When people have prayed in a place continually for a thousand years, the place itself takes on the spirit of prayer,” the guide told us. We were standing in the nave of Westminster Abbey in London, most of us with our eyes turned upward toward the magnificent ceiling 100 feet above.
Was our guide’s remark true? The students with whom my husband and I were traveling discussed the idea later that day: Did we feel especially spiritual at Westminster? Some said yes. Others said no—they were too distracted by the tourists bustling around the cathedral or by the statues celebrating British war victories or by their own growling stomachs.
I’ve been wondering lately about “thin places,” places where the presence of God is most readily felt. I’ve had the opportunity to travel in the past two years to numerous famous sites that people claim are special in this way. They feel the Spirit of God nearer to them there; they find it easier to pray.
This idea greatly appeals to me. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could make prayer easier, if we could feel closer to God just by traveling to the right place? God is sovereign and available anywhere we seek him, of course. But if a particular place gives us some extra inspiration for that seeking, all the better.
The trouble is, the supposedly thin places don’t always “perform.” After making the long pilgrimage by plane, train, ferry, and bus to the tiny Isle of Iona, Scotland, I was disappointed at first that I didn’t feel anything particular when I got there—except cold, and a little annoyed at everyone insisting how spiritual the place was. Later, worshiping in the little abbey church there, I did gain a deeper understanding of our Savior’s untamable, ancient beauty. Maybe the problem at first was that I wasn’t “performing”—I don’t know.
The other trouble with the notion of thin places is that sometimes a deep experience of joy in God’s presence hits us where we don’t expect it, while others remain unaffected. One of the best moments in my travels came when visiting the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, England. The abbey church has no roof at all, and the floor is only grass. My students were not particularly impressed. Yet this seemed to me, in some odd way, a place with its own joy, a place where I felt God’s dwelling.
As wonderful as these experiences can be, we can hardly expect to build our spiritual lives by stringing together a series of visits to places where spiritual highs might hit us. We are too complicated, God is not to be conjured up on cue, and wise Christians of all ages tell us that the spiritual life has plenty of lows and middles too.
So I think the more important thin places are the ordinary ones we each create in our homes, churches, and local parks or wild places. When we pray in a certain place, alone or with others, as a matter of habit over a number of weeks or years, perhaps God consecrates that place for us. But more likely, we develop in ourselves the habit of calm attention into which God can speak.
Summer is a great time for special encounters with God as we hike to mountain lakes or stay up late to watch the stars. But it’s also a good time to think about where our ordinary, personal thin places might be. When we inhabit these places purposefully and regularly through faithful prayer, they can help us find God through all the highs and lows of our lives, in any season of the year.