I know I’m not the only person who has a sense of coming home when they arrive at Lee Abbey Devon. For some, it’s where faith in Jesus first came to life, or it brings back memories of time on Community. There’s also, of course, the welcome, the fellowship, the good food, and the sense of a deeply prayed-in place.
But the timeless beauty of the natural setting plays its part too: arriving down those twisting Devon lanes, through the familiar weirdness of the Valley of the Rocks, and then seeing the big house nestled into the hillside amidst fields, woods, cliffs and the ever-changing sea. Feeling the salty wind, hearing the bird song, I’ve felt the weight of worries and busyness float off me as I relax into God’s presence.
George MacLeod described the Scottish island of Iona as ‘a thin place’, with ‘only a tissue paper separating heaven and earth’ and, for many of us, Lee Abbey is similar.
I used to dismiss ideas of such special places as superstitious and unbiblical. Surely God is not confined to tabernacles or church buildings but is present wherever two or three believers meet together? Surely sacred sites, places of pilgrimage, and ‘holy’ places are idolatrous mumbo-jumbo?
Yet places do matter, not because God is limited by them, but because we are embodied creatures. We do feel different worshipping God surrounded by awesome beauty and the wild peace of creation, or in a traffic jam choked by noise and pollution. Likewise, the best human creativity in terms of architecture, art and music lift us into God’s presence in a way that grey concrete walls fail to do. There are dangers in idolising special places but, equally, fear of idolatry can lead to a denial of the incarnation, as in Islam. The fact is that God has chosen to be born into a material world, in a specific place. Not only that, the risen Jesus has a physical body, the first-fruits of the renewal of the whole creation.
That’s why the whole material creation, which God declared ‘very good’ from the start, can speak to us of Jesus. Places like Iona and Lee Abbey are indeed ‘thin places’, because of their heritage of prayer-filled work in caring for the land, making them places where all creation thrives and is fruitful. They are partial answers to the prayer: ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.’
However, finding traces of God’s presence within the created world shouldn’t stop at Iona, Lee Abbey, Lindisfarne or Scargill. There’s a danger that we make unfavourable comparisons with our everyday contexts. Our real homes – our communities, churches and surroundings – can’t compare with such beauty, peace, fellowship and the sense of God’s presence. We may feel frustrated and disillusioned. We may long to be somewhere else, even looking forward to eventually escaping this messed-up world to be in heaven with Jesus.
I’ve lived for over twenty years in one of the most over-crowded, polluted and crime-ridden parts of London, and I admit there are times I’ve longed to live somewhere like Lee Abbey. Yet, what God has taught me most powerfully is that he wants me to be at home right where I live. In Jeremiah 29:4-7, God tells the Israelites, exiled in evil, pagan Babylon – to stop looking back to the Promised Land or forward to eternity. Rather, they are to put down roots in the place God has planted them. They are to work and pray for the peace (shalom) and prosperity (fruitfulness) of the city where God has placed them. This has political, economic, social, spiritual and ecological dimensions (all spelt out in the passage). It involves planting gardens and eating their fruit, settling down to invest in family life, and being fully involved in local community life.
What’s so amazing about place, in the Biblical vision, is the belief that anywhere can be a ‘thin place’, that every dark and down-trodden community, every polluted and ravaged ecosystem, every forgotten and neglected corner of God’s world, may be filled with God’s presence. God told the Israelites when they escaped from Egypt, that ‘the glory of the Lord fills the whole earth.’ (Numbers 14:21). The seraphim in Isaiah’s vision recognised it too: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty’. The whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:2).
Today, God’s glory is clear in ‘thin places’ where love for God, neighbour and creation are practised, but elsewhere God’s glory may appear concealed by the weight of humanity’s corruption, violence and pollution. Yet, even in places of slavery and brokenness, this does not have to be true. God’s future for the whole earth is not to abandon it, or rescue a few elect people out of it, but to re-fill it with God’s glory –or more accurately – to flood it with the knowledge of God’s glory which is already there but hidden. In both Isaiah 11:9 and Habakkuk 2:14, there is a wonderful vision of God’s future for this planet: ‘For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’
After being inspired by visiting Lee Abbey we can return home to practise God’s presence and seek glimpses of God’s glory, wherever we live. Let us pray and work for the day when people visiting our homes, churches, communities and corners of God’s creation sense they’re in a ‘thin place’, where God’s glory is known, and where God’s Kingdom comes on earth just as in heaven.
Dave Bookless is a clergyman, author, speaker and A Rocha International’s Director of Theology.