Thin Places in times of grief

Tomorrow I preside and preach at a funeral for a man who died suddenly while working out. It is a reminder that no matter how fit and positive your life our bodies are fragile and unpredictable. I am not someone who subscribes to the view “when it’s your time” you die. I will never attempt to dissuade people who hold to this theology, it just doesn’t work for me. For while I believe in Jesus, the dynamic quality of an active Holy Spirit and the love of a Creator who made all things I can’t square the idea of a God who arbitrarily chooses some to live and some to die on some kind of divine whim. “He needed him more than we did” just makes no sense to me. My view is that our bodies are fragile and mortal and thus we live and die in relationship and our covenant with God is to love and act justly in this brief experience we have together.

I sat with the 10 members of this man’s loving family and I saw numbness, shock, pain and disbelief. All of this is completely normal, natural, a part of our human experience. While I do not wish suffering on anyone and believe it is our God-given duty to do everything we can to prevent suffering I do believe suffering is part of the human condition because it brings us to empathy and compassion. At least that is the intent. We all know this is not always the case and I never, ever, judge anyone who is crushed by suffering. Still the people I’ve known to be the most grounded in compassion were people who have experience brokenness and pain and know it in others. Their care and warmth is such that they become a witness to the spirit Jesus lived.

In the midst of the pain we shared in the Chapel that afternoon two comments emerged as bright beacons of healing and light. A brother shared that the man we will celebrate on Sunday was once standing in a field in Europe, in his ancestral “homeland” and felt completely at peace, at one, spiritual, connected to all his kin from generations before. This man had never felt this way before or thereafter. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it transcended everything. He treasured that time.

This man was a believer in Celtic spirituality. A part of that outlook at the world includes the notion of “thin places”. According to legend thin places are locations in landscape where the temporal and the eternal are separated only by a very thin space. The other memorable feature of a thin place is the connection to all things, those who have gone before us, all Creation, all matter created. That feeling, of being connected to all matter, is a deep sense of oneness and peace and it comes to us on those remarkable occasions when we are in the presence of sacred ground.

In my life I have felt this only on a handful of occasions; as a child late at dusk at our cottage in Petpeswick, the garbage burning in two barrels, the water close enough to see every wave, the air pure and the family connections deep. Another time came when I was in Banff walking along the main street, the air cold and pure, I could not breathe in it in enough, the visuals around the town stunning. And the third thin place occurred when we went to China to meet Lucy and I carried her in the snugly up the Great Wall to highest point in that section and I look down on the vista that surrounded us. I was a new Dad, newly connected, and in the place where my daughter was born, there was something magical about that moment that I shall never forget. Those three experiences are seared in my mind, my imagination, forever. I give thanks for those moments.

On Sunday I will remind the grieving family and friends that such moments are a gift and a foretaste of something mysterious and healing.