I was in the car when I got the text. A woman I’ve known for years and years was dying. I hadn’t been in touch with this dear friend of mine for a while because my circle shifted as it seems to from one season to the next. I’d known about her battle with cancer because she’d shared about it openly on Facebook. I should have known to interpret her positive posts through her immense faith and optimism. She was one of the most hopeful people I’ve ever known, so of course it was worse than many of us thought.
I called her sister, drove to her house where she was on hospice, grabbed my Book of Common Prayer and breathed a prayer to be able to do this well as I walked up to the front door, knocked and waited. I’ve been to significantly more funerals than I have weddings lately.
I was greeted with a hug and led over to a hospital bed up against the window in the living room. The Pandora station on the television played contemporary Christian music, the volume clearly up with the purpose of her hearing some of her favorite songs. Teenagers and twenty-somethings I hadn’t seen in years came and went. They too greeted me with hugs or handshakes and they kept straight faces as I expressed my amazement at their growth and maturation into adults. I felt my age as I made these statements.
My friend was propped up in her bed. She was the woman I’d always known, but the cancer had taken much. She was gaunt and comatose. Her sister asked questions and rubbed her arm for answers but never got any as we caught up and talked. I held her listless but warm hand while we prayed for her and conversed off and on and while I cried more than I expected to.
That night, her breathing became less labored. She relaxed and she passed from the temporal, filled with cancer and violence and tears and all the indignities of life into an eternity with Christ that was not only beautiful, but restful.
★ ★ ★
Ancient Celts, first the pagans and later the Christians had this notion of a thin place, a place where heaven is closer to us than usual. They didn’t think that heaven was so far off anyway, but there are geographic locations in the world and days during the calendar where or during which the veil that separates us is thinner than other places and times. The Isle of Iona is a common example.
What happens at a thin place? Most people say you have to experience it to understand, but it’s where the common is made sacred, where the heaviness of life and the world begin to float, gravity loses its strength on us. Where we see snippets of Divinity, where mysteries, even paradoxes make the most sense.
That’s poetic and beautiful and small. I didn’t have to travel to another continent or have to hike to some beautiful vista to experience a thin place. I drove across town and clutched the hand of a dying friend. I didn’t have the majesty of nature before me, I had the labored, raspy breathing of a woman who’s too young to die and it was in her living room where the distance between heaven and earth shrunk back, eternity was revealed, where Divinity showed up- God Himself said I AM HERE.
So of course, I cried. I cried hard enough that there was snot. Maybe that sounds unbecoming and unprofessional. Jake, you’re a priest, you’re supposed to comfort those who mourn! Sure, but I’m also supposed to set the example in mourning. We should cry when somebody dies. Jesus wept when Lazarus died. Death is the enemy. But that enemy is defeated and therefore we grieve, but not in the same way as those who have no hope. That’s getting into another subject.
Thin places might be at mountain tops and probably in the most beautiful places in the world (that feels too obvious to me), but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which means it’s subjective. Are thin places therefore subjective? I don’t think so. But I also don’t think they’re limited by geography or time. They’re meals with the people we love, births, deaths, the best parties, intimate conversations about the things that make us feel alive and they’re feeling alive even when we’re dying. They’re hidden in books, the occasional movie, concerts and practicing guitar late on a Monday night or prayer alone Tuesday morning. We just have to pay attention to know when heaven draws near and thank God for what He’s doing in that moment- even if somebody we love is dying.
Our lives are probably full of thin places.
Are we able to see them for what they are?