The Thickest of Thin Places

So here’s the scoop, Reader—for one week, I was in Scotland.

In my heart of hearts, I’m British (which, I know, is a contentious thing to say at the moment when speaking of Scotland).  This is my third trip to the Isles, and it just feels like home to me in a way that my home country…doesn’t, quite.  So I was (amidst all the crazy of projects and deadlines and such) really looking forward to going back to the U.K. and also tapping into some of the “thin places”—I was deliberately set to visit a lot of churchy type settings.  Like I said a couple of weeks ago, I was ready for some mountain time.

Loch Lomond fault line hill

Yeah, I climbed that.

Man plans, God laughs, is that the saying?  I did get a lot of mountain time, in that I was literally around mountains and climbed some smallish ones.  (Man, am I out of shape.)  And I was just flattened by how desperately beautiful Scotland is, especially the highlands; it’s fierce up there, and is a much different kind of landscape than most of the ones I’ve seen.  But I didn’t find the thin places—at least, not in the places I expected them.  You see, what I found instead was God saying no, you don’t get to set up appointments with Me.  I have nothing to say to you right now.

I mentioned this to a friend of mine when I was back home and he laughed and said, “Funny how you’re still finding out that you’re not the one in control.”

And it’s true.  A huge part of it was that a lot of the “thin places” I visited are squarely in my academic wheelhouse; sure thing, as a medievalist going to an 8th century abbey or a 12th century cathedral, it’s not terribly surprising that I found myself in head space rather than heart space.  And they were awesome, don’t get me wrong; I am so very glad I went, and the medievalist in me was delighted to delve into these places, but they were not the place of the Spirit for me.

That was in a restaurant with some of the best damn duck I’ve ever eaten.  It was walking down Merchant Street in Glasgow and noticing that I don’t know how to act around Scottish beggars any more than I do American ones.  It was walking around the twilight-touched crags of a tiny island against the looming Atlantic Ocean and realizing my God is so big, I mean so big and yet still knows my name.  It was in successfully navigating no fewer than six different types of transportation mostly on my own, which is a very big deal for somebody as uncomfortable around people and the unknown as I am.  It was in a tiny Episcopalian chapel for compline services with a kindly, rotund priest who greeted me and heard that my thin places were showing up in the “wrong” places and told me a story about a pilgrim to Rome who was disappointed in the emperor he found and was told that the emperor he was actually seeking was the one he’d brought with him in his pocket (on a coin).

Iona Scottish Episcopal Church“Go home,” the priest said.  “The King you’re looking for is in America, too.”

What a curious notion!  Again, I’m glad I went on the trip, and I found out a lot of things that it is good to know about myself, and also did I mention it was beautiful?  But it was necessary to be reminded that God isn’t only in the church sanctuaries or the windblown stone abbeys standing watch over the sea.  God is wherever I am, and also in plenty of places I am not.  He is not bound to the houses we build for Him, the genie lamps that we construct so we can rub the metal and be uplifted.  He is far more wild than that, and it was good to be reminded of it, if only so that I remember which of us is actually the Creator and which the created.

I miss Scotland, for sure.  I miss the rhythm there, where you can get where you’re getting when you get there as opposed to the hustle of American life that demands you get where you’re getting five minutes ago.  I miss the weather (I am not a summer fan).  I miss the accent (we all know Americans are suckers for accents other than our own.)  I miss the tea, and the scones, and the haggis (yes, even that).  I miss the vastness of it, which is a funny thing to say considering I live in one of the geographically largest countries on the planet.

But I do not miss God.  He came back with me on the plane.  He went with me on the plane.  He went to choir with me last night, and came to work with me this morning, and will go with me tomorrow to get my hair cut.  And most of those outings will be normal and mundane, and perhaps even unfortunate.  But some will be thin places, where the Spirit breaks through not because the distance to heaven is shortened by the elevation of a mountain but because I take the moment to say I am here with You, deliberately and fully.  The air is different here.

Breathe deeply.


Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.  (Psalm 139:7-10, GNT)

6 thoughts on “The Thickest of Thin Places

  1. […] the conversation.  And people regularly tell me I’m adventurous, what with wandering off to Scotland without a whole lot of preparation or driving all over the country for weddings or wading into […]


  2. […] in Scotland last year, so it was interesting in reading it to continually be tied by memory to the experience I had there and my opinions of that […]


  3. This reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s comment that we seek the divine presence on mountaintops and in cathedrals, but the real challenge is to find it in our factories and office complexes. Glad you’ve made it back safely to Pilgrim Land.


  4. Sheila Bigelow says:

    Ahhh! Sounds like a good trip. I’m so glad you could take it. I keep saying we are at the end of our travel bucket list, but there’s still Africa, and I would like to see Scotland. We’ve never been to anywhere in Great Britain, but I’d particularly like to see the islands and the highlands. I am a sucker for mountains. As you say, they make you stop and breathe. I was ready to move to Cape Breton Island when we were there. (And they have “funny” accents there, too.) BTW, that’s one of my very most favoritist Psalms. Continue to breathe and remember that God is there and you are loved. Sheila


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