After Easter this year, our denomination will be offering a new study resource under the program “Presbyterians Read.” Folks from First Church have participated in these book studies in the past, often during the seasons of Advent and Lent. But this upcoming study could be done at any time because it’s on the theme of Pilgrimage as a Way of Life.
As the author of the study, I enjoyed reading Jim Forest’s book, “The Road to Emmaus” and putting together a program that involves reading the book, engaging in pilgrimage practices, and having group discussions over five weeks. I hope that some of you will be interested in participating when I offer the study this Spring.
The reason I’m telling you about it now is that the chapter on “Thin Places” connects very strongly with our Scripture readings for this Transfiguration Sunday. I wonder if you’ve heard about “thin places” before, or if perhaps you’ve experienced one yourself.
Jim Forest tells us that “thin places have a way of slowing us down, even stopping us in our tracks.” Thin places are locations “where ordinary matter seems charged with God’s presence.” He explains that many Christians receive inspiration and encouragement when they travel to a place widely known for a celebrated encounter with God, a place remembered for a key event in the life of Jesus, or a place linked with a great saint. Being in these places may cause a heightened awareness of being part of the Communion of Saints and a sense that if God has been present here in such powerful ways in the past, perhaps I will meet God here as well.
The most famous thin places are powerful magnets attracting pilgrims by the thousands or even millions, and Forest highlights three of these remarkable destinations. The first “thin place” he mentions is Mount Sinai – the very mountain that Moses ascended in order to draw close to God. The first time Moses went there was the time when God spoke to him from a burning bush. God told him to take off his sandals because he was standing on holy ground. And then God told him to go to Egypt and lead God’s People out of slavery.
Later, after getting the people out and away from the Pharaoh, Moses would go up the mountain again to ask for God’s wisdom and help, to receive the commandments and instructions for himself and the people. And God was there again, shining brightly, covered by a cloud, and ready to direct Moses on his next steps.
There is a monastery on Mount Sinai today with a chapel built in the 4th century next to the place where Moses saw that burning bush. Later, a basilica and a fortress wall were added. In the first millennium, monks living on and near Mount Sinai created a 3,750-step granite stairway that makes the ascent for today’s pilgrims much easier than it was for Moses. Today the monastery opens its gate to visitors only three hours a day, between nine and noon. But just imagine being in that spot – praying at the place where that bush once burned!
The next “thin place” that Forest writes about is the City of Jerusalem. “Despite all its sorrows, Jerusalem remains a city crowded with thin places, chief of which is the Church of the Resurrection, as it is called by Orthodox Christians, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as it is known to Christians of other traditions.
I have never travelled to Jerusalem, but I know that some of you here today have had that experience. Even if there is some doubt as to the specific locations of various events in the life, ministry, and death of Jesus, many people have told me that being there is quite moving. Walking on the land where Jesus walked, standing in the place where Jesus preached, and praying in the area where Jesus suffered, died, and rose again is a powerful experience. God was present there – of that we can be sure. Maybe we can meet God there as well.
The only famous “thin place” that I’ve visited is the tiny and remote Island of Iona in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. This comma of land off the southwest tip of Mull has been a place of pilgrimage for nearly 1500 years. An Irish saint, Columba, put Iona on the map. In penance for his role in a bloody clan war, Columba, along with twelve companions, sailed away from his homeland in self-exile, arriving on Iona on Pentecost Sunday in the year 563.
They built a monastic settlement there, which was later to be destroyed by Viking raids around the year 800. In the thirteenth century, Benedictine monks went to Iona and built a community there which survived until the Reformation. Finally, in the 20th century, a religious community was restored on Iona, thanks mainly to the efforts of a Presbyterian minister, George MacLeod, pastor of a working-class parish in Glasgow.
Inspired by MacLeod, pilgrims came to Iona not simply to admire the ruins and try to imagine what had once happened there, but to take part in the hard physical labour of restoration. The restored abbey in turn has greatly enlarged the number of pilgrims coming to Iona.
Iona is a beautiful place – a place of rocks and sky and sea (and puffins!). And Iona is a place with a rich history of people of faith coming, making a life together in community, and engaging in mission and ministry that made a difference in the world.
But the reason I went there as a pilgrim was not so much for the beauty or the history, as it was to experience the Christian community that gathers there today. A mix of committed community members, people who come for sabbaticals for a few months to a few years, together with pilgrims who join for a few days or a week, the Iona Community is an ecumenical gathering that includes working together, eating together, praying together, singing together, and sharing in pilgrimages around the island.
I learned of the community from the creative music and liturgy that was created there and shared around the world, (songs like John Bell’s “Will you come and follow me?” for example), and I wanted to experience a bit of that community life and worship. Nick and I went to Iona for a week in 2010, and it was a lovely experience.
Was it a “thin place” where heaven and earth seemed to come extra close to one another, and where “ordinary matter seemed charged with God’s presence”? I’m not really sure. But I did hear God’s voice in music and liturgy, in conversation and prayer with Christians from around the world, in the rugged beauty of the land, sea, and sky, and perhaps most of all in the time we dedicated to listening for God’s voice and attending to God’s presence.
I wonder if that’s why Moses and Elijah, and later the disciples of Jesus experienced the presence of God in such startling and remarkable ways on the tops of mountains. I mean, we Prairie-people know that God is not ONLY present on mountains. God is with us on the plains, in the valleys, in the woods, out on the water, and anywhere beneath this vast and beautiful sky.
God is not only present where Jesus, or the prophets, or the canonized saints once lived and walked, but God is present where God’s people live, work, pray, or play today.
I pulled out that song “Holy Ground” from an old Maranatha song book for us to sing today because it reminds me that wherever we are standing is holy ground. We should take off our shoes in this place too, because God is with us here.
The problem is, I think, that we keep ourselves too busy and distracted to attend to God’s presence. We’ve filled up our ears and our minds and our hearts with so many words, with so much music, with so many other sounds that we cannot hear God’s voice anymore.
What strikes me about the Bible stories for this Transfiguration Sunday is that they went up and away from everyone else – Moses went away from the crowds of Israelites, Jesus took the disciples away from the bigger group of followers and the crowds of curious people too – and in that place apart they saw God’s glory, they heard God’s voice, and they received some instruction. In the case of the disciples, it was a pretty basic message: “Listen to Jesus. He’s my beloved Son.”
But perhaps more important than the specific words of the message, I think the disciples received an assurance that everything was going to be alright. God is here, and God will stay right beside you in Jesus. And perhaps, if some of the commentators are right, they got a glimpse of the resurrected Jesus – the risen Lord with his face shining, transfigured before them.
And that meant that whatever struggles and challenges lay ahead for them. And yes, we know those days leading up to Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and death would be very difficult… They were given that hope and that assurance to hold on to. Jesus would be raised to live forever. The Reign of God would come. All would be well.
As Christians, we’re about to enter into the season of the Church Year called Lent. As the days slowly lengthen and we look forward to Spring and our celebration of the Resurrection of Christ, we take this time to remember the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert, we consider Jesus’ 40 days and nights in the wilderness, and whatever challenges, disappointments, or struggles we might be experiencing, we choose to attend to God’s presence.
There will be thousands of Christian pilgrims who will go to Jerusalem or Mount Sinai or the Isle of Iona for Holy Week and Easter. But even without those mountain-top experiences, we will have the opportunity to meet God too if we choose to pay attention, and to receive God’s guidance and encouragement on our journeys.
Thomas Merton wrote: “Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows [God]self everywhere, in everything – in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without him. It’s impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it.”
So, whatever you do during this Season of Lent – whether you give up some luxury or take on a new spiritual discipline, whether you read a devotional book or commit yourself to regular prayer and worship, whether you give generously of your time, talent, or tithe… I hope that you will look for God shining through in every person, in every experience, in every place. We are standing on holy ground, not only in our church, but in every bit of this world in which we live. God is ready to speak to us and fill us with both awe and hope.