The Thin Place of the Pilgrimage

The Thin Place of the Pilgrimage

The Thin Place of the Pilgrimage.

“ The thin place is where the veil between this world and the next is so sheer that it is easy to step through.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way).

This term from an ancient Celtic tradition has stood the test of time. The idea of a thin place between heaven and earth has captured our imaginations, and yet is not just a metaphor.  Thin places are literal as well.

The traditional thin place as the Irish understood it has been described in many ways:  where the veil between heaven and earth is so thin as to be porous, permeable, practically transparent; where the space between the diviner and the human has narrowed; where eternity and time intersect; where the boundary between heaven and earth has collapsed; where the wall between heaven and earth have become indistinguishable; where the doors between heaven and earth have cracked open enough to walk through, if only temporarily; the place where eternity and time seem to join together.

Those descriptions of thin places have recently been expanded to include… wherever God has chosen to reveal Himself and make Himself known with unusual intimacy; wherever the sacred interaction with God’s presence is more pronounced and accessible; wherever the Holy Spirit is released in a particularly powerful way; a physical space where one can more directly and intensely experience God’s presence. I like to think of a thin place as when the Spirit of God opens the skylight of the earth’s roof and helps us climb through it into the cellar of heaven.

“I felt my legs were praying. I felt a sense of the Holy in what I was doing.”  (Rabbi A. J. Heschel, after participating in the historic march to Selma for civil rights, 1965, walking arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King, Jr.).

I Want Jesus to Walk With Me (feat. Liz Vice) – YouTube

Pilgrimage. Could it be that a thin place can be found in an active, intentional process, and not limited to one physical space? A good friend of mine is an experienced pilgrim, because he has walked many times on the sacred Camino Trail in western Europe. In describing his experiences there, he uses the wonderful term “embodied spirituality.” He believed a walking pilgrimage to be an extended thin place, a spiritual experience, because throughout the journey he walks prayerfully, careful to listen to the Spirit of God as he uses his legs. In fact, the Spirit of God is speaking to him through the use of his legs, just like Rabbi Heschel in the opening quote. A walking pilgrim does so because he wants to enjoy a life-changing experience. A pilgrim wants to be spiritual with his body. When St. Peter claimed that believers were pilgrims and sojourners in his letter 1 Peter 2:11, the Greek term used for pilgrims is “parepidemous,” referring to a passing stranger traveling in a place that is not his home. A pilgrim is one who is a temporary resident, a passing traveler. The term pilgrim has taken on the significant meaning now of one who is engaging in spiritual growth in a physical way in the course of a journey. What better way to understand our being pilgrims on this earth, strangers in a strange land, than walking with all our spiritual senses activated on a journey? We are citizens of heaven, this is not our home, so walking where we are not a citizen is good for the soul. When we realize that we are all traveling as resident aliens, then we know that we are on “our journey to God, which gives great energy to our sanctification and engenders a spiritual vitality.” (Christian George). One fruitful way of growing in our inner spiritual journey is to engage in a literal walking journey in the way of a pilgrim. It’s no wonder Jesus called Himself the Way, and that the early believers in Jesus called themselves “people of the Way.” Pilgrims, all of us, on the Way to the Kingdom of God.

Biblical Pilgrims. There are examples galore of pilgrims in the Scripture who provide a picture of our own spiritual journey. Abraham was certainly on a pilgrimage as he journeyed without knowing his destination but with a total trust in his God. The Israelites were pilgrims as they journeyed for forty years in the wilderness to get out all the Egypt still in them. The faithful worshippers of Yahweh who walked and sang their Songs of Ascent in Psalms 120-134 were pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem each year. But Christian believers follow the ultimate Pilgrim. Jesus had the spirit of an adventuresome pilgrim to the full. He traveled to the strange land of planet earth from His home in heaven. He was a pilgrim as a baby in the womb of mother Mary on their way to Bethlehem, and not long after that a pilgrim once again as they escaped to Egypt. In His ministry, He was constantly on the move, walking from village to village, healing, casting out demons, teaching, spreading the word of the Kingdom. They couldn’t hold Him down as He trained His disciples to become imitations of Him, like all good disciples. Through His Spirit, Jesus continues to be with us as we continue on our pilgrimage each day.

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”(Galatians 5:25-26).

The Metaphor of Walking. The activity of walking has always been a profound and biblical picture of our journey through life with God. Each believer follows along with the Lord, one step at a time, one foot in front of the other. There are any number of passages that use the metaphor of walking for our spiritual life. “Thus says the Lord, ‘Stand by the roads and look, and ask for the eternal paths, where is the good, old way; then walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16; also refer to Deut. 6:7; Is. 2:3, 30:21, 57:2, 33:15; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 John 4; 2 John 6). A number of passages invite us to, in particular “walk in all His ways“. “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to reverently fear the Lord your God; to walk in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your mind and heart and with your entire being.” (Deut. 10:12; also refer to Deut. 13:3; 11:22; 26:17; Josh. 22:5). There is also an important theme in Scripture of “walking in the light.” “Blessed are they who know the joyful sound of celebration; they walk, O Lord, in the light and favor of your countenance.”  (Psalm 89:15; also refer to Is. 2:5; 1 John 1:7; John 11:9) Confirming this are the words of Jesus, the Light of the world, “Whoever follows Me will never walk in darkness.” (John 8:12). God has provided the one foolproof way to guide your feet… His revealed Word. So study the Bible. Digest it. Memorize it. Talk about it. Live it. Pray it. Learn to love it. Living without the benefits of the Word is like walking through a dark forest at midnight blindfolded. “Oh, how I love your instructions! I think about them all day long. I have refused to walk on any evil path, so that I may remain obedient to your word. Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and light for my path.” (Ps. 119:97, 101, 105, NLT). Perhaps the prophet Micah said it best in his classic proclamation, “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8). Speaking of light, those two fortunate disciples on the Emmaus Road got a double dose of the world’s Light: the light of the written Word, and the light of Jesus, at the same time! There they were, walking along, and “beginning with Moses and throughout the prophets, Jesus went on explaining and interpreting to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning and referring to himself.” (Luke 24:27). Is it any wonder they later said to each other… “Was not our heart greatly moved and burning within us while He was talking with us on the road, and as He opened up to us the Scripture? (Luke 24:32). Isn’t it amazing what can happen when simply walking down a dusty road?

Following a Rabbi. During Jesus’ time, there was a traditional process when a rabbi decides to choose disciples. There were literally hundreds of rabbis during Jesus’ era, and they would all do virtually the same thing. They would scour the synagogue schools for 15-year-olds who had distinguished themselves as students. The rabbis then would interview the best students and discern if the young man had what it takes to be a disciple. If the rabbi thought the student had the potential to be just like him, with the capability of imitating him and learning from him, and also had the willingness to drop everything and walk closely with him, then that student would be encouraged to formally ask the rabbi if he could follow him. Most students who were interviewed by a rabbi were rejected for one reason or another. The student was required to follow the rabbi’s requirements with total commitment, and to follow the rabbi wherever he went. The disciple had to trust the rabbi, not knowing their destination from one day to the next. The disciples had to have the ability to observe, listen, question, discuss, study, and be fully invested in learning the Torah from this particular rabbi’s understanding. Only a very few students were considered ready for this life, and if the student was encouraged to do so, the student would formally ask the rabbi if he could follow him. At this point, if the rabbi wanted him, the rabbi would formally say, “Come, follow me.”

Following the Rabbi Jesus. Jesus didn’t exactly follow the traditional path to choosing disciples. There is no record in the gospels of His hunting down students, though maybe the gospels simply didn’t record that. There’s a more probable scenario in which Jesus had already decided on His disciples after a long night of prayer with the Father. “One of those days Jesus went out into the hills to pray, and spent the entire night praying to God. When morning came, He called His disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles. (Luke 6:12-13). There’s an excellent chance that Jesus and His Father conducted their own selection process, and so Jessus had what He needed to approach and select His disciples. It’s also interesting that Jesus told His disciples much later, “You didn’t choose me, I chose you!” (John 15:16). So in this case, the students didn’t ask the rabbi, the rabbi invited the disciple. It doesn’t appear that Jesus purposefully selected the “best of the best.” He chose disciples with His own criteria, and somehow it included fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot, and other more common folk like that. This wasn’t the expected crew of all-stars, which is encouraging for the likes of us, right? When Jesus asked his disciples to follow Him, he meant it literally like any other rabbi. They were expected to drop everything and walk closely after Him. A hundred years before Jesus a learned rabbi gave a word of advice to some disciples, “Cover yourself in the dust of the rabbi’s feet.” Rabbi Yoezer meant that the true disciple would walk so closely behind their rabbi while they were walking along the road that at the end of the day, the disciple would be covered in the rabbi’s dust.

Being Physical with Worship. The spiritual and the physical belong together, and are in fact inseparable. We were created as whole beings with a mysterious fusion of body and spirit and soul and body and everything else that constitutes our personhood. Not only that, the Incarnation reveals how important the body is to Creator God. In a sense, the idea, the reality, of God taking on a physical body was actually a spiritual act. We need to make sure we incarnate our worship. So worship of our Creator needs to include the body if we want to worship with our whole selves. Physical acts of worship become meaningless if it is done thoughtlessly, without its intention of worshipping God. But worship is not limited to the nonphysical, the so-called spiritual either, or one is not truly involved fully in the act of worship. As Rev. Josef Ratzinger once wrote in his excellent article, The Theology of Kneeling, “The bodily gesture itself is the bearer of the spiritual meaning, which is worship. Without the heart of worship, the bodily gesture would be meaningless, while the spiritual act itself must of its very nature express itself in the bodily gestures.” So physical gestures are invaluable in the act of worship. They can point to spiritual truths, they can stimulate worshipful acts, and they can enable a fuller expression of awe, lament, adoration and worship. Using the body helps us to put the Gospel message into motion. The movement of one’s body can be a sign that communicates a message… Do you want to signal to God that you submit to Him, that you want to confess to Him, that you adore Him, that you intend to follow Him in trust? There are gestures and postures and movements that can express what is on your heart without any use of words. Body language is vital to spiritual life and expression. In this blog series entitled “Physical Worship,” I will focus on the worshipful use of the body through such gestures and movements as: prostration before God; sitting at the feet of Jesus; standing in respect and oneness; kneeling in submission; walking in order to follow; running the good race; jumping for joy; lifting up the heart and hands; offering the kiss of peace;; and the act of crossing oneself with the sign of the Cross. This is important: Physical postures and actions during worship reflect the attitudes of the heart, but they can also help produce the attitudes of the heart.

Fisk Jubilee Singers – I Want Jesus To Walk With Me (feat. Ruby Amanfu) [Official Music Video] – YouTube

Pilgrim (