Thin Places, Deep Peace

Homily given by Rev. Frank Clarkson on October 28, 2018.

There’s a prayer for evening, which like the hymn “Abide with Me,” asks the Holy for presence and help through the night: “so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness.” We could have a theological conversation about whether the Holy changes or not. My hunch is that the Holy is changing too. But especially this day, I take refuge in what we just sang about, “the earth, forever turning” and I take refuge in the fact of this forever tuning, and how it brings times of light and dark, seasons that come and go; and this helps me, amidst all the changes and chances of this life, to remember that even with its struggles, life is good, and life is a gift.

What about you? What keeps you grounded and hopeful these days? For me, one touchstone this fall has been the sound and sight of geese migrating south, seeing their V shapes  as they move together on the way to their winter home. And, of course, the warmth of human community: family and friends, you companions here, the knowledge that in times of joy and sorrow, we are in this together. 

We live in the midst of so many reminders that life is fragile and fleeting; that we are mortal, formed from the earth, and to the earth we will return. Death forces us to accept this reality. And there are deaths that it will always be hard to accept: deaths that come by violence or tragic accident, deaths that come way too soon, deaths that leave us broken and unresolved. The last thing I want to do today is to romanticize death. But to the extent we deny death or fear death, to the extent we push it away and fail to deal with it, we will live our lives less fully while we’re here. The invitation is to be open to and accepting of this reality.

And when it comes to death, what do we have to fear? Yes, a life ending is a sad thing and difficult thing, and sometimes a tragic thing. And sometimes it’s a blessing. It is certainly sobering to think about one’s own mortality. But death is the price we have to pay for getting to live these lives we have been given on this good earth, with these companions. It seems like a pretty good deal: would anyone among us give up this one life in order to avoid the pain of loss that’s part of it? As a dying man once told me, “Even with all its struggles, life is so sweet.”

And grief is simply the price we pay for loving. It’s the cost of of these connections we share. Who among us would want to withdraw from life and friendship and love, just to avoid the pain that comes with it? The invitation is to wade into life as deep as we can, trusting that we will be held in its embrace.

This is our Universalist faith, that we are part of a great Love that will never let us go.  As we sang last Sunday, ours is a simple faith, that life is a short embrace, and heaven is in this place, everyday (song by the band “Mustard’s Retreat.”) There are times and places where we are more acutely aware of this truth; times of death and birth and moments when our hearts and eyes are opened by love or beauty or pain, and we see what we too often forget, that life is beautiful and short and oh so precious. 

We have come to one of those times, what Celtic Christians call a “thin place,” a time or place where the barrier between the everyday, earthly world, and the spirit world is thinner and more permeable. We are at that time of year when people remember and celebrate the souls they have loved and lost; like us today they make altars to remember and honor those who have died.

I particularly appreciate Celtic Christianity for how it brings together in a beautiful and appealing way the best of earthy and churchy spirituality. It’s a both/and. And that’s what we are trying to do here, to hold a place in a long tradition and to be open to earthy and life-giving ways of inhabiting that tradition.

I find this idea of thin places so helpful. Haven’t we each had moments when something seemed to shift, and you felt a sense of awe and reverence? When you saw and felt that things were different, are different, than you normally assume them to be? Earlier our choir sang, “Come and find me. You won't have to look hard. Come to where the ocean touches the shore…” (Words by Elizabeth Tarbox, music by Jason Shelton.)The edge of the ocean is certainly a thin place.

I am hungry for these liminal experiences, these holy moments, and I expect you are too. And I need the sense of connection, the deep peace that they offer. But you can’t make them happen. You can’t create a thin place, though you can cultivate an open heart, you can practice being more receptive to these holy mysteries. So that when you happen upon one, you won’t miss it. 

The invitation, in these days, is to make time and space for the Mystery that’s around us, often unseen but always there. To be open to what is unfolding, in us and around us. To trust that these thin times and thin spaces are portals into a richer and more abundant life. That just beyond the hustle and hurry of our days there is a peace that is available to us. It’s the peace that comes when you see and accept that our time on this earth is short, that we are, with all creatures, part of the dance of life, that though things change and death comes and our lives will end, our earth will keep on, forever turning. And when we die, we’ll return home, to the blue green hills of earth.

Please hear this Celtic blessing as a prayer for you, and for our world:

Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the sons and daughters of peace to you, and to our world.