Thin moment: Coming in touch with the spiritual realm

December 27, 2016

Irish spirituality has for centuries reflected on what are understood as thin places. 

Thin places are locations in which it is believed that the veil between this world and the eternal world is “thinner” than usual. The two worlds come closer and passage between them may even become possible. As a result, people visiting these thin places have an easier time than usual coming in touch with the spiritual realm. Prayer, it is said, is easier. One’s understanding — if that is the right word — of the transcendent is deeper. It is said that they are locations of an other-worldly peace.

By analogy to this ancient spiritual idea of thin places, contemporary spiritual writers have begun to refer to thin moments. The idea is similar in that, instead of physical locations, there are moments in our lives in which we are naturally more open to an experience of the divine. Our normal routines are somehow interrupted and our natural tendencies are held at bay, resulting in moments of timelessness and greater spiritual awareness. Major life events representing significant transitions — the birth of a child, the death of a parent or spouse — are often among the most typically identified thin moments.

The terminology may be new, but the idea most surely is not. Our Catholic Christian tradition has long enshrined in ritual words and actions an understanding that there are particular moments that deserve to be celebrated as time-out-of-time in which the transcendent God is immanently present, in which we come face-to-face with and presume to speak about the ineffable. 

There are two Liturgies in the Church’s year that by law must always take place during the night. They may not take place in the “evening” as many of our Saturday vigil Masses do, but must take place only in the full darkness of night. They are the Easter Vigil and the Christmas Mass during the Night (popularly known as Christmas Midnight Mass). 

More than any other time in the Church’s year, these two celebrations, literally celebrated at a time when people should be safely home and in bed, represent the incredible intervention of the eternal God in time.

St. John Chrysostom, one of the great early Fathers of the Church, was patriarch of Constantinople from 354 until 407. He once gave a homily on the occasion of the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas) in which he said, “a heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels. 

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He has come on earth, while being whole in heaven; and while complete in heaven, he is without diminution on earth. Though he was God, he became man; not denying himself to be God. Though being the impassable Word, he became flesh; that he might dwell amongst us. He became flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore he became flesh, so that he whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive.”

These words could practically serve as a textbook example of how the Nativity was a thin moment, perhaps the thin moment par excellence, in which, “on every side all things commingle.” 

Our challenge, then, this Christmas season, is to open ourselves up so, as we enter again into the mystery of the Incarnation, the celebration can become a thin moment for us. As religious people, it should be our hope and expectation that the trappings of the season (lights, trees, wreaths, garland, parties, presents, songs, santas, and on and on and on) are not traps set by a society hostile to our religious beliefs, but rather are vehicles by which the ordinary is worn down, the extraordinary draws near, and the distance between them grows thin. 

Let us take advantage of this graced opportunity, this thin moment, to experience anew the intimate presence of Emmanuel, our loving, saving, and merciful God-with-us. 

Brian Garcia-Luense is an associate director with the Archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.