Pilgrim Notes

Reflections along the way.

Month: August 2004

Thin Places

We are exiles in the far end of solitude, living as listeners
With hearts attending to skies we cannot understand:
Waiting upon the first Drums of Christ the Conqueror,
Planted like Sentinels upon the world’s frontier.
Thomas Merton

In the poetry and prayers from Celtic Christians, I’ve noticed two ideas that are often held in tension: the importance of place and the importance of exile or journey. Thus the same people could affirm on the one hand “the place you are standing is holy,” and on the other hand proclaim “we are searching for our place of resurrection.”

This tension appears on the film Nostalgia by Andrei Tarkovsky. A Russian poet wanders the countryside of Italy in search of inspiration. He is an exile longing for his homeland. Of course, the viewer is left wondering if is his homeland simply Russian soil or the place of his eternal longing.

This is the yearning of the human soul to come home. Our particular places give us stability and comfort and yet in our heart of hearts, we know there is a place more sure, more stable than “the shifting sands of Rome.”

We sense this because each of us, in our journey has stumbled across “thin places.” The Celts suggest that there are places where heaven and earth seem to collide and the eternal wall of separation seems to vanish. These transcendent encounters remind us that there is more to life than simply the material realm we can see, feel, smell, hear and touch.

Our forefathers of faith Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all stumble upon “thin places.” They each have encounters when the Creator penetrates the moment with a Voice from above. They respond to the call and journey forward in search of a city not made by hands.

Edward Sellner has suggested that these “thin places” actual remove the wall between the past, present and future. For a brief moment, our particular time and space is eclipsed by an awareness of relatedness that extends far past anything we could have imagined.

The Hebrew prophets sometimes captured this overlapping of past, present and future when they declare the works of God. Addressing the present moment, they may look forward to a perfected future by alluding to a glorious past. Edenic visions look forward to the summation of all things in Christ.

Bishop Seraphim Sigrist speaks of encountering a “thin place” in Semhoz at the home of the martyr Alexander Men. He wonders if a place rich in history makes it seem “thin.” But then he suggests the radical possibility that we create thin places. He says,

“So there is history at Semhoz, but I wonder if also Christian hospitality and lived faith, such as that which my friends experienced from the Men family, does not also render a place “thin?” If so of course, we may come upon (or dare we hope create?) thin place unsuspected by connoisseurs of sacred sites.”


Bishop Sigrist continues by connecting the deep mystery of Christian community with the mystery of thin places. Thus the Lord would say “for where two or three are gathered in my name there I am in the midst of them.”

In the mystery of His love and grace, God calls us forth into community, into a people, into a body. He forms us in relation with other people and together we become a family. Into this family of faith, he gives gifts. More gifts than we could ever contain in a list.

(G)ifts of son, and of joy and of a particular smile…the gift of courage and the gift of peace. The gift of vision of the unseen and the vision of what should be…the gift of tears and the gift of laughter. Fire and ecstasy are a gift and so is radiant calm. Tongues are a gift and so too is the language of science and analysis. The gifts of healing by prayer, the gifts of a faithful doctor.

The list is unlimited in variety and expression. Each gift is a treasure for the family—not for the individual to wrap up and hide away for themselves. He continues:

A gift is not something that we have on our own. Considered in ourselves we are all on the contrary limited and broken and fill of impossible contradictions even within ourselves—not to speak of with others. We have no wholeness individually or together, but we have the possibility to receive as a gift that which we could in no way establish in ourselves.

God who is rich in mercy, calls us forth to his family. And in this family, we who are wounded and hungry and hurt become a precious gift poured out on behalf of others. To think we might ever mature as Christians in isolation from one another is absurd. (This is a paradox for another day—we are called to solitude and community not isolation and groupthink).

In the body of Christ’s love, we give and receive, we rest and act, we love and are loved. It is in this family, this place of going and coming, this “thin place,” we step through the veil of time and space and enter the great feast of love centered in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—extending through the communion of Saints and ultimately shining into all of God’s great creation.

The Blues

“The man on the moon
Said the earth was blue
But you don’t have to leave
To know that’s true.”

The Speed of Light, Julie Miller

I’ve been to planet earth, and I agree: the earth is blue. Beneath our carefree chatter, beneath our hand made monuments, beneath our tired, aching feet, the ground trembles with an ancient groan deeper than the deepest cave. If we pause long enough to listen, we will feel it shaking in the chasm of our soul. G.K. Chesterton once said, “He is a [sane] man who can have tragedy in his heart and comedy in his head.”

We may shout and sing and dance so loud that we can barely feel it, but the blue earth is still there. Trembling, groaning, longing. I guess that is why so much of our music is blues. Music is rhythm in time and this rhythm might just be the pulsing heart of the earth longing for redemption. Whether it’s country ballads, cool Jazz licks, old time Gospel, or classic Delta Blues, the angst is still there.

Somehow listening to blues soothes me. From the fierce intensity of Son House to the gruff yet poignant wailing of Blind Willie Johnson, the to grieving voice of Skip James, I find like spirits longing, aching for redemption. Someone said the blues is all about sex. And I would agree that many songs deal with broken relationships, but that is surface.

Beneath the surface of subjects from lost loves to dying wives to abandoned children, the blues gives voice to a pain that is deeper and older than we realize. The psalmist fully acknowledges this pain. Heman exclaims, “My soul is full of troubles and my life draws near to the grave” (Psalms 88:3). After pouring his soul out to God in prayer, he completes this lament, “Loved one and friend, You have put far from me, and my acquaintances into darkness” (Psalms 88:18). The psalm ends without resolve as the psalmist stumbles away into the shadows.

From the tragic death of Abel to the bitter stoning of Stephen, the Bible is full of heartache and loss and desperate people in desperate situations. Suffering is never denied or ignored. I fear sometimes that our modern spirituality looks to God as an escape from suffering. Unfortunately this is a fundamental denial of who we are and where we are at.

We are on the blue planet. And all creation is groaning. Beneath that desperate cry of creation is another cry—the cry of the people of God, longing for redemption. Yet we do not know how to cry. So we sing the blues. Often we don’t even realize why we are singing the blues or why we are groaning within the recesses of our soul. Beneath the cry of creation, beneath the cry of the human soul, there is another cry—a groaning that cannot be uttered in human words—it is the cry of God. This cry, this groaning, this shuddering silence reaches all the way to Eden and the broken relationship between man and God.

This cry is a prayer for redemption. From the ancient echoes of Eden to the kingdom come, this Spirit-filled cry brings the fallen world into restoration with a Love than cannot be thwarted. And this Love really does make the world go round.

As Julie Miller sings in the Speed of Light:


“The only thing that doesn’t change
Makes everything else rearrange
is the speed of light,
the speed of light.
Your love for me
Must be
the speed of light.”

Paul Hamm Takes Gold

Kelly and I just watched one of the most inspirational moments I’ve ever seen in sports. You probably already know, but Paul Hamm was favored to win a gold. Then he made a major mistake landing and was considered virtually out of the running for any medal. He maintained his composure and aced every other event, winning the all around gold for the first time in US Olympic history. Wow!

MSNBC says:

In one of the most amazing comebacks in Olympic history, Hamm performed the
two most spectacular routines of his career Wednesday to win the gold medal by
the closest margin ever in the event.

Interesting Conferences

The National Storytelling Festival will be in Jonesborough, Oct 1-3.

Beeson Divinity School has a cool festival, ChristFest 2004, on Ministry and the Arts coming Oct 18-20. Three great speakers: Eugene Peterson, Calvin Miller, and Frederica Mathewes-Green.

The annual Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference will host NT Wright and Richard Gaffin. Theyll be talking about the “New Perspective on Paul.” In case you haven’t heard, this is a hotly debated topic in Reformed Circles.

Reading List

Years ago I stepped into graduate school and stumbled into the library. Walking up and down the long aisles of books overwhelmed me. Sadly I realized that I would never have time to read all these books–at least on this earth. Unfortunately, then as now I enjoy ruminating far too much to rush through any book and would rather sip thoughts from one chapter over and over than finish reading the other chapters. Alas, I always feel behind in reading.

This week a few books have given me time to pause and reflect. Thomas Oden has provided some encouraging discussion in his book, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy. Even though I just mentioned ruminating over the text, this is really not that kind of book. But is does provide an interesting analysis of the resurgence of the Church Fathers and orthodox (little o) Christian teaching among Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and even mainline denominations.

When it comes to ruminating, one of my favorite writers is Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Combining profound theological insight with a gift for writing, he achieves the rare feat of beautiful theology. Von Balthasar’s insights continaully challenge and inspire me to worship the Lord. The Grain of Wheat provides a glimpse into his amazing style through a series of aphorisms on various topics.

Here is a sampling:
“God wants for himself at the same time, everything and nothing. Everything, because he does not give his honor to anyone else; nothing, because he already has everything, and, lover that he is, he wants nothing for himself. This is why he demands that we seek him in all things and that nevertheless the whole tide of our thanksgiving to him be diverted through the world. Thus, the indissoluable unity of contemplation and action has its foundation in God himself.”

Earlier in the summer, Aelred of Rivaulx confronted me with the nature of true Spiritual Friendship. This little treasure provided a wealth of ideas for our upcoming “Friendship Retreat “in October. Now I am readng The Mirror of Charity–a book which Aelred resisted writing but finally submitted to St. Bernard’s command. One quote should capture the simple beauty of this classic: “What are you doing, O human soul, what are you doing? Why are you seized by so many? Whatever you seek in the many exists in the one.”

That last quote is worth long ruminations: “Whatever you seek in the many exists in the one.” There is a longing in the human soul that can only be satisfied by the endless life and love of God. On this earth, we will never find complete satisfaction because we are not in resting place of perfect love.

So we strive to find life in transient things that have no power to give life but can only point us to the Life. We expect friendships, lovers, jobs, accomplishments, nature and a host of other things to satisfy us. In the vast and wonderful world of particular things and particular people, we enjoy an endless variety of gifts from our Father in Heaven. But the many cannot provide what only emanates from the one. Life and life abundantly is found only in the love of God revealed by the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Update: Read a Von Balthasar quote that fits perfect with the above thought: “God is so wide that, within his spaciousness, even the longing for unfulfillable longing can soar freely.”

Uphold Me

Uphold my steps in Your paths,
That my footsteps may not slip.
Psalms 17:5 (NKJV)

Sometimes the speed at which life goes roaring by makes me feel as though I am riding a bike down a steep hill through a narrow path between the dense trees. I am holding on for dear life. In times like these, I come to the psalms to breathe and to breathe deeply.

In the midst of life’s challenges, David offers up a prayer of hope in God’s unfailing grace. He has recounted to God his commitment to live pleasing before God and keep far from the paths of the destroyer. Yet even as he lists his “disciplines” before God, David offers a prayer:

Uphold my steps in Your paths,
That my footsteps may not slip.

Some would suggest that it doesn’t make sense for David to change his tone from proclaiming his commitment to God to asking God for help, so they translate this passage, “My steps have held to your paths, my feet have not slipped.” But it makes perfect sense to me that in the midst of seeking to serve the Lord, David would acknowledge his own desperate need for grace and cry out for help.

This makes me think of the promise in Jude: “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy…(vs 24). As much as I value the disciplines, and as much as I believe we commit our lives to living faithfully to God, I realize I am a complete failure.

The blur of life soon overtakes all my “self improvement programs.” After years of following Christ, I still feel weak. In fact, weaker. Identifying with the villains of Scripture like Cain and Judas comes much more easily now than before. In seeking to take hold that for which Christ took hold of me, I come more and more to realize the darkness within my own soul. Like St. Symeon of old, I can confess that “I am a murderer, I am the villain, I am the most corrupt of all.”

And so like David, my only hope, my only refuge is the Lord. I cry out, “Uphold my steps in your paths, that my footsteps may not slip.” As I stumble down this hill called life, I realize that God is in fact, holding me upward into glory.

Breakfast for the Birds

Panera has gone to the birds. Literally. After unsuccessfully scouring the cabinets for a box of Cheerios, I stopped by Panera Bread on the way to work. A bagel dripping with Sesame Seeds is my idea of a delicious morning snack.

With an air conditioning working overtme, I feared the real possiblity of my seat freezing to the seat, so I chose a serene setting outdoors on their “cafe style” tables. Contemplating the mingling flavors of cream cheese, sesame and bagel, I quitely relaxed in the gentle morning sun.

Two eyes interupted my meal. A small bird stood beside my chair and like a hungry puppy it seemed to beg for food. Two eyes looked up at my food and then down at the ground. After a few minutes of this non-stop solicitation, I gave in and dropped a piece of bagel on the ground. Instantly it pierced the bread. Suddenly another bird appeared. More bagel dropping. And another bird. And another. Soon a host of birds covered the ground surrounding my table and I felt like Saint Francis feeding his little flock.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the surrounding birds. A spontaneous party was erupting all around me. Makes me think of the Celtic saints and the many stories of their intimate relationship with animals. The Garden of Eden story reminds us that humans are created as caretakers of all creation. May we learn to rejoice in the world around us, thanking God for this glorious, mysterious world of wonder and caring for it with the love and gentlessness revealed in the Celtic tales of saints and creation.

Trip to Edisto

Just got back from Edisto Island. Kept a beach blog while I was there. I plan to start updating this more regularly.

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Audrey’s first look at beach. Posted by Hello

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