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.

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