Thin Places - For the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Transfiguration Sunday) (2/6/05)
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." (Matthew 17:1-9)[NRSV]
It was September of 1981 and we had hiked all the way from Glenns Lake to Stoney Indian Lake in Glacier Park. According to the brief note in my photographic journal, the trek UP over Stoney Indian Pass was so challenging that we were too exhausted to take many pictures. I did manage to note, however, that we had seen a dipper -- a small mountain bird that walks upstream, bobbing up and down in icy mountain flows. Those of you who are birders and maintain life lists will recognize a dipper as something of a big deal, at least for someone from Ohio -- a state with no icy mountain rivers and, therefore, no dippers.
At the end of the day, we collapsed into Stoney Indian Campground, a spot so isolated that we had seen no other hikers all day and would see none until the next evening. Its loneliness was compounded by its treelessness, meaning that it offered no place from which to hang food packs out of the reach of bears.
When you pack into the Glacier backcountry, the presence of grizzly bears dominates your consciousness. You waiver endlessly between a hopeful longing to see one of those magnificent creatures with the silver-tipped fur rise from the ground (in the distance, of course) and a heart-thumping terror that one will choose your campsite as its evening dining facility, leaving no evidence that you were ever there. Needless to say, Stoney Indian, utterly devoid of human artifacts, was at once exhilarating and nerve-wracking.
Perhaps it was the isolation and tension of the place. Perhaps it was the exhaustion from the hike. Perhaps it was the joyful little dipper. But, trite as it seems, I think that it was the view from Stomey Indian that convinced me, maybe for the first time in my life, of the existence of God as Creator and Spirit. As the sun began to set, the puffs of white clouds cast long shadows across the granite mountains, which rise well above the tree line. The mountains stretched and reached and slid across the horizon in shades of purple and gold and gray. The air was still and the space was silent. A space wide and wild enough for God. God may have walked in a garden in the cool of one evening, but I think that God strode across mountains in the twilight of others.
I originally wrote what's above for our church's Lenten devotional booklet last year.
"All things that rise must converge." So Flannery O'Connor titled a short story, although if she borrowed the title from someone else, I can't remember.
Last Sunday, our pastor began to preach on the "thin places." I was baffled for a few minutes, wondering why her theme sounded so familiar. Then she referenced Marcus Borg's description of the thin places, those places on earth where it seems, somehow, that God is much closer than in our usual experience. At that point I knew that I must have heard Marcus Borg himself speak about the thin places,at Chautauqua one summer. (Chautuauqa itself is often one of the thin places.)
Then Sunday evening I picked up the little book that's making the rounds at church for this year's Lenten season: Celtic Prayers from Iona by J. Philip Newell. Iona is a very small island off the west coast of Scotland, where Celtic Christianity was born for Ireland the sixth century. Iona has been described by George MacLeod, the founder of its twentieth century community, as " 'a thin place', in which the material realm is only thinly separated from the spiritual."
This entry represents my own first experience of a "thin place." It seemed appropriate for the day on which the story of the Transfiguration appears in the lectionary texts.