In his book, A Friendship Like No Other, Fr. William Barry, SJ asks the question, “Where do we find God?” His simple answer is that God can be found wherever we are. All we need to do is pay attention. Fr. Barry tells the story of Moses, while tending his father-in-law’s sheep, noticed something extraordinary: a bush burning but not being consumed. When he went for a closer look, he heard a voice saying: “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). Fr. Barry goes on to say:
Where is our “holy ground”? The Irish speak of “thin places,” where the border between heaven and earth, sacred and secular seems especially porous and God is believed to “leak through” more easily. Because I believe that God can “leak through” anywhere, I prefer to say that in such places people find the presence of God more easily. Where are the thin places in your life?
One of those thin places Fr. Barry talks about is Scripture, if you let the words capture your imagination and attention like the people did in the first reading today from the book of the Prophet Nehemiah. As the scripture is read they are moved to tears. And they are told, “Today is holy to the Lord your God.” Notice it is holy to God because the people are responding to his word. God is delighted when we respond to his word.
In today’s reading from First Corinthians Paul sees the Church as a thin place when we are one. When we recognize the need for everyone’s gifts, the Church becomes a holy place. When those who seem to be weaker are held in honor, the Church becomes a holy place. When one suffers and we suffer with them, the Church becomes a holy place. When one is honored and we share their joy, the Church becomes a holy place. When our Church becomes that “thin place” where others can experience God more easily then we will know what St. Augustine meant when he used to say when he distributed communion: “Receive what you are: the body of Christ.”
Fr. Barry reminds us that “not all thin places are places of beauty and light and hope.” He refers to them as unlikely thin places. One example he gives of such an unlikely place is the experience of the theologian Belden Lane when his mother was dying of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. She tried to rip out her feeding tube and he called for help which led to his mother having to wear mittens.
There she lay – miserable, stripped of dignity, incapable of helping herself in the least way – and now betrayed by a son whose best intentions had only made things worse. I left the room, choking on my own helplessness.
But the unexpected occurred that afternoon when I returned to the nursing home. My mother was resting quietly by then, the gloves removed. She looked up and said to me gently, in a moment of lucidity, “Don’t cry, Belden. It’s natural to have to do this. It’s all part of dying.” With those words a window suddenly opened. By an unanticipated grace, I found healing through the one I’d meant to comfort.
Where is your holy ground, those “thin places” where you find God?