In this interview, from Flycatcher Journal here, best-selling author, teacher, and Episcopal priest the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor talks about thin places…
“I’ve known thin places all my life, but I didn’t have the language for them until I took a trip to Ireland a few years back. Perhaps I read the phrase in a guidebook—I can no longer remember—but I had the experience long before I had a name for it. Thin places are transparent places or moments, set apart by the quality of the sunlight in them, or the shadows, or the silence, or the sounds—see how many variations there are? What they have in common is their luminosity, the way they light an opening between this world and another—I’d say “between this world and the next,” but that makes it sound like one world has to end before the next one can begin, and a thin place doesn’t work like that. It works to make you more aware of the thin veil between apparent reality and deeper reality. It works to pull aside the veil for just a moment, so you can see through.
Sometimes I know I’m in a thin place because it feels like the floor just dropped two or three levels beneath my feet and set me down in a deeper place. They can open up just about anywhere, but some of the most reliable places on the farm are near running water—there are three springs on the place—or near sleepy animals. Feeding the horses at night under a sky full of stars never fails to pull back the veil for me. Saying good night to the chickens does the same thing. I walk in there and they’re all chuckling to each other in the dark, fluffing up their feathers for the night, and it’s all I can do not to try to climb on a perch with them.
But thin places aren’t always lovely places, and they’re not always outdoors. Hospital rooms can be thin places. So can emergency rooms and jail cells. A thin place is any place that drops you down to where you know you’re in the presence of the Really Real—the Most Real—God, if you insist.
JORDAN: Does time factor in to a thin place?
BARBARA: I think time vanishes in a thin place. When you go to an “official” thin place like Jerusalem or Rome, it’s like the centuries melt away. You could turn a corner and run into Jesus or Peter. But it’s the same way in the barn or the chicken house. Creaturely life has been going on in places like those for centuries, whether or not anyone is there to notice.
There’s a sanctity to the rhythms of life in them that defies the clock, so that when you step into them yourself it’s easy to lose track of time. I have heard artists talk about “flow,” and I’ve heard athletes talk about “being in the zone.” Being in a thin place has that same quality of timelessness to it—or maybe what I’m describing is eternal life—not the kind that comes after this life but the kind that is available in this life from time to time, at least for those with a little time to spend looking for a thin place.
JORDAN: Do you seek thin places, or do you find them by accident?
BARBARA: I’ve always loved to travel, and the places I’ve been drawn to are all pilgrimage places of sorts—Jerusalem, Machu Picchu, Lalibela, Kathmandu—so yes, I do seek thin places, both at home and abroad. Plus, I’m always finding them by accident. One of the thinnest places I’ve been lately was in line at the Clarkesville Post Office. There was this red-headed child ahead of me, waiting for her grandmother to finish buying stamps. I could see she was bored, so I smiled at her. That made her bold enough to pick up my right hand and turn it over in both of hers, looking hard at all the dings and freckles on both sides “How’d you get that hurt?” she asked, touching an old puncture wound near my thumb. I told her I had hurt it on a piece of chicken wire. Without saying another word she leaned over and kissed the hurt place. Then she found another hurt place to kiss, and another. I thought I’d fall straight through that thin place.
JORDAN: Is your farm still a thin place?
BARBARA: It really is. My husband and I totally lucked out when we found it—an old cow pasture nine miles from town, at the dead end of a dirt road. At night, there’s not an artificial light in sight—no house lights, no street lights—just a long, dark tree line backed up by the silhouette of Mount Yonah against acres of sky. And it’s just as good in the morning. Most days I can’t walk to the mailbox without seeing at least three amazing things—a spider’s web hung with dew, an ant with red rings around its belly, a hawk diving for a mouse. It’s incredible what you can see if you look.
JORDAN: Have you continued to find places where you want to put up an altar?
BARBARA: Yes, all the time, though I should probably clarify that I don’t actually haul rocks around and make little tables out of them. That might be fun—to look out and see a whole field full of stone pillars—but it would also put a human stamp on something that looks fine just the way it is. When I talk about putting up an altar, I mean something that happens in my heart when I feel reverence for a place, or a person, or a creature that is showing me something important about what it means to be alive. That’s when the ground under my feet drops down a couple of levels and I’m moved to do something in response to what I’ve just been shown. Sometimes that calls for kneeling and sometimes for lying all the way down. Other times it can be as simple as saying a blessing prayer—a prayer that recognizes the holiness in things whether they happen to be lovely or not. Some of the ugliest things in the world are just waiting for someone to say a blessing over them.
JORDAN: You said recognizing the holy as opposed to making things holy. As humans do you think we too often desire to put our stamp on places? Or could it be a need? A need to mark our control in the world?
BARBARA: It certainly could be, couldn’t it? Any time I want to neaten things up, I try to stop and count to ten first. When I moved to the farm in 1994 and was still getting used to having a hundred acre “yard,” a tree would fall and I would think I needed to go get the chainsaw and neaten it up. It took a while, but I got over that. I learned that in ten or fifteen years the wood would go back to the earth, and meanwhile it would give the woodpeckers something to do. In that sense, I got over the wish to neaten things up and make them conform to my sense of beauty or order.
And yet, there are other times when I find myself standing next to a bush with two long tendrils rising out of it and I can’t stop myself from twirling them around each other so they make a circle that wasn’t there before. Maybe that’s the human wish to participate, to leave a thumbprint on something so someone will know you had a hand in it? Maybe that’s why pilgrims add stones to the cairns they see along the way. It’s their way of saying: I was here. Here is my mark, my visible prayer.
JORDAN: What is the significance of “place” in Irish culture and history? You said that the phrase “thin place” named something you have already felt. What have you encountered in your studies of Irish culture regarding sense of place?
BARBARA: I’ve studied the religious history of the British Isles—Druid, before the Christians came—with stone circles and sacred groves serving as places of worship. That helps explain the sanctity of “place” in Irish culture for me. After the Christians came and built churches, some of the old places were labeled “pagan” but I don’t think that stopped the locals from going there. They just learned to keep their mouths shut when clergy were around. But even the clergy loved their wild places.
If you’ve ever tried to visit the Skellig Islands, you know that paying your money and getting on the boat doesn’t mean you’re ever going to visit the monastery. The sea may let you and it may not. The waves may be beating too hard for the boat to dock, so that all you get to do is look at the Skelligs—but that’s the truth, isn’t it? You can’t always touch holy things. Sometimes it’s too dangerous to get that close to them, and all you get to do is look. I loved how hard it was to get to the Skelligs. There was nothing easy about it, which made it that much more memorable.
JORDAN: The speed of travel has definitely taken its toll on lots of places.
BARBARA: Yes. I wanted to make an Atlantic crossing in a boat this summer, so I could get a feel for the real size of the ocean. Flying over it in seven hours doesn’t do it justice. The crossing didn’t happen, but I did get to spend two weeks on a boat, which gave me a fresh sense of how moving water can be its own kind of thin place. If you’re not paying attention, then the open sea looks like the same gray expanse every day, but if you really look at it, it’s changing every second. You can look at it, in it, and through it, all at the same time.
JORDAN: What are you teaching this year?
BARBARA: I teach an introduction to world religions every semester, which I think of as my vocation now. I wish I could re-title it “Religious Literacy 101,” because that speaks more to the point of the course. The world is too small for us to ignore each other any longer, yet most of us know next to nothing about any religion but our own—or the one that is dominant where we live.
We buy stereotypes about people of other faiths because we don’t know any better, and then the stereotypes themselves keep us in our cages. How can we love our neighbors without knowing what our neighbors hold sacred? I teach world religions as part of my Christian practice. It’s my way of making peace.
The other course I’m teaching this term is called “Reading and Writing Spiritual Memoir.” It’s cross-listed in English and Religion, so I’ve met students who might never have signed up for a class in Bible or theology. During the first half of the course they’ll read Donald Miller, Lauren Winner, and Eboo Patel, among others—youngish writers, to help youngish students find their voices. Then during the second half they will write, write, and re-write their own first-person essays for a national project called “This I Believe.” I can’t think of a better way for them to refine what they believe than to put it down on paper.
JORDAN: What role does “place” have in your writing?
BARBARA: There are so many ways to answer that. In the first place, I am aware of how important my physical location is to what I am writing. I can write essays in a chair in my bedroom, and I can write letters in a chair in the living room, but if I want to work on a book then I have to go to the woods. I have a little cabin about five minutes from my house—twelve by twelve feet, with no plumbing or electricity. It is mostly windows, with a little stone fireplace along one wall that barely keeps the place above freezing when it’s cold outside. But the minute I walk through the door, the words have absolutely no competition. There is no telephone there, no washer, dryer, dishwasher, checkbook, or computer. There is nothing there but a chair, eight windows, and all those lovely words.
So, there’s that. A writer is physically in a place when he or she is writing, and that place matters. Another way physical place figures in my writing is by functioning as a kind of magnet for memories and associations. When I was writing Leaving Church I was having a hard time organizing the book until a friend suggested that I think of one physical place that was essential to each leg of the journey and then invite the material to congregate in those places. That worked like a charm. The three places were the altar at Grace-Calvary Church, the front porch of my home, and my classroom at Piedmont College. Once I set those “magnets” in place, the material went where it was supposed to go.
Finally, I would say that physical places function like time machines for me. When I am outdoors on the farm I am very aware of all the beings who have preceded me. One day I am walking where I have always walked and all of a sudden there is an arrowhead poking out of the ground—a reminder of the Cherokee people who lived here for centuries before me.
Then I come upon the partial skeleton of a deer, whose flesh nourished the mushroom that is growing through its rib bones. Then I see the tracks of what can only be a great blue heron, and a little beyond that, a turkey feather, just a few feet away from the ruins of an old still. There might as well be a guest book nailed to a tree, with a hundred signatures already on it. When I add mine, the place goes thin on me. If I hold really still, I can hear us all breathing together, in this place that has made us kin. Someone worked here, someone fed here, someone died here—so much happened here before I ever arrived!
JORDAN: And it will continue to be here after we are not here
BARBARA: Oh, we do need to remember that, don’t we? We are transients too! ………….
with thanks to Philomena Ewing