Thin Places: A Letter Home

I first heard the term “Thin Spaces,” when I was in Divinity School. Eric Weiner’s New York Times Essay from a few years back perhaps best describes the concept:

Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic of travel.

It’s not clear who first uttered the term “thin places,” but they almost certainly spoke with an Irish brogue. The ancient pagan Celts, and later, Christians, used the term to describe mesmerizing places like the wind-swept isle of Iona (now part of Scotland) or the rocky peaks of Croagh Patrick. Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.

So what exactly makes a place thin? It’s easier to say what a thin place is not. A thin place is not necessarily a tranquil place, or a fun one, or even a beautiful one, though it may be all of those things too. Disney World is not a thin place. Nor is Cancún. Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.

Thin places are often sacred ones —St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul — but they need not be, at least not conventionally so.

I had the chance to re-visit two of my “thin spaces,” both human-made, yesterday, and share them with my wife during a two day jaunt to Zurich. We’re on our way to Vienna now after beginning our European adventure in France, and our short stay over in Zurich emerged serendipitously from the calculus that is Lisa’s travel planning.

The first I was unable to photograph–Marc Chagall’s gorgeous stained glass windows, commissioned for the historic Fraumünster Church. For the sake of preserving both material and the sacred atmosphere of the church, the Fraumünster doesn’t allow photography or film, but you can see some photos here.

Chagall has fascinated me since I was assigned a report on him in 6th grade, and in my college and Div School work, as I began to learn more about the history of Christian anti-semitism, his life and art–particularly his depictions of Biblical stories and the re-emphasis of these stories’ Jewishness in the face of a western art canon that adapted (co-opted?) these stories, de-emphasizing (sometimes erasing) the cultural and religious contexts of the stories of the Bible. It’s not hard to find a correlation between this erasure and the development of an Anti-Judaism that works its way from diaspora to pogrom to Shoah.

For example, Chagall’s White Crucifixion masterfully doubles down on Jesus’s Jewishness, wrapping him in a prayer shawl as he’s crucified. Scenes from Kristallnacht, in response to which Chagall created the painting, surround the cross. There’s a reclamation of a story that Gentiles revere, and a re-contextualization that seems to say something about what the solidarity of a God-Man’s sacrificial death really means–or perhaps a more accusing message: Kristallnacht is the pogrom is the crucifixion. Will you see? Will you respond?

The sheer beauty of Chagall’s windows drew me in: from the Creation Story to the Prophets to the story of Jesus, they illustrate the Church’s story as a branch of the Abrahamic story in haunting, mesmerizing ways (Chagall, our audio guide told us, liked to say that he didn’t read the Bible. Instead, he dreamt it). However, what make them a thin place for me is much more than that. For one, the Fraumünster was once pastored by Ulhrich Zwingli, a major voice of the Reformation known not only for his desire to weed out corruption from the Church but for his radical iconoclasm. Thinking all visual representations idolatrous, he ordered windows and frescoes in churches removed or covered up, including some medieval stained glass in Fraumünster. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like for Zwingli to be confronted with Chagall’s beautiful, transgressive windows.

A statue of Zwingli, which he’d surely hate.

But I am most moved by something else about these windows. Chagall’s depiction of Christian symbols, even when commissioned, carried a prophetic, critical edge:

Remember who first told these stories.

Remember what it means to claim them as your own.

Remember what has happened, and may happen still.

To integrate these windows into the architecture of a place where Christians pray, celebrate, and seek forgiveness is to capture a bit of something holy–and thin.

We also returned to the grave of James Joyce–a place I’d been before, just weeks after finishing my M.Div. Thesis, which featured a theological reading of his fiction, among other things.

I fell in love with Joyce as a high school student when I read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (I still have my well-worn copy from 1993-94), and took a couple of Joyce classes in my undergrad and graduate studies. Sure, I romanticized all the things he romanticized in that book, but I also guffawed at the way he simultaneously satirized and romanticized so much about daily life in Ulysses. Back in my twenties, Joyce felt like a fellow-traveler, fellow-heretic, the exile I was sure my life and passport would tell me I was.

Portrait of the Artist as a somewhat middle-aged man, along with his awesome, beautiful wife.

That’s what made Joyce’s grave a thin place back then.

This time, I was struck by how young he was when he died (not quite 59).

I also kept thinking about how he always, always wrote about home, no matter how bitter the distance.

Which brings me to what I really want to say.

Lisa and I have been talking about home a lot while we’ve been abroad. Don’t get me wrong–we’re having fun (have you SEEN Lisa’s “Pastry of the Day” video series on Instagram? Genius. I married up, folks.), and we’re not homesick or anything, but in the week or so we’ve been gone from the States, we’ve been confronted by stories about Pipe Bombs and attempted assassinations of public figures, and two significant hate crimes–a race-motivated murder in Louisville, and the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue, a mass shooting also described as the deadliest act of Anti-Semitic violence in American history.

These thin places have taken on a new meaning for me this trip.

A set of windows that offers a sort of transgressive reconciliation, that paints dreams in glass, bringing to mind the days when Christians smashed the windows of synagogues. What might it yet mean for us–as Americans looking in the mirror now, facing an unsettling reality that has everything to do with a resurgent politics of hate and the ongoing issue of wide availability of weapons designed to kill with precision?

And the grave of an old man in my memory, who was much younger than I remember, and not that much older than I am now. Despite his cynicism, he was known to look seek joie de vivre. What could be more transgressive in the face of hate, than that?

Lisa reminds me a lot–not just with her words, but with our relationship–that joy has always been a part of my life, is at the core of the imagining we do about what our life together will be, and should maybe be something I’m more mindful of when I write.

It’s easy to lose sight of the power of joy in the face of murder, hate, and violence.

But there’s a reason artists say they dream scriptures instead of writing them.

And there’s a reason we laugh at a dirty joke told in an ingenious way by a dead Irish writer.

And there’s a reason we explore the world, drink new wines, and hold hands along the Seine.

It should also be at the root of why we fight hate.

That the tree of life might be all of ours,

and our windows might let dreamlike light in for everyone

That all might know Joy.

And none will be afraid.

Thanks, as always, Lee, for bringing me here–to all that “here” means.

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