Saturday, 8 December 2012

Finding where heaven and earth hang together

Some of you reading this may be familiar with the concept of “thin places”. Attributed to Celtic Christianity, a thin place is a place where one can catch a glimpse of heaven from the mundane world, where something of the divine is temporarily visible to those of us normally earth bound. On a blog entitled of life, laughter and liturgy, a contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge is quoted with this description:

“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.

It is a fascinating concept, and has gained some currency in mainstream scholarship. The New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, writes about "thin places". He describes them as "anywhere our hearts are opened." Thin places can be actual places, or an activity, such as worship or meditation.

I have experienced thin places a number of times in my life, where the veil between heaven and earth unexpectedly and inexplicably lifted. Sometimes these experiences had the force of an epiphany, at other times were a fleeting and tantalizing glimpse of something numinous and ephemeral.

Sometimes one just walks into a thin place.

It has been our custom when we are at home to support our local Farmers Markets. There are two – one in Wauchope on the 4th Saturday, and one in Port Macquarie on the 2nd Saturday of the month. Today was Port Macquarie’s turn, so we arose from our beds at the ungodly hour of 7.00, with a view to arriving at the markets at 8.00, their normal opening time.

We like to leave early because they are popular markets, and this is the last PMQ one before Christmas. Leave your arrival until 10.00 am, and you may as well park in Wauchope and walk from there.

We have our favourite stallholders that we regularly patronize. The Baba Lila chocolate lady claims I keep her in fuel and milk for a month. Ray, the macadamia farmer (who tried to kill me via a huntsman spider concealed in a package of coffee; but that is another story) supplies us with a kilo of macadamia coffee each month. The gourmet food providores who live locally in Wauchope have the best local cheese, relishes and smoked trout, which is smoked in a real smokehouse near Coffs Harbour. We get organic oranges, garlic, beef and pork from local farmers. And an abundance of fresh produce from various market gardeners, including two parishioners in the Comboyne, who grow exotic things like medlars, sapotes, Chinese raisin tree, ice cream bean and yukons.

The Port Macquarie market also has a blacksmith, crafts, painters, soap makers, homemade candles, jewellery, clothing and a variety of homewares and knickknacks. It is a fine place to visit before Christmas if you are looking for handmade, locally crafted gifts. My daughter and grandchildren have benefitted from these stalls a number of times.

One of the other attractions about this market is the buskers. Sometimes they are quite ordinary musicians, playing guitars and singing. At other times they are more exotic creatures, playing a variety of different instruments. There is an African drummer that that makes a regular appearance who makes and plays his own djembes. There are folk bands with indigenous instruments from around the world. Occasionally someone appears with a didgeridoo. They add to the atmosphere, though somehow I don’t think any of them will retire on their busking procedures.

Today there was someone new, from the town of Bellingen, an interesting community around two hours north of us. Bellingen is something of an aberration in the Mid North Coast, as 26% of its population vote for the Greens. It has a large alternative community.

Walking back up the pathway from inspecting the craft stalls, a very different sound was being carried on the wind. Neither of us recognised the source of the ethereal sounds that wound themselves around us. The music definitely had a strange effect on me, a thin place effect, in fact. Perhaps my brain chemicals changed under its influence. Perhaps I really was feeling something of the divine. It certainly transported me somewhere different.

We found the musician a few yards further on. He was playing a Hang, little known German instrument that was invented in 2000. He told us that it was modeled on the idea of the metal drums of Barbados and the Indonesian Gamelan, after first joking it was his mother’s wok. It is wok-shaped, and looks like two glued together at the rim to form a metal orb. You can see it and read about it here

The Hang was strange enough, but our musician was also a talented didgeridoo player. He also had bells around his left ankle, to give some extra percussive sound. The two instruments together created an extraordinary effect, and the veil lifted. I could feel and glimpse something unearthly, something beyond. I had stepped into a different place, a place where the divine and mundane collided in midair to create something transcendent.

He stopped playing and I bumped back to earth. Our musician, whose name was Jesse, tried to explain that for him, the Hang was somehow unearthly. I suggested ethereal. He agreed. But he also thought that it needed earthing. “That’s why I play the didgeridoo”, he said. “You need to bring heaven and earth together.”

Bringing heaven and earth together. No wonder that music created a thin place. How could it not? As for me, this music somehow made sense of Advent. It wordlessly expressed something of the essence of incarnational theology, where the divine entered the mundane and the word became flesh.

In this world, where things can easily be broken and ugly and miserable, we need thin places. And we need to bring heaven and earth together as much as possible, to create a space where the Advent values of hope, peace, joy and love can sprout and grow and run luxuriantly like a tropical bougainvillea over and through broken lives and despair to bring them life and colour again; a space where we glimpse the kingdom; where we can even reach out and almost touch the face of God.

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