How important are places in our encounters with God?
Two years ago my family moved to Cebu, a city of nearly 2 million people in the Philippines. I was immediately struck by how draining urban life can be. This city overflows with people, dodging in and out of the traffic, queuing to get into the malls, or simply hanging about, snacking on sticks of barbequed chicken or sugared bananas. They spill out of the back of jeepneys – the local bus transport – into the oncoming traffic, oblivious to any danger. The pollution, which is thick in the air and blackens one’s nostrils, and the heat, which blasts down from the shimmering sky and up from baked concrete, both give me a daily headache. And city noises are constant, a background cacophony of karaoke, horns, the crowing of fighting cockerels, firecrackers and taxi radios.
This lack of peace produces intense irritation in me – at the noise, the heat and the incredibly bad drivers. I realise that I crave beauty: somewhere green and quiet, somewhere I can find stillness, and listen; somewhere I can meet with God. I now recognise how beauty feeds my soul. Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton said, ‘God speaks to me in the birds and the streams, but also behind the clamour of the city.’ My challenge is to hear God speaking behind the clamour, to find the beauty that reflects the creator here in Cebu. On the surface Cebu is not an attractive city, but if I look and listen with care there are encounters with possibility, beauty and hope. The sky is almost always a brilliant blue that glistens with heat. Beyond the city rim, coconut tree-studded hills ripple in the haze down towards the squatter villages, and outrageously pink and purple bougainvilleas tumble over walls and gateways. In the crowds are individuals, made in God’s image and with stories waiting to be listened to.
The question of how my place of residence affected my relationship with God surfaced; surely God is not limited to places of beauty – natural or otherwise. Why was it difficult to connect? What was lacking? Is where we live simply a backdrop to our lives, or can a place reveal God to us? The idea that creation reveals God is clearly stated in the psalms. In Psalm 19, we read that the heavens themselves declare God’s glory, and that the skies ‘pour forth speech’ proclaiming the creator.
Urban and Rural
My own experience is showing me that urban living brings challenges to my spiritual life, but is it truly more difficult in the city? Christians seem to perceive cities as a bad thing: secular, harboring evil and in need of mission. They are large and unwieldy, they can feel threatening and overwhelming, and it is easy to lose yourself and your identity. The diversity of cities, which attract people from many different backgrounds and groups, can also be threatening, although it is currently fashionable to celebrate this fact.
This multiplicity can be a vibrant and refreshing element, but can also create problems. Often there is greater separation of wealth and poverty in the city; the rich can be seen trying to distance themselves from the poor by suburbanisation, gated communities, and there are slums and shanty towns in the less desirable parts of town.
All these factors create challenges to the expression of our faith. But I also know that rural spirituality has its problems. Today the rural way of life is increasingly hard-pressed – these communities are also facing issues of identity, poverty and diversity. They too are asking how they will choose life amid overwhelming challenges to their sustainability and survival. I have lived in a rural environment. My family and I lived on a forested hillside on the rim of the Kathmandu valley, in the middle of pines and rhododendrons. In the spring the forest was flecked with peach blossom, and at Christmas-time poinsettia splashed red among the pine trees. The peace and joy were palpable; the hospital where we worked was named Anandaban – which means ‘forest of joy’. The beauty of Anandaban coexisted with a great deal of pain and suffering, as our patients were people who had experienced the stigma and body-wrecking effects of leprosy. These two elements combined to create a place that was incredibly special.
The Biblical Importance of Places
The Bible has much to say about places, and their spiritual importance. There are two central themes in the Old Testament: the relationship between the Israelites and the land – they were God’s people in God’s land – and their clear conviction that God was making their history. His involvement in both their communal history and individual lives dominates from Genesis to the prophets.
The story of the land begins with Abraham, who was called to leave the place he knew to go to the land that God would show him (Genesis 12:1). Even once his descendants were settled in Egypt the promise was not forgotten. The book of Exodus has a renewing of the promise of a place for the Israelites that was ‘good and spacious’ (Exodus 3:8). The Israelites then spent the next 40 years moving slowly towards the possession of that land. However, as Moses pointed out, it was the presence of God among his people that was even more important (Exodus 33:15). God gave clear instructions in the law regarding how the land was to be inhabited; it was God’s and the Israelites were the tenants. Once the Israelites had taken possession of the land they quickly realised that it was not possession that would bring fulfilment, but the correct use of it, according to Levitical law. God was concerned about where the Israelites lived, but he was also concerned about justice and compassion.
Because the Israelites did not prioritise those things, they lost the land and spent many years in exile. The eventual restoration of their relationship with God was sealed by the restoration of the land. It was, therefore, not just a backdrop to the history of the people of God; it was far more significant than that. It was a divine gift and a symbol that demonstrated the proof of their relationship with God. The land showed that they were dependent on God and that God was dependable. It was also a gauge, demonstrating the spiritual health of the Israelites. The way that they dealt with issues of the land, its use and distribution, was an indicator of their trust and reliance on God.
The New Testament also displays a strong sense of place. The second chapter of Matthew chronicles three places in which Jesus and his family spent time – they were places that were important, not only in the life of Jesus, but also in the history of the world.
Matthew starts with Bethlehem. Bethlehem means ‘place of bread’ and so it seems appropriate that the one who called himself the Bread of Life should be born there. It is a town with royal history as King David’s place of birth, and now the angels announce the birth of the Messiah there too. After the visit of the Magi, Joseph is warned to take the child and his mother to Egypt, which becomes a place of refuge not for the first time in Jewish history. It was a 75-mile journey to the border, and many Jews were already living there, outside of Herod’s jurisdiction. Joseph is given urgent and precise instructions, and told not to come back until commanded. God is protecting his Messiah. The family finally returns to Nazareth. Matthew takes us on this convoluted journey with the young family to show us that Jesus was born and grew up where he was supposed to. The intention is to develop Matthew’s theme of the fulfilment of scripture. Jesus was reared as a small-town boy in an agricultural, politically insignificant and religiously orthodox community. It was a despised place, the butt of jokes – to be a Nazarene incited contempt and insult.
The predictions of the Old Testament stated that the Messiah would emerge from a humble background and that he would be scorned and rejected; Nazareth, in part, did this for him. Place was important to Matthew, and he shows that every move was in continuity with the purposes and promises of God.
The Celtic people also had a strong sense of place and an awareness of the presence and voice of God in his creation. There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even smaller. In a thin place the veil between heaven and earth is lifted, a glimpse of the glory of God is seen more clearly, and people feel more strongly connected to his presence, uninhibited and undistracted. The immanence of God is a major theme in Celtic spirituality; they believed that God is revealed through the beauty and grandeur of his creation.
But thin places are not only found in the natural landscape; they can also be historical places where a significant encounter or event took place: for example, biblical places such as Mt Sinai. Ireland and Britain have many thin places, often linked to the birth and growth of Christianity in those countries. These are places with memory. It seems to me that thin places can be made by a history of prayer that somehow seeps into the very place itself.
Undoubtedly we all have thin places in our own lives, where we receive refreshment or have clearly heard the voice of God, or simply enjoyed the peace of his presence. For me, it is often in ancient country churches where the hushed echoes of hundreds of years of worship resound. I also remember finding hidden churchyards and small chapels within cathedrals when I lived as a student in London. These places gave me sanctuary from the crush of the city. Thin places can be unexpected; among the places in my life that I would count as thin is the leprosy hospital in Nepal. In Cebu, my thin place is my veranda where I meet with other women to pray, and from where I can watch my orchids grow.
Important to God
Place, I believe, is important to God. From biblical stories to the experience of Christians throughout history, we see that God uses the place where we are to teach us things about himself, and to enrich our experience of living fully. In Psalm 139, the psalmist tells us that nowhere can we hide from the presence of God: ‘You hem me in – behind and before’ (v5). In other words, there is no place where God is not – no matter how godless that place may appear, or how difficult it may seem to reach him.
However, the places where we live clearly affect us in many ways. I have been challenged that it is not the place where I live that affects my relationship with God, but that my relationship with God influences how I experience where I live. What is important is to start to recognise our own thin places, to realise that all places can be thin, and to learn to make other places in our lives thinner. Jesus is the ultimate thin place, and since he is with us always we too have the potential to be thin places as we make his presence known in our own communities. We must strive to live deliberately in our place, aware of and with gratitude to the presence of God.
How do we cultivate awareness? Learning to stop is a spiritual discipline, and making sure that we use stopping effectively is vital. Journaling with photographs is one reflective tool that can help us to appreciate our place and the simple pleasure each day affords. Try this: each day, take one photo of something in your environment that has struck you in some way; it may be something of beauty, something that made you laugh, the face of a friend, or something that you created. If you prefer, you could try sketching or creating a book in which you record daily happenings, conversations and memorabilia. While you reflect, use all your senses to become aware; what do you see, hear, smell, taste and touch in this place? For those who prefer to be active in reflection, walking your neighbourhoods provides time to really see and appreciate.
But awareness alone is not sufficient; it should produce gratitude, and our books and photographs should reflect the things that we are thankful for and the unexpected interventions of God in our days and in our place. My family has done this by creating an abundance chart. Each day we record whatever has demonstrated for us the generosity of God by sticking Post-it notes on the fridge; it has been amazing how often we have appreciated God’s grace and action in our lives, and it is transforming my attitude to the places where I live.
For further reflection:
• Try to identify your own thin places by taking time to reflect on your life and the places that have become special to you. Are there places where God has particularly revealed something, or you felt that the veil between heaven and earth was especially thin?
• Draw a map of your life to date, marking the significant places that you have lived or visited, and spend time reflecting on each place: what lessons did you learn there? How did God reveal himself to you? What were you able to contribute into that place?
• Think about where you are living now – how is God present? What does this place look, sound, smell, taste and feel like? Trace the journey that brought you here; how has this journey been in continuity with the purpose of God?
Thin places in Britain
Lindisfarne – ‘Holy Island’, an island off the west coast of Northumbria, where St Aiden founded a monastery.
Fountains Abbey – a Cistercian abbey in North Yorkshire.
Iona – an island off the west coast of Scotland, where St Columba founded a missionary community and abbey.
Melrose Abbey – a Cistercian abbey on the Scottish borders.
The Church of St Brynach, Nevern in south-west Wales; church erected on one of the earliest sites of Christian worship.
Pennant Melangell – a pilgrim’s church in Powys.
St David’s Cathedral, St Davids, Pembrokeshire.