In Celtic spirituality, a “thin place” is one where the boundaries between heaven and earth, between time and eternity, narrow and even become permeable. A thin time, then, is when we mortals sense and touch what is eternal, what has gone before, even what is divine.
For me, the Christmas Eve and Easter Vigils are thin times. Hospital vigils are thin times. Times of waiting in darkness, times of uncertainty and fear, times of celebration all open me to a different kind of awareness, a not-taking-for-granted. They open me to what is truly important, life-giving, and holy.
The coming days are also thin times. On All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’, and All Souls’, we remember those who have died and those who have gone before. We remember that the visible world is not the only world. We remember that we are part of the mortal family, a family of creatures, human or not, who experience death. And in so doing, we remember the One who keeps us, even in our fear and dying.
As I wrote a couple of years ago, there’s a reason that this is the season of remembering the dead: this is the beginning of “the terror time,” when food and fuel are scarce and sickness and death are constant threats. Those of us who enjoy winter—and I am certainly one—should never forget that enjoying winter is a luxury, one made possible by being able to afford packaged food and warm coats and heating fuel. Many of our neighbors suffer food insecurity and cannot adequately heat their homes; the number of people who need food- and fuel-assistance in my area has skyrocketed in the past five years. The inner-city Cleveland school where my dad teaches rarely has snow days; rather, it has “cold days”: days when it is too dangerous for the kids to wait for buses in their too-thin coats. For our ancestors, winter was a time of privation, a time of testing one’s endurance. And for our animal neighbors it is a still a time of privation and endurance, a hardscrabble time. As Esther Emery writes, “Fall is a time to chop the wood, to insulate the house, to preserve the food. Fall is a time to store what food and fat we can before the winter, and every single animal out here knows it. Fall is the time to respect that these deep woods have teeth.”
Those of us who have the luxury of enjoying winter, let us also be aware of those who do not. Let us support food shelves, shelters, and fuel-assistance programs, put out bird feeders (after the black bears go into hibernation, that is), and generally be compassionate and in solidarity with those who share our world but not our privileges. Let us question the dichotomies and systems that divide us. Let us make the boundaries thin.
And let us remember those who have gone before us, those we will someday join. Let us sense their presence around us; as Jan Richardson writes:
nowhere can they
how they move us,
how they move
made from the
tissue of memory
like the veil
between the worlds
that stirs at
the merest breath
and then is
Let their memory, and the stories we tell of their lives, kindle a fire to warm our spirits in the cold and dark, and turn our hearts to the Source of light and life.