should,
Be the girl they told her to be best as she could,
But one day she asked what was best for herself,
Instead of trying to please everyone else,
So she walked to the forest and stood with the trees,
She heard the wind whisper and dance with the leaves,
She spoke to the willow, the elm and the pine,
And she told them what she'd been told time after time,
She told them she felt she was never enough,
She was either too little or far far too much,
Too loud or too quiet, too fierce or too weak,
Too wise or too foolish, too bold or too meek,
Then she found a small clearing surrounded by firs
,And she stopped...and she heard what the trees said to her,
And she sat there for hours not wanting to leave,
For the forest said nothing, it just let her breathe`
~ Becky Hemsley ~
I sometimes reflect on those times I have known the presence of God in an almost tangible way.
I envy those who remember childhood as a time of safety, innocence and carefree fun. I seek to remember the times I felt that way. Then those feelings of uncertainty, insecurity, fear and just general discomfort arise and run amok over me. My mother once told me she thought me very shy, despite the fact I talked a lot (got teased about it) and I think I was rather outgoing. She once asked me why I always wanted to do things that I was not really good at (mostly athletic/physical pursuits) — implying, correctly, that I seemed disinterested in things where I could excel (intellectual/academic).
In high school I reached a point where I decided that I had to choose: to actually be a Christian or to admit I didn’t believe it and walk away. I had to get off of that fence. It was a pointed picket fence, painted white, in my mind. Coming from the South and good Calvinist roots, I feared blowing off the God of the churches I knew, I didn’t want to go to hell, etc. So, I chose the all-in route. I became some form of “Jesus freak” as it were. Of course, I missed the entire point of the Gospel. I took a rather judgmental approach to life and others. I am sorry for the pain I caused during this part of my journey.
This was an essential step it seems. To decide. To step out. To take a stand. Maybe right choice, wrong reasons. What is clear to me now is that it was more fear driven than anything else. Typical me. At least I was reaching out in some way.
On my religious/faith journey I came to the [Roman] Catholic Church by a crooked path. My first experiences of church were in the Southern Baptist Church (grandparents) and the Presbyterian Church. Both of Calvinist roots. From there I wandered into non-denominational groups as well as Pentecostal churches (I remember the Assembly of God and Church of God); I tried out Bible study with a local Church of Christ. Oh, and then the Methodist Student Center in college alongside the Catholic Student Center.
Ah! 1970s Catholics: people of community and faith who also enjoyed a party, some dancing, a few beers (especially green beer on St. Patrick’s Day) all while exhibiting a deep and abiding faith and dedication to the church (and mass). A new world.
Which leads me to a second moment of decision, under a fig tree. Yeah, I know — the story of Nathaniel is not lost on me.
Sitting under the fig tree that at one time graced the backyard of St. Michael’s church (founded as Sacred Heart Church), I heard the Lord say “You are going to be Catholic.” My response was similar to Moses when he tried to convince God that he wasn’t the right person to lead the Hebrews. In Moses’ words: “Not me, take Aaron!” As a lifelong protestant Christian, this was some serious stuff. (Thoughts here: I’m not becoming some damn Papist… you’re asking me to give up my identity! This is like leaving the church.) Nevermind that I was already starting to go to daily mass, did music for Sunday mass and generally hung out primarily Catholic college students.
God calls. And, in the end, I became a part of the Roman Catholic communion. It took 2 full rounds of Inquiry classes (now morphed into RCIA), and having to convince a priest (or 2) and a couple of nuns that this was the right move. I fully understand their concerns, but I also have learned that God draws straight with crooked lines (was that Vincent de Paul who said that?).
Fast forward past college graduation, grad school, marriage and becoming a mother. Fast forward through moving back to Auburn. Much frustration and probably some depression. A sense of inner deadness.
All I can say is be careful with what you ask for. In the confessional, trying to get past the dead feeling, my ask was to “widen the parameters” — I guess that was a cry to help be open up and look closely at where I was. Be brave. It was a time where I truly felt Jesus in the room. I felt I could reach out and touch Him. And, my world went upside down, inside out — a swiftly tilting planet as it were.
I wish I could say it was the beginning of a time of smiles and joy and more. Not so much. Confronting oneself is not an easy task. It was at times quite painful. I shut down many things that I couldn’t handle. But I found someone inside that I finally liked.
Not long after, I felt the wrath of an ultra-conservative group within the parish enabled by a new priest. Another call, another step. Another process.
One Saturday evening I took myself to a new and strange [to me] parish. Small space. The original Catholic church in the county. No music beyond the priest leading singing acapella. Music has always been an important part of liturgy to me. And yet, it was right. I went up to communion. When I returned to my seat, I promise you, it seemed to me that Jesus was waiting. I sat down and it felt like an arm was around my shoulder and a voice whispered in my ear: “Welcome home.”
It took another 18 months to completely move into this new home. It took a long penance where the music I led at mass was a prayer for those who I felt persecuted me. This time it seems I lost my parish and found my church. That Church is much, much larger than a parish. But this move was one done in love, not fear.
Themes I notice: sitting (sitting on a fence, sitting under a fig tree, sitting in a confessional, sitting in a pew); loss; stepping out;
We don’t go to heaven; we learn how to live in heaven now. And no one lives in heaven alone. Either we learn how to live in communion with other people and with all that God has created, or, quite simply, we’re not ready for heaven. If we want to live an isolated life, trying to prove that we’re better than everybody else or believing we’re worse than everybody else, we are already in hell. We have been invited—even now, even today, even this moment—to live consciously in the communion of saints, in the Presence, in the Body, in the Life of the eternal and eternally Risen Christ. This must be an almost perfect way to describe salvation itself.
I have long struggled with the Catholic concept/construct of Purgatory. But, this somehow made sense. One must learn to live in heaven and if that is not accomplished here in our walk on earth, it still must be learned.
How to do that? How to truly be connected with others and in full communion is difficult for me. I do feel left out often. And like most of us (I suspect) I wish to be accepted. It seems though that this is the wrong focus. First I must learn to accept and connect with others. First do what I want others to do. The ultimate Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or better, be for others what you would have them be for you.
Ouch. Be the Good Samaritan and reach out to help someone who is not “one of us.” Or, be the man in the ditch, and accept help from an unexpected, and perhaps unwanted, source. Be Jesus or Peter learning that the message of the Gospel is not just for the Chosen People but available to the Gentiles. Be the lily in the field who must bloom where planted or not grow at all.
I love the concept, true. But, I really have a problem with so many people. I agree that I need to love those who hold different ideals than I do. But, Lord! help me to see how to do so. I so cannot condone some of the things that they hold sacred. I react to the hatred and meanness as a human. How do I get beyond this?
Too many questions without sound answers. No, too many questions without concrete answers. I must take each instance as it comes to me and find the way through. It does seem that this might be an answer in itself: to recognise that what folks want is a concrete, single way through the messiness. So we are all in this together after all.
It strikes me that as we are created in the image and likeness of God that a driving part of that image and likeness is the need to create. Maybe it’s just the urge to create, but I think it is truly a need to create. That is the source of economic systems, the source of personal growth, the source of a conquering mentality. Where we have failed to understand this need is not capitalism, socialism or communism. It is not in building and consuming. It is in the misalignment of these urges with our primary call: stewardship of the world we live in.
Stewardship means we create a space for ourselves with the understanding that we are one, that to destroy the world in the search to create wealth or comfort or the illusion of power is a misdirection of the need to create.
All this social distancing and its associated “quarantine” way of life offers, no, it demands, some serious reflection on how things are. It gives a space to learn what it is to Be instead of just to Do. In that space, I can hope to learn that I cannot possess God/Eucharist/Christ/a good prayer life/love/peace/mass… What is possible is that I can experience the presence of these “things.” I cannot possess God. I can only experience the Presence and experience the love, peace, joy that the Presence brings. I cannot possess the Eucharist. I can experience gratitude, thankfulness and joy that sharing in Eucharist can provide. I cannot own a good prayer life. I can experience the practice and its benefits.
In other words, no matter what I Do, in reality I can only Be. A wonderful, spiritual man from my past taught that we are not human doings, we are human beings. What freedom that can bring! Yes, we do many things. We must! We must act out our being. Just know that Doing is only a result of Being.
When I do hurtful things, I can apologise. That is necessary. But, it will happen over and over again until the Being that hurts others is healed and rests in the experience of being healed. I cannot possess virtue, but I can experience virtue and the benefits of being virtuous.