Guardian writer Oliver Burkeman tells of visiting the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan to see “The Last Supper.” He says, “I'm aware this was a boringly predictable location in which to feel the spine-shiver of something beyond words (transcendent? divine?). But I did, and powerfully. I'm no expert, but maybe there's a reason this particular picture of some guys eating some bread is more celebrated than any other.”[i]
Burkeman believes the Milan church is a “thin place.” A “thin place” is a “Celtic Christian term for "’those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses.’"[ii] He writes of attempts from the field of psychology to explain this indiscernible phenomenon believers all over the world have described with great intensity, especially in specific locales. Maybe science can demythologize these numinous encounters.
However Burkeman says, “I'm not sure I want to know what brain scans tell us about thin places, or how people respond to psychology questionnaires right after visiting the Grand Canyon. We're in the territory, here, of the ineffable: the stuff we can't express because it's beyond the power of language to do so. Explanations aren't merely useless; they threaten to get in the way. The experience of a thin place feels special because words fail, leaving stunned silence.”
Burkeman writes as if he wants to believe something divine has touched him in these “thin places,” but is embarrassed, or at least hesitant to do so. Such an encounter does not align with a disciplined modern scientific sensibility. The reticence in fully embracing the unexplainable signals a spiritually uncertain worldview.
Easter and resurrection free the enlightened, scientifically aware think/believer from living unnecessarily tethered to positivistic presuppositions. In other words, one can accept the conclusions of science, but not be bound by those conclusions so that they exclude the supernatural. A person can believe in God and accept science.
I stood in a “thin place” just last week. I stared into the glory of Heaven, not knowing exactly what I was seeing, unable to see, but in the recesses of my mind, knowing what an unseeable glory lay before me. It happens just about every year in the weeks and days leading up to Easter. I don’t know if other pastors experience this, but I do, often.
I am in the empty church parking lot. I am either coming to the building, or leaving it. Either way, coming or going, I am unaware of my steps. How did I get from my desk to my car? I don’t know. My body did it. My mind (and sight) was focused on … do we have what we need for the Maundy Thursday service … what angle should I take for the Easter Sunday sermon … who’s in the hospital … did I talk to that guy from the insurance company … did I forget to call my wife back … who was it that was mad at me? All these thoughts coalesce in stream running through my brain.
But then, the noise fades to the background to silence. I, in the empty parking lot, look at the building where week after week, month after month, year after year, I clumsily try to unfold the mysteries of God to a congregation that tolerates my hypocrisy and futility. The cacophony empties into void. How can I begin to speak of the things of God, me, schlub that I am? Convinced of my complete insufficiency, in that moment, God lets me look into the expanse of Heaven. For a moment, I know beyond a doubt that everything around me – the church, the congregation, the United States, my life – everything is temporary, soon to be gone. In that moment, I am put in touch with the realness, the transcendence of the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Nothing is as real as that story and what it means.
In that moment, I am shown Heaven’s vast glory. Note what I have written. I am shown. I did not say I see Heaven’s glory. The degradation of a world dying in sin blinds my pre-resurrection eyes. Mary did not recognize the risen Christ (John 20:15); neither were the disciples walking to Emmaus able to see Jesus even when he was with them (Luke 24:16). Similarly, in that moment in the empty parking lot when earth fades to black and God shows me Heaven, I am unable to see. I can feel it. I am physically aware that the glass door separating heaven from earth has been shattered. I can reach my arm out and feel the warmth of Eden. But, my feet are rooted here, my sight restricted to this shortsighted, temporary, pre-resurrection existence.
It’s usually shortly after that moment that I write the Easter sermon, or at least stop worrying about it. I don’t know if these experiences began the year I became a senior pastor, 1997. I don’t recall when it began. I just know when it happened last week, it felt very familiar. It felt like, “Oh yeah, I’ve been to this place. This has happened for as long as I can remember.”
And I know that next week or next year, if I look for that experience, I won’t find it. There’s no conjuring up divine visitations, no discovering “thin places.” These moments come at God’s initiative. Any place becomes a “thin place” when God appears there and opens our eyes, even just a little.
I hope God invites you to a “thin place” and gives you an experience you cannot explain. If that happens, don’t try to explain it. And don’t write it off because you can’t explain it. Just worship. In that moment, no matter where you are, even in an empty parking lot, worship.