The Ancient Celts believed in something called thin places; that is to say, physical spaces where a person could connect more directly with God. The idea was that the veil between heaven and earth was very thin in these locations. As a fan of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, my mind goes immediately to Craigh na Dun where Claire passes through the stones. Even though these stones facilitate time travel and not heaven meeting earth, it’s the visual in my mind when I ponder thin places.
I actually believe in thin places—those times and environments when the realm of the spirit is particularly close, where heaven touches earth, where the veil between the natural and the supernatural is sheer. It’s not because I’ve embarked on any scholarly research to prove or disprove the idea—this is not a research article—but simply by nature of having experienced it.
The Celts believed in permanent physical locations that one could visit to encounter God. While these enduring locations may exist, it’s not something I’ve experienced personally. What I have experienced are times, places and encounters when God’s presence seems to be especially strong; where, in the absence of better semantics, heaven touches earth. To clarify, I refer to the “now and the not yet” of God’s Kingdom, not to the idea that if we do it right, we can call heaven down. I believe we can experience a taste now, but we will only know the fullness then. Okay, theology lesson over.
By my own four decades of experience thus far, it seems to me that thin places occur in three ways. They can abide in physical locations for a time, happen regularly in any location during corporate worship, and they can be subjective and individualized.
When I was about 20 years old, an extended outpouring by the Holy Spirit occurred. It began in one physical location, and was thus named after the place, even though it flowed and was carried around the world. As with any great outpouring or revival or renewal—however you want to label it—some were critical and suspicious of it, some ridiculed it, some were afraid of it, some made accusations and judgements against it and some longed to experience it. I’m not a conference junkie or a spiritual thrill seeker. For me, it wasn’t about jumping on a bandwagon—in fact, if you’ve met me, you’ll know that anything reeking of bandwagon often sends me running in the other direction (sometimes to my detriment, as I can miss or delay a real thing). For me, during this time, instead of following the crowds, I acknowledged and responded to a deep longing to meet with God. It seemed he was really doing something and I wanted to be a part of it. Even if it meant trekking off to the Christian Mecca of the day.
The scripture that impacted my journey during this time was Isaiah 55 verse 6: “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” At this time, God was definitely pouring out in several physical locations; he was easily found and he was very near. So, I intentionally positioned myself to meet with him. That season waned (though the impact was enduring) and others have since come and gone and come again.
For me, there is a vast difference between going after the “high” of spiritual experience and genuinely desiring to be in God’s presence. Glorifying the “high” makes an idol out of the experience and removes the focus from relationship with God. So yes, I will absolutely continue to seek the Lord while he may be found, in whatever thin place that might be, but I’ll always check my heart motivation. I want him—not only the rush that comes from meeting with him.
I believe that corporate worship is another thin place where heaven meets earth. By corporate worship, I refer to the sung part of a gathering where we sing TO God, not just about him. I worship as an individual by playing my piano and singing, by listening to music, by giving of my time, money and energy, by meditating, being quiet and so on. There are many ways to worship. But there is something transcendently different that happens when we come together to worship.
The most common feedback I hear from people who are new to church is “I don’t know what was going on, but the music was undoing me. I couldn’t stop crying!” I do, friend. I know what was going on: worship is a thin place. You experienced heaven. When we intentionally reach out to God, when we sing TO him, when we fix our gaze only on him, he meets us. God’s spirit bypasses our resistance and connects with us at a spirit and soul level. If you’re longing to experience God’s presence, I urge you to position yourself in an environment of worship.
A third thin place is what I referred to above as subjective or individual. A thin place for me might not be a thin place for you. There are environments for each of us that allow us to hear God more readily. Of course, it’s never a sure thing—because we have our humanity and God’s awesome sovereignty to consider—but on the whole, those places where, as individuals, we tend to hear God.
This summer, I spent time with my family in one of my thin places. It’s no more special or spiritual or anointed than any other physical place or space, but for some reason, I often hear God clearly and powerfully when I’m in California. It’s an environment for me where it feels like the ceiling is removed. My hope soars higher. My dreams get bigger. All things seem more possible. Those annoying voices of doubt and pragmatism and reality and not enough and too much don’t have the address. They don’t easily find me there.
Yes, it could be argued that I feel this way in California because I’m on vacation, and because of sun and heat and light-hearted fun. But, honestly, I believe it’s more than that. I get that heaven-meets-earth feeling and that sense of heightened expectation.
Maybe, for you, it’s when you’re hiking, or standing on the beach, or when you’re kayaking at dawn. Maybe it’s a time of day: early morning or late at night. Maybe certain music really moves you and you experience that transcendent feeling. Maybe your thin place happens when you gaze at your sleeping baby or your great big kid. Maybe you experience it when you dance. Or when you sing. Or when you run. Or when you draw. Or when you write. It’s whatever facilitates an awareness of the Lord’s presence in a very close and real way.
Perhaps for you, a thin place experience occurs when you are completely alone and in total silence. All of a sudden, you can hear that quiet whisper that could be your own thoughts, except, you know that it’s not. Your breathing changes, the air thickens, and you become aware that something divine is happening. And you listen. You may or may not have actual words to define the experience, but you are certain you’re encountering God.
Or maybe, in the middle of a noisy room, with hundreds of other people around, you suddenly get that feeling; almost like your physical body becomes aware of a change in the atmosphere, even though nothing around you looks any different than moments before. Maybe your heart starts to pound or you get goosebumps or you begin to weep, or you feel short of breath and your hands start to tremor. And while it would make you sound insane to try and explain it, you-know-that-you-know-that-you-know something other-worldly is happening. And here’s the thing, if you did attempt to put human words to the experience, there are many who would understand immediately what you were talking about. You’re not crazy.
Where are your thin places? We all have them. What moves you? What environment heightens your awareness of God’s presence? What place takes the ceiling off your faith? We need to pay attention so that we recognize our thin places; become aware of when and where God speaks most clearly to us. And then, we set ourselves up! Why not?
Sharing space with almighty God is what changes us; what makes us alive. Whether you know him or you don’t, whether you’re new to the Jesus-life or a follower all your life—if you want to be changed, position yourself to experience him. Draw near to him and he’ll draw near to you.