Hallo again to all.
It's mid-Lent. Have you disappeared yet? Wait: We'll be more precise. Have you grown thinner?
Mind you, this has nothing to do with giving up sweets for Lent. It has to do with the now-fashionable term 'thin places', places where the boundary between the everyday and the ineffable grows wavery and indistinct; places where the 'veil' that divides this life from . . . the other is nearly transparent.
Geographical thinness, as it were, is where the real isn't defined by what is tangible, billable, and downloadable, but is far more than those building blocks of our earthbound lives.
In the New York Times, Eric Weiner pondered these mysterious transit points: 'I’m drawn to places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again'. But he notes the phenomenon of travelling to a place-that-should-be-thin and having the city or cathedral or cave fail to be so. (Call them fat places; he does.)
Can a liturgical season be a thin one? Surely Lent should be so; in fact, it's rather a forty-day festival of thinness. Ideally, we remove those distractions that distance us from God, from 'the real', and in a sort of spiritual detox, clear away the rubbish from our souls. That's the ideal, but of course, as Weiner comments, 'You don’t plan a trip to a thin place; you stumble upon one. But there are steps you can take to increase the odds of an encounter with thinness. For starters, have no expectations'.
That's the paradox for Christians. We do have expectations of ourselves in Lent: We've got the guidebook. We know what Lent is supposed to be like. We don't stumble upon it; it comes obligingly round, even if it seems most years to smack us in the calendrical face. It should be a chain of connected Nearer-my-God-to-Thee days, but it can sometimes seem like one more agenda item we mean to get to, but don't. Our track record of Lents tends to be more hit-and-miss, despite the best via negativa intentions. We want a thin Lent!
And yet, that's the paradox of it all. Those thin times — when we seem to have a heightened awareness of God, a clearer sense of the nearness of All That Matters, a more piercing realisation of our own faults and failings — those times may not be in Lent. Good heavens, they could even happen in Eastertide! But that doesn't let us off the liturgical hook of Lent: we must soldier on through those forty days, doing our level best to discipline our lives, by giving up or taking on or some combination of whatever is needful for each of us.
It would be equally wrong-headed to expect we can achieve, every year, forty days of transcendent thinness. That strange experience of having the veil between this life and larger life shimmer and dissolve may come more regularly through the rigours of monastic life or the discipline of Ignatian exercises, but those vocations aren't given to most of us. We must do our time in offices and in kitchens, behind the hoover or at the keyboard, scratching out the times when we leave all that and recover in prayer that blessed thin and fully oxygenated air of our native land. Lent gives us permission to breathe.
So our job for Lent is to find the time. With God's help, we'll stumble upon the place. And with God's grace, it will be thin.
See you next week.
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