Posts Tagged 'John Sanford'

Thin Places: Opening the Heart

Modern Celtic cross at cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris

Modern Celtic cross at cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris

 

My title is taken from the eighth chapter of Marcus Borg’s book “The Heart of Christianity” which prompted my thoughts for this essay.  This is a moving, thoughtful book which I enthusiastically recommend.

 

Thin Places

The image of Thin Places occurring throughout the physical world is often attributed to the Celts.  And while the Christian tradition may attribute the term to the infusion of ancient Celtic influences, we should recognize that the concept, and more importantly the experience of Thin Places, is far older than is Celtic Christianity (dating from the third century CE).  Thin places are in fact reported in all spiritual traditions of which I am aware.

A closely related concept is that of the axis mundi:

Axis Mundi (Merriam-Webster)  turning point of the world; line through the earth’s center around which the universe revolves

Everywhere the divine realm meets the earthly realm in which we live, that intersection becomes an axis mundi.  Frequently these locations are sacred mountains (Mount Fuji, Mount Olympus, Mount Hermon, Mount Sinai) or sacred trees (Bodhi tree, Yggdrasil, The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil).

A church, temple or an altar may also become an axis mundi.  Less obvious to many Westerners, one’s home may become an axis mundi (as in the practice of Feng shui).  Our physical body may also become an axis mundi:  the chakra system common to Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as the practice of Yoga and Tai Chi, are all rooted in the understanding that the human body forms a pillar between heaven and earth (an axis mundi).

Within the Judeo-Christian traditions we can easily recognize the shared concepts of the axis mundi and of Thin Places in the telling sacred stories such as Jacob’s Ladder, Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, and the transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor.

We may also recall that Jesus often sought out a special place to commune with God (Mark 1:35, Matt. 14:13, Matt. 14:23, Luke 4:42, Luke 5:15, to name just a few).  Among the more memorable occasions are his 40-day fast in the wilderness,  praying in the garden of Gethsemane,  and the aforementioned transfiguration upon Mount Tabor.

While we seldom refer to Jesus as seeking out Thin Places, it seems obvious to me that the gospels tell us he did so with great frequency;  only the words used to describe his experience differ.  Thus, seeking out Thin Places, or a private sacred space in which we may seek an encounter with the divine, is as authentically Christian as is Jesus himself.

By whatever name we give it, persons from all cultures have sought an experience of the divine.  Thus, we may quite properly observe seeking Thin Places in which one may encounter the divine is a shared human experiences, common to all religions.  It is as much Christian as Buddhist;  as much Muslim as Hindu;  as much Jewish as Taoist;  as much Shinto as Native American.

It is true that the highly personal and subjective nature of the encounter with a Thin Place makes it difficult to convey to others.  And for those who have not had their own experience, it is also very easy to deny that it ever happens.

For those of us who have not had our own Road to Damascus experience, we must rely upon testimony of persons trying to share something of their encounter with the divine, however limited by language their efforts may be.

In 1931, during a trip to England, Mahatma Gandhi was asked to record an address.  He chose his essay “On God” which opens with the following lines:

     “There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything, I feel it though I do not see it. It is this unseen power which makes itself felt and yet defies all proof, because it is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses. It transcends the senses.”

One may note that Mahatma Gandhi was speaking of a personal encounter, somehow perceiving a presence, which he identified as God, yet transcendent to his senses.  Near the end of his address, he states, “I confess that I have no argument to convince through reason. Faith transcends reason.”

I suspect another way of saying this, is to observe that having had the experience of encountering the divine, one no longer questions the existence of the divine.  But one may never “prove” the divine exists to a person who has yet to have a similar experience or encounter.

In this we are all alone:  we perceive the world only through the lens of our own sense experience.  Anything we have not yet experienced, we may only appreciate through the testimony of those who have gone before us, those who may light the flame of our own imagination.

And we choose to accept or reject their testimony.

“Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. That is not just fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything ― in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. It’s impossible. The only thing is, is that we don’t see it.”
― Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, in a 1965 audiotape

 

Opening Our Closed Heart

Marcus Borg observes that our heart closes as a result of the very natural process of growing up.  As we mature psychologically, we grow more deeply into a sense of “us.”  We become increasingly aware of the lens through which we observe all that lies outside of ourselves;  in fact, we perceive ourselves as that lens.

I am convinced Borg correctly identifies this process as “[t]he birth and development of self-awareness [which] involves an increasing sense of being a separated self” (page 153, “The Heart of Christianity”).

It is this self-awareness which creates the sense that we are separated from the rest of the cosmos.  And this sense of isolation and disconnection is what must be overcome, at least to some degree, if we are to begin opening our hearts.

This is part of what it means to be born again (or born from above).  I am convinced the author of the Gospel of John is alluding to a psychological-emotional-spiritual process ―although they would not have used that language 2,000 years ago― which brings about a reforming of one’s state of consciousness.

  •      (For a deeper discussion of the psychological and spiritual aspects of the Gospel of John, I recommend Bishop Spong’s book “The Fourth Gospel” and John Sanford’s book “Mystical Christianity.”)

Opening our heart is a process, and one which requires a daily effort.  We must seek out ways of opening our senses to the sacred, of feeling that presence of which Mahatma Gandhi spoke, or as Thomas Merton intimated, of forgetting ourselves enough that we may see that divine light shining everywhere into the world.

Perhaps it is useful to hear how we might recognize when we are failing to open our heart.  Borg gives us a stark example (“The Heart of Christianity” page 154):

     “When I stand in a supermarket checkout line and all the people I see look kind of ugly, I know that my heart is closed.”

 

Thin Places Facilitate the Opening of Our Heart

We truly are creatures of habit.  If we never seek out a Thin Place, we are unlikely to find one.  Yet if we make it a habit to seek Thin Places, thresholds where the divine crosses over into the physical world are increasingly likely to be revealed to us.

There is no guarantee this will happen, but I do believe it becomes increasingly likely over time.  (Especially if we are attentive to how we are being affected by our behaviors;  see Newberg in the Recommended Resources.)

Thin Places may be physical locations.  I have been in places where I felt something which may be described as a presence.  I suspect there may be some merit to the argument that we may encounter something like a “spiritual battery” if we enter a physical space which has been regularly used for spiritual and/or religious practices.

  •      ( And if this is true, we may ask whether the religious relic makes the shrine holy, or whether the heart-felt prayers of pilgrims sanctify it. )

But I am not suggesting we seek out a specific physical location.  One may, of course, but I suspect this is of secondary importance.  I am suggesting of primary importance is that we seek inwardly for our Thin Place.

A Thin Place may be encountered wherever we happen to be.  It is a matter of changing our state of consciousness.  It is a matter of training our body to trigger certain mental, emotional, and psychological states so that we become sensitive to the existence of a Thin Place being created within us.

This may happen any where.  It may happen at any time.  It may happen to us unexpectedly.

But I firmly believe we may also engage in certain behaviors which make the experience more likely, and increasingly so over time, with practice and iteration of our behaviors.  I see this as one of the practical functions of ritual.

Practical examples include:

  • Attending regular places/modes of worship
    Sermons (although words tend to be least effective)
    Liturgical ritual
    Liturgical language
    Liturgical time (Easter, Christmas)
    Study of the bible and other sacred texts
    Contemplation of the bible and other sacred texts
    Internal, silent prayer (especially wordless, feeling-based)
    Communing with/in nature
    Participation in the sacraments (especially the Eucharist)
    Music, hymns, poetry
    Speaking/chanting in tongues
    Dancing, drumming, chanting
    Praying the rosary, or other prayer beads

 

Getting Thin

Getting “Thin” is about entering a psychological-emotional state in which we are more receptive to the Divine.  Intention is also important.  I believe fostering a sense of love is key to improving our spiritual health.

And we need travel no farther than where we are to do so;  provided we travel within.  We certainly may travel to a sacred place, but this is not required.

The specifics of the process are best tailored to the individual.  My best triggers may leave you unaffected, and vice versa.  Experimentation is required, and sufficient time so as to develop a sensitivity to the technique in question is recommended.

In trying to decide what practices may be more likely to bring about results, I suspect that C.G. Jung is correct in suggesting those behaviors which diminish our strongest conscious psychological functions, while supporting our unconscious psychological functions are the better choice.

But I do not think it matters whether one takes a quiet, subtle inward-directed approach (meditation and contemplation, for example) or whether one takes a louder, active outward-directed approach (singing and dancing, for example).

One approach to developing a trigger, is to so thoroughly engage either the active or quiet portions of the mind, that the neural networks supporting these areas of the brain saturate, and create an over-flow or cascading effect which ends up triggering both the active and quiet portions of the brain-mind simultaneously.

  •      ( To gain some insight as to how this may take place, I refer you to Dr. Andrew Newberg books, “Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief” and “Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience.” )

 

The Practice of Esoteric Christianity & Christian Mysticism

All of the above is part of what I understand to be the practice of Inner (Esoteric) Christianity, as well as the practice of Christian Mysticism.

In addition to reading classics on Christian Mysticism, one may study Dr. Newberg’s material on neural-theology as well as Neural Linguistic Programming (NLP).

I believe Dr. Newberg’s material offers valuable insights as to what is happening in our brain as we seek to enter transcendental states of consciousness, providing a useful over-view of what physical-psychological states we are trying to induce in ourselves.

NLP offers a number of very practical suggestions as to how we may “speak” to our own brain, so as to be understood most effectively.  NLP communicates to us the importance of appreciating various “states” of physiology and consciousness, as well as how they are related.

Some of the elemental aspects of NLP include understanding triggers, state, and modes of perception.  I believe each of these are very useful concepts with which to be familiar as we attempt to travel into Thin Places.  (See “Frogs Into Princes” by Bandler and Grinder.)

And, as described above, I do believe travelling into Thin Places is one means of Seeking the Divine Center.

 

May the Lord bless and keep you,

Erik+

 

Recommended Resources:

Bandler, Richard; Grinder, John:  “Frogs into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming”
http://www.amazon.com/Frogs-into-Princes-Linguistic-Programming/dp/0911226192/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417408101&sr=1-1&keywords=frogs+into+princes+by+bandler+and+grinder

Borg, Marcus:  “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith”
http://www.amazon.com/The-Heart-Christianity-Rediscovering-Faith/dp/0060730684

Gandhi, Mahatma:  Spiritual Message (“On God”), 1931
http://youtu.be/EtWr04MBGYI
http://www.gandhiserve.org/information/listen_to_gandhi/lec_1_on_god/augven_spiritual_message.html

Newberg, Andrew:
http://www.andrewnewberg.com/
“Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief”
“Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience”

Sanford, John:  “Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John”

Spong, John Shelby:  “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic”

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