Elise Ashley Hanley
All Saints Sunday, Year A, 5 November 2017
Trinity on the Green, New Haven, CT.
Have you ever experienced a thin place?
A thin place is what is described as a location where the distance between Heaven and Earth lessens – or thins – where the present world, and the world hereafter meet. One writer, who experienced such a thin place, described it as “a place… where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again.”1 A concept that is often first attributed to the Pagan Celts, and then Christianized over time, the saying goes that “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places, that distance is even shorter.”
I first experienced a thin place while leading a church group on a so-called mission trip to rural upstate New York, where we helped with repairs and rebuilding after Hurricane Irene. We stayed at a rundown retreat center in the woods. One night, we had a campfire, and with it the usual scary stories and s’mores. I decided to head back to my room a little early. By myself, I headed back through the through the dark and smoky woods, only lit by the moon and stars, and suddenly – it hit me. I was overcome with the feeling that I had stepped through an invisible portal – that the mortal world had collided with Heaven. While absolutely not under the influence of anything except fresh air and a week of hard work – suddenly, I felt an incredible closeness with God. I felt an incredible closeness with my father, who was long dead. My grandfather, my grandmother – all long gone. It overwhelmed me so that I started to weep, but with a sense of joy – and as quickly as it started, it went away. Thin places are often liminal.
Have you ever experienced such a thin place?
It could be at a beach, a bookstore, a monastery, or even an airport.
I believe in these. I believe we can have such experiences, in which we can experience a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven – in which we can feel connection to our ancestors, all the saints – and in which we realize that we are truly knit together in one Communion and Fellowship of the mystical body of Jesus Christ.
Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Crafton has written a book called The Also Life. In it, she describes this earthly life as living in a small basket. Our small basket, however, is resting inside a much larger basket – that is the Kingdom of Heaven. We like living in our small basket, and yet, now and then, we can just barely peek through the spaces between the strips of the woven basket, and when we peek, we can just catch a glimpse of the larger basket – of God’s greater realm. According to Crafton: it has and is always around us.
Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day have been known throughout the centuries as Hallowed Days – a holy and liminal time, when crossing between this world and the otherworld is thought to be easier: a thin space. It is a time when Christians throughout the world practice such customs as remembering and praying for the spiritual journeys of those who have died, by visiting cemeteries and cleaning or decorating gravesites, and even providing hospitality for the return of deceased loved ones with food and drink. And indeed, I believe it is a time when we can peek – and perhaps see or experience the Kingdom of Heaven in a new and surprising way.
On this Feast of All Saints transferred, we continued to observe this Hallowed time – this morning, we remember all the Saints – the word ‘saints’ being used to describe the entire membership of the Christian community, past, present, and yet to come. We will receive a new saint today at the 11:00 service, as we baptize a new member into the Church. In our Baptismal Covenant we, along with traditional Christians around the globe, profess the words: “I believe in… the communion of saints, … the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” We recognize and celebrate our belonging to a Holy Community – we welcome a new member into it through Baptism – and we honor all Holy Ones, those known and unknown.
Our Gospel for All Saints Day is the Beatitudes – likely so familiar to many of us, the Beatitudes also offer us a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven, and what we need to do right now. The Beatitudes are Jesus’ first sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, and he speaks it in the tradition of a Jewish rabbi who would be expected to offer commentary on the Law, to explain to people how to stay faithful to God’s covenant.
Even as familiar as I am with the Beatitudes, I still find them surprising. They are not easy ways to live and be. For example, I do not want to be reviled or persecuted! I don’t want to mourn!
And yet, I have been reviled. I have mourned. These experiences will no doubt occur again. Being meek does not mean being submissive or wimpy, but means rather means having disciplined compassion. These tasks are difficult – we need help with all of these things! I need help and comfort when I am reviled, and when I mourn, I need help and guidance when I am not being meek, or being a peacemaker, or being merciful – etc. I need others to help me practice living by the Beatitudes. These practices are work for all the saints – all who have been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I depend on you, my fellow saints, to hold me accountable to the Beatitudes, and to forgive me when I mess up. Likewise, we all depend on each other. And we all depend on God – as our Baptismal Covenant also reminds us – we can only act with God’s help. This is the holy work of our Holy Community.
The Beatitudes also provide us with a glimpse of how the world will be at the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven – they remind us that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven can already be felt and seen. It may be a struggle to live a Christian life, but we have the witness of those saints who have gone before us, providing us examples of living life faithfully, loving and honoring each other. And we are assured of God’s promises – that we should be called children of God.
Have you ever experienced a thin place, where heaven and earth meet?
Together, we stand at that portal: the Kingdom of Heaven is near – it is both already, and not yet.
1 Eric Weiner, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer,” New York Times, March 9, 2012, accessed November 4, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html.