Thin Spaces

Thin spaces are those places in your life where the separation between the ordinary experiences of life seem thin, almost transparent, to the Presence of God. It’s those places where your mind and spirit are centered and settled enough to be able to see the divine shine through in a glimpse of the Holy. Thin spaces.

I have a few “go to” places that have provided that “thin space” for me in the past. Fortunately,  I have been blessed to have many traditional places in my life designed for such an encounter, such an awareness of  the Holy within a moment. Traditionally, these places are called churches. I have found all but one of the churches where I have served to be natively conducive to such moments of sensing the Holy, the numinous. But as I have aged, I find have found other spaces and times that make that happen for me.

The first “thin space” I remember is the Chapel at Callaway Gardens., located in middle Georgia. This chapel has a Gothic feel of tradition, set in a pastoral setting of trees beside a lake. I discovered it first on a family vacation one summer. You reach this chapel after driving through a labyrinthian road, ending up in a rather non-descript  parking area. After wandering down a path along a babbling creek, one emerges to a clearing in front of a lake where the chapel stands. Within the stone chapel, the pilgrim is bathed in light streaming through stained glass. The details are sketchy but I distinctly recall a sense of the Holy, standing there in my prepubescent innocence. That primary experience has repeated itself in other such human-built structures, designed by architects to promote such thin space encounters. This particular space turned out to be designed by a man who I was lucky enough to befriend later in my life, Ed Moulthrop, noted Georgia Tech professor but more importantly, a world class woodturner of bowls, a sacred object in itself.

At a time when I was wrestling with my choices as to how to spend my time and energy as a human, the Chapel at the Trappist monastery in Conyers gave me the same gift of thin space. The stained glass there is designed to allow the movement of the sun to light the space in changing hues corresponding to the time of day. I spent hours in that cavernous space, sometimes surrounded by hooded monks, sometimes in solitude, with varying experiences of the Holy. I return when I can, remembering the spirits of those monks who supported me in my pilgrimage. The magical mystery spirit of the space remains.

Thanks to my grandfather, nature has always provided “thin” moments. There are so many places that have become momentary oracles of the divine presence that it’s hard to name them all. A smattering in order to catch the variety would have to include the Georgia early spring landscape that my friend, John Miner, and I called “turkey woods”, the coastal dunes of Cumberland, the mountain stream in my backyard in Ellijay,, the trails of the Chattahoochee, the big water of Twin Bridges, Montana, the coast of Stonington, Maine, the march grass of St. Simons Island. These are places that speak to me of the First Incarnation of God’s Presence in Nature, the original blessing that I claim. I am thankful that my soul is tuned to resonate in its vibrations.

You may find it strange but another “thin place” for me has been golf courses, from College Park Municipal to Augusta National. My dad gave me the gift of golf by introducing me early to this inexorable fate called golf. The places the game is played holds a special place in my psyche, linking me to my Scottish roots in the lowlands of the isles. My family of McBrayer and Galloway  link me to the town of Dumfries, a son of the South even in Scotland. Golf courses have an unmistakable feel of the holy, though I have done some rather unholy things there, that will remain under the seal of confession to the golf gods.

I was fortunate to work at a golf course as a kid, connecting me to the actual linkage of the agronomy and eco-culture that participates in the magic that surrounds golf. I have been fortunate to play this game on spectacular landscapes as well as some pasture-like courses in Georgia and Texas. The cathedral of Augusta National in the epiphanic Spring has been a locale where I have watched others play the game as well as been able to play in Camelot myself. I was fortunate to call Settingdown, an intentionally designed Scottish link course home for a while, thanks to my friend, Richard Perry, or as he is known to me, The Blessed Verger Perry.

After college, my brother, Mitch, Eddie Owens, and I joined East Lake Golf Club, the course that was where my hero, Bobby Jones, grew up. There, late afternoons in the winter, walking the back nine in solitude, I swear Bobby would commune with me, urging me to master not only the game of golf, but life. Don’t let this get around, but I regularly visit his grave at Oakland Cemetery every so often  just to square up my stance. It is a favorite thin space in the heart of my city.

Thin spaces happen for me with God’s creatures as well. Dogs have been a special gift to me, communicating a love and playfulness that I wish that I could replicate in my being in the world.. Horses,, in full gallop or merely walking, with me riding or not. Birds, of all types, but particularly a blue bird on a Texas Spring day. Hawks circling the valley over Winchester, viewed from the ridge of the Holy Mountain of Sewanee. A chance sighting of a bear while on the Appalachian Trail. And any owl, that reminds me to pause and look around. These have been my spirit totems, conveying  a sense that there is “more”.

Thin spaces that surprise me, shock me, or touch me in unplanned, non choreographed ways. A scene of stellar acting in a play, movie or drama. A performance of music to goes deeper than perfection, down to the heart of the matter. A turn of phrase in a poem. It can even happen on a Tuesday night with a soul wrenching episode of This Is Us.

So I’ve been talking about my special places where God’s presence seems to break in, or through, to me, and sometimes, for me. Thin spaces. I’ve been told it’s a  Celtic thing, a tradition of the Isles, but I think it’s a human thing, available to all who would take the time to look, and moreover, to see.

What about you? Where are your special places, or circumstances, where you feel a connection that reminds you of a deeper or larger reality? Where do you go to catch a glimpse?

Do yourself a favor. Take it from me. Pause. Take some time to take an inventory of those places and bathe in the moment.

2 thoughts on “Thin Spaces

  1. The monastery at Conyers was a thin place when I lived in Atlanta. I just spent the weekend at one of those places for me here, the Benedictine Abbey of Saint John in Collegeville, Minnesota. The Mississippi River is two blocks from my office. I’ve learned that I can frequently see eagles if I walk or drive along there. I experience them as messengers of God.

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  2. Thanks Bob. My house was down by the Chattahoochee which afforded me amazing access to all kinds of creatures. It’s a gift to live and work near water, in any form. I have never been to Collegeville,, one of the places I hope to go. Blessings as you continue your Lenten journey.

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