Sunday, 12 October 2014

Transforming the heart: stardust in thin and wild places

Around 15 September I wrote about an epiphanic experience involving the land of my ancestors. For me, the experience of becoming deeply rooted to land and family was unexpected and transformational. It surely involved something of soul or spirit, as nothing tangible was discernible, and certainly not to any observer. So for me, part of this journey was to try and connect this experience with my own faith tradition and spirituality.

The bible, the sacred text of the Christian tradition, is full of stories and laws about special feast days, holy people and sacred places. These sacred places almost invariably happen outside of ordered society, in what the Hebrew language calls ‘in between’ places – that is, places in between civilisation (towns). It is in such wild places that the divine is encountered most often. These places are also ‘in between’ places as they allow the earthly to glimpse the heavenly. Like Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10ff), such places mediate between the divine and the mundane. And no character in the biblical stories ever emerged from such encounters unchanged. Often, the change was formally recognised by a change of name; for example, “Jacob” became “Israel’ after encountering the divine in one of these sacred places.

It is interesting that most of the encounters with the divine are in wild, untamed places, when the bible itself is very keen on ordering chaos and structuring it. God forms the world from its chaotic elements into a world of order and symmetry. As well as Genesis, this fact is mentioned many times in psalms. It is clear that order is good, chaos is bad.

Yet transformation always happens in the biblical story through moments of chaos. When the floods ravage the earth in the story of Noah, it is because the waters of chaos are unleashed by God. In the story of Job, God appears in a whirlwind to disrupt Job’s ordered view of the universe, informing Job that his black and white view of a just universe is wrong; in fact it is a universe of moral ambiguity and random elements. Even the day of judgement itself is structured around chaos involving earthquakes, wars, famines and heavenly portents. It is a dangerous thing to encounter the living God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

The Celtic mystics talked of such wild places as ‘thin places’, a place where the veil between heaven and earth was momentarily lifted and the divine glimpsed. Such glimpses were always transformative for the subject.

In 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.

Sometimes one just walks into a thin place. They can’t always be planned.

Part of the transformative experience for me in this encounter was its unexpectedness. Firstly, the place chose me. Secondly, part of the experience was a mystic one – an experience that was profoundly sacred and revelatory, a transcendent moment that connected me with not only place and family, but with the divine. It was chaotic, not ordered. There in the wild place of the northern Pennines, the veil between heaven and earth unexpectedly and inexplicably lifted and my heart was opened. Lastly, I realised that I was part of a vast array of humanity, an extended family all connected to the earth and each other.

Our communities, whether they be city, suburban or rural, need ‘thin places’, places where spiritual connectedness with earth and community can be felt.
Such places hold a future promise of blessing for the whole of humanity.

By providing us with a conduit to the divine, such places connect us with the breath or spirit of God, the ruach, the divine spark of life that permeates all life.

Many of the psalms speak of this. The most famous is Psalm 104, where in verse 30 the psalmist writes of all creatures:

When you give them your breath, life is created,
and you renew the face of the earth.

The idea that we all contain a spark of the breath or spirit of God is very appealing to me. In Genesis 2:7, God places ‘the breath of life’ into the man.

During the story of the flood in Genesis (see 7:21-22, 7:15 and 7:22, for example), the narrative describes all the creatures of the earth as also having ‘the breath of life’, and in each of these examples the breath is equated with having life itself, and that it comes directly from God. The word ruach in Hebrew means both breath and spirit, and is not just about being alive, but having a spark of the divine within. Elihu, in the book of Job, responds to Job’s challenges to God by informing him that “the Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty has given me life” (Job 33:4 NRSV).

In Isaiah 42:5, The Lord God is described as the one who “gives breath to the people upon [the earth], and spirit to those that walk on it.”

Perhaps it is this divine and creative power, the breath of God, which is the spark that we share in common with all life on our beautiful and complex planet. After all, scientists who study the origins of our universe speak of all life as having atoms of stardust from the time of the Big Bang present in their physical being.

Our physical and spiritual reality is that we all belong to an intricate web of life, and that the well being of humanity is dependent on understanding and appreciating our place in that web of life. By appreciating that all life contains that spark of the divine should more deeply connect us as part of, not apart from, the natural world.

Our relationship with the earth and our natural environment needs to be understood, and nurtured, and felt by us all. For it is only when we recognise that we are in such a web of life, that hope for humanity and the living plants and creatures of the earth will blossom and bear fruit.