Saints and thin places

All Saints Day is a reminder that the church remembers people differently than the world remembers.

Yme Woensdregt

In the church’s calendar, November 1 is celebrated as All Saints Day. (The old name was All Hallows Day. The evening before was called All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en.) For me, as for many, this time of the church’s year is a thin place.

The term “thin place” comes from Celtic Christianity, which flourished in Ireland and parts of Scotland, Wales and northern England, beginning in the 5th century. There are many ways of describing thin places, but it is essentially an occasion or a place or a time in which we experience God more closely.

Thomas Merton talks about a “world that is absolutely transparent; God is shining through it all the time.” The trouble is that we don’t always notice God shining through the world. In thin places, we manage somehow to catch a glimpse of God. In thin places, the two levels of reality meet or intersect. The veil momentarily lifts and we experience God “more nearly, more dearly, more clearly” in the words of St. Richard of Chichester (1197–1253).

A Celtic saying has it that “heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places, that distance is even smaller.” Contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge writes, “‘Thin places,’ the Celts call this space, / Both seen and unseen, / Where the door between the world / And the next is cracked open for a moment / And the light is not all on the other side.”

A thin place doesn’t need to be a place, necessarily. It can be a piece of music … or a work of art … or a certain person in whom we experience the presence of the Spirit … or it can be a place. For me, it’s the mountains. For me, it’s also this time of year, All Saints Day.

Why this time? It’s hard to say, actually. It’s an experience of the numinous, the holy, and such experiences are necessarily hard to put into words.

Part of it for me is that in this thin place, I ponder the past for a short while. It’s not that I have a desire to return to the past or to second–guess the past. But I am mindful of what has gone before. I remember with deep gratitude all the saints who have peopled my life.

What is a saint? Laurence Housman, the early 20th century English novelist, wrote “A saint is someone who makes goodness attractive”. Nathan Soderblom, Bishop and Primate of the Church of Sweden from 1914–1931, said that “Saints are persons who make it easier for others to believe in God”. The Danish theologian Kierkegaard says that a saint is someone whose life manages to be a “cranny through which the infinite peeps”. In the New Testament, saints are those who have been made holy and who have been made whole by God’s love. A saint is someone loved by God. For me, that includes everyone.

These descriptions point to saints as thin places. So I mark All Saints Day to remember those who have gone before me who have been thin places in very personal ways in my life.

But there’s something more. All Saints Day reminds me again that the church remembers people differently than the world remembers. Secular history is usually the story of conquerors. The world measures their greatness in terms of power. How many wars have they won? How many peoples have they subdued? Will Cuppy says of Alexander 3 of Macedonia that “he is known as Alexander the Great because he killed more people of more different kinds than any other man of his time.”

But we remember saints who sought to make the world a better place, who suffered unjustly, who alleviated or prevented the suffering of others. We remember people like St. Hugh of Lincoln. In the 12th century, King Henry 2 of England elevated Hugh to be prior of a new monastery the king had built. Hugh refused to accept the office until the king housed and compensated every peasant who had been evicted in order to build the new monastery. Compare that to the policies of the B.C. Government in providing housing for Expo ’86 and the 2010 Olympic Games, where the homeless were evicted without a single care.

In the world, such people are expendable. In the gospel, they are not. In that way, All Saints Day reminds me again of the priorities of the gospel.

I invite you to reflect on the thin places in your own life. Where are the thin places, where your spirit is refreshed and where the door to the threshold of the sacred is opened? May the thin places in your life enable you to experience the deep presence of God’s love.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at

Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook.

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