Thin Places and the Mandorla

I live at the foot of Mt. Monadnock in southern New Hampshire, a 3165 foot rock-topped geological marvel that commands the attention and affection of the entire region — and beyond. I call the mountain a “thin place” – in that it mysteriously brings the ethereal and spiritual into close proximity to the harsh reality of life. One can look at its majestic grandeur and see, or at least sense, something abiding that exists beyond. Some say the mountain has medicinal properties, beyond the fact that it is magnificent to look at. Nearly two centuries ago, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson hiked the mountain, often together, for the “vapors”, which for them had curative power. And opened their lives to a new way of seeing.

We need our thin places. They can open our eyes, and our hearts, to a transcendent presence that offers balm for the soul. The awareness of thin places is particularly important these past couple of years, because most of us have felt constrained, if not constricted, by thickness. The seemingly nonending pandemic has forced us to develop levels of protective insulation from one another. The increasing polarization in our world has worn most of us down such that we have sought refuge in our ideological silos, which seem hell-bent to reinforcing their walls from onslaughts from the other side. And while we can’t often see it, our lungs tell us that the air we take in has become filled with methane and carbon dioxide; and this past summer much of the western third of the country was so thick with smoke from wildfires that people had trouble finding air that was safe to breathe.

Every year on December 25, much of the world stops and celebrates the birth of what for Christians is the hope of the world. The details of the Christmas story transgress what we have learned about biology and astronomy: virgins don’t give birth, angels don’t sing, and stars in the heavens don’t move slowly enough for wise men to follow them. There is a tendency in many of us to minimize the story as fable or dismiss it altogether. Yet what I have learned over the years is that the purpose of the birth story of Jesus is not about accuracy, but about wonder. It is literally a wonder-full story. For a moment, the veil between earth and heaven was lifted, a thin place was created – and what people saw and heard was framed in the experience of wonder. And provided hope.

Early on in my ministry I served as a hospital chaplain. To offset the heartbreak of regularly being called to situations involving dying and death, permission was given for me to observe several births. During labor, there was a flurry of activity on the part of the medical staff and the mother, but the moment the baby emerged, everything seemed to stop. The obstetrician told me later that even after years of delivering newborns, there was always a moment when the experience of new life took his breath away.

A thin place.

In medieval Christian art, a thin place was depicted by a mandorla, which is the Italian word for almond. It is the almond-shaped space created when two circles intersect (think of a Venn diagram from sixth grade math). Distinct from the image of a halo, which hovers over a person’s head indicating their holiness, a mandorla surrounds someone – who has entered the space between heaven and earth. It is a place of transformation and hope. It is a space that one chooses to enter; people can’t be forced in.

There are forces and voices in our world – coming to us from every angle and electronic device, that say we need to thicken ourselves up by emotionally residing in the echo chamber of like-minded people. To seal ourselves off. That way we will be protected. Yet the grandeur of Monadnock-like images, be they in the mountains or the seashore or the sunrise or sunset; and the message of the Christmas story – and the many moments when we can find ourselves unexpectedly in a thin place, are all invitations to enter the mandorla. A space where we can see differently. And be changed.

Recent Posts

Changing the Gun Culture

Changing the Gun Culture

America is awash in guns.  With a little over 4 percent of the world’s population, Americans own 42 percent of the world’s guns.  Gun purchases across the country have skyrocketed.  Restrictions on the carrying and permitting of firearms have eased in many states;...

Election REsults:  Stalemate or Opportunity

Election REsults: Stalemate or Opportunity

The mid-term election results are almost all in.  The Democrats have a slight majority in the Senate, and it looks as though the Republicans will have a slim majority in the House.  Some will say this represents a balance of power; other would argue that it is a...

A Response to the Midterms and Fear

A Response to the Midterms and Fear

I carried a lot of fear into a recently completed five-day canoe trip in the Florida Everglades. Particularly of alligators and pythons, which reportedly lurked throughout the endless mangrove wilderness. Thankfully, they never showed up. The anticipatory fear...

More Guns: A Manifestation of the ‘I’ Culture

More Guns: A Manifestation of the ‘I’ Culture

In half the states in America, it is now legal to openly carry a handgun, without getting a permit or receiving any training.  The New York Times reported on October 26 that the law in Texas, which went into effect in September, 2021, is making law enforcement...

Changing the Gun Culture

America is awash in guns.  With a little over 4 percent of the world’s population, Americans own 42 percent of the world’s guns.  Gun purchases across the country have skyrocketed.  Restrictions on the carrying and permitting of firearms have eased in many states;...

Our Framing Stories: How They Can Free Us or – As In the Club Q Shooting, Can Demonize Us

We are framed by stories.  Our values, horizons and purpose are shaped by the stories that we have heard, read and absorbed.  Some of those stories are constructed – and refracted, to reinforce prejudices and resentments.  While we don’t yet know for sure if the...

Election REsults: Stalemate or Opportunity

The mid-term election results are almost all in.  The Democrats have a slight majority in the Senate, and it looks as though the Republicans will have a slim majority in the House.  Some will say this represents a balance of power; other would argue that it is a...

A Response to the Midterms and Fear

I carried a lot of fear into a recently completed five-day canoe trip in the Florida Everglades. Particularly of alligators and pythons, which reportedly lurked throughout the endless mangrove wilderness. Thankfully, they never showed up. The anticipatory fear...

More Guns: A Manifestation of the ‘I’ Culture

In half the states in America, it is now legal to openly carry a handgun, without getting a permit or receiving any training.  The New York Times reported on October 26 that the law in Texas, which went into effect in September, 2021, is making law enforcement...

Surrendering Into a Portal

Last week, while driving on a highway in the pouring rain, my car spun out of control as I took a turn.  I went around a couple of times and hit the left side retaining wall with my front end.  The collision knocked the car back onto the highway and pointed me...

Invitation to Humility

As our airwaves and platforms are saturated with requests, threats and predictions over the upcoming midterm elections, the unrelenting messaging machines generate visceral reactions, to be sure, but also – maybe, some personal reflection, if not introspection.  What...

Scapegoats, Ego, Soul and Mandorla

In the early rituals of Yom Kippur, (which the Jewish family observed last week on October 5) a goat was presented to the high priest in the holy of holies.  On the goat’s flanks were written the sins of the community – all sorts of scurrilous and cruel thoughts and...

The Importance of Honest and Vulnerable Stories

Our lives are framed by stories.  Stories that we read, hear and see; and stories that we tell – about what we know, what we see, and what we feel.  Yet increasingly over the last several years stories have come under intense scrutiny. In more and more cases, stories...

Religion in the World: A Challenge and an Opportunity

When religion ventures out of its traditional worship space, controversy inevitably ensues. We have seen that recently in Iran where the morality (read religious) police arrested 22 year old Mahsa Amini because her hair was not properly hidden under her hijab. She...
Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join my mailing list to receive the latest blog updates.

You have Successfully Subscribed!