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Thin Places

A few years ago Radio 4’s Sunday programme ran an interesting poll. They invited nominations for the Nation’s favourite spiritual place and listeners were then invited to vote on a top ten. The list included some of the usual suspects. A scattering of cathedrals, places of pilgrimage like Lindisfarne and Iona as well as natural wonders like Twyford Downs or the ancient standing stones at Avebury.

Celebrities were also asked to do a small piece on their favourite spiritual place. Rabbi Lionel Blue talked of the concourse of the northern line at Euston Station. For many years it was part of his journey to worship and he enjoyed people-watching. Ann Widdecombe selected Westminster Cathedral, partly because of her relationship with Cardinal Hume but also because it is, according to Ann, and extraordinary place of peace and tranquillity even in the midst of the tourist mayhem.

Ordinary members of the public also made their contribution. Perhaps the strangest was the soft furnishings department at any John Lewis Store. The mind boggles.

Nevertheless it is an interesting question to ask yourself. What is your favourite spiritual place? I remember a couple of years ago attending a premiership football match and watching my team come from behind to beat Liverpool. The euphoria was unforgettable, and for some there undoubtedly a spiritual occurrence. And I can see how regular trips to Elland Road are part of their experience of worship of a sort, though in recent times more like penance.

For others it may be the local shopping mall, where a little bit of retail therapy can repair the damage caused by the reality of everyday life. Or maybe it’s a room in your home. Maybe even the car, wherever one gets a chance to recharge batteries or touch transcendance.

Thin places, the celtic church called them with wonderful imagination. Places where the membrane between heaven and earth was stretched fine, where one could almost reach out and touch God.

The mistake we make is thinking that there are holy places, and there are secular places. A conviction of the reformers was that there was no such thing as an ordinary place. God could surprise us with his presence anywhere so all of life became spiritual and capable of being offered as worship.

“The earth is crammed with heaven” writes Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “And every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees, takes of his shoes. The rest sit round and pluck blackberries”

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