Thin Places, Sacred Spaces
Gazing across the valley after you’ve climbed a mountain. Listening to birds chirp as the sun rises slowly over a lake. Sipping coffee in the silence of my classroom, anticipating the day ahead. Sitting for hours, absorbed in conversation with good friends.
These are the places I find God.
In her book Faith Unraveled, theologian Rachel Held Evans describes the world she believes God wants for us, the “kingdom that Jesus had embodied and talked about and showed [us] how to create, […] a kingdom in which the veil between the physical world and the spiritual world would evaporate to make every space a ‘thin space.’”
I stumbled upon these words during a recent relational trip to El Salvador and was struck by the compelling similarities between Evans’ description of the world as it should be and what I was encountering on my trip. I was particularly drawn to this idea of a thin space where the boundaries between the physical and spiritual collapsed, spaces where, I imagined, God felt close enough to touch. Yes, I thought to myself, this is exactly how I feel when I’m watching the sunrise or lost in conversation with good friends. More importantly, I recognized, it was exactly how I was feeling each day in El Salvador. God was present in a way she had not been in a while.
Thin places, I later learned, originated in Celtic spirituality, unsurprising to anyone who has hiked Croagh Patrick or visited the Cliffs of Moher. According to Celtic lore, although heaven and earth are always close to one another (only ever three feet apart), in these thin places, the human and divine draw even closer. These moments of compression make God palpable. And because of God’s closeness, author Eric Wiener writes, “we become our most essential selves” in these places.
I love everything about this idea. God, drawing near, making her presence felt.
This past school year was particularly challenging for me. Being a teacher always has its challenges, but something about this school year broke me down in a way I didn’t expect. In many ways, it felt as if God was pushed further away from me rather than closer. I struggled to find joy. I struggled to love my students. I struggled to feel anything other than desolation. I felt as if I lost track of me.
El Salvador healed me. In this place, God felt close enough to touch and I found myself becoming, once again, my most essential self.
I’m not sure quite why I was so surprised by this. El Salvador has always been a thin place for me. During my first visit to the country in 2013, I felt God draw close in a new way. I experienced what I can only describe as the physical presence of the Holy Spirit in two distinct locations: as I stepped onto the altar where now Saint, then Archbishop, Oscar Romero was assassinated and as I entered the room where Elba and Celina Ramos were brutally murdered at the University of Central America. In both places, the air felt thicker and upon entering, my heart felt different than it had before. God was present and reaching out to me here.
This year, however, my experience changed. This year, the entirety of El Salvador was a thin place for me. The trip was awash in moments where God felt closer than usual. This year the distance at every place, not just a select few, collapsed around me in the way that Evans describes. God drew near and my heart felt different on this trip than it had felt in a long time.
I encountered God in so many simple moments:
- A Salvadoran girl breaking off pieces of her Laffy Taffy to share with us when we visited her home, eager to connect with us
- An American high school student pulling items out of a shopping bag one by one to share with a Salvadoran family, naming each item in simple Spanish
- Late night conversations with the young people who accompanied me, discussing faith, scripture, and why encounters like ours mattered
- Students (American and Salvadoran) wading hand-in-hand into the ocean, strangers to one another just an hour before, brought together by the simple act of burying one another in the sand
- The celebration of the birthday of a young man named Daniel, eating cake on his birthday for the very first time and then demanding all the American students dance with him
- A mother matter of factly sharing how she travels 4 or more hours a day to work in the city, making money so that her children can attend college, her love and pride humbly present
- Our translators working tirelessly to make every person they encountered feel valued, loved, and heard, American and Salvadoran alike
- The dance party on the last night where students dropped their inhibitions and gathered in sweaty joy with one another
- Unexpected friendships and encounters with people who reminded me of who I am and what I believe in
In each and every one of these moments, God was so close, I could touch her. I can say without a doubt in my mind that I reencountered God in the people of El Salvador.
In her book Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown defines spirituality as: “recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion.”
This is what I lost during the school year and what El Salvador returned to me. So often class felt like a battle, conversations felt disconnected, and I felt like the power that drew me to teaching all of a sudden started pushing me away. I lost the inextricable connectedness that ties me to God and others. I kept looking for God in place I most often find her, in the people around me, but seemed to always come up short.
But in El Salvador, encounter after encounter was infused by God. In each thin space encounter, each moment of connection, I found a recognition that I am linked by love and compassion to everyone around me.
The space collapsed and I was home.