My son and I attended a “Great Mysteries On Tap” last night, our biweekly habit for a while now. We meet with friends associated with Valley and Mountain Fellowship at an Ethiopian restaurant in the southeast corner of Seattle. We get our fingers greasy with a shared meal, drink our libation of choice, and discuss everything from sexuality and spirituality to the problem of free will.
Last night’s topic was “thin places, the holy, and the profane.” Celts believed that, in certain geographic spots, the veil separating the natural and extra-natural, the holy and the profane, was “thinner” than in other places, affording easier contact with the holy there. We talked about our “thin place” experiences and what we conceived the holy and the profane to be. Listening to friends, I had a couple of thin place experiences without even trying. For me, that’s usually how they happen.
I was attracted to Valley and Mountain initially because of their catch-phrase “deep listening.” They also promote “creative liberation,” which is almost as good, but the listening thing was what got me. People of faith who want to listen, who “celebrate the diversity of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, primary language, and spiritual identity in our community and our neighborhood and strive to create an inclusive environment,” and want to listen. When I read that, I thought, “Even I might feel welcome there!”
(You might deduce that I’m shamelessly plugging the group on my blog, and that’s OK by me. They deserve it. Check them out: http://valleyandmountain.org/ And btw, I’m not a committed member, more of a committed friend. No perks for me to recommend them. I just wish there were more places and people like them.)
So there I am, listening to people talk about the holy and the profane, a distinction that I have little to no use for. I’m supposed to be listening. We customarily go a round for each person to say something short about the topic, and then open it up for discussion. Fortunately, my first-round turn ended up near the end.
I was frustrated. Holy is something that people call things that they rarely experience or encounter only under special circumstances. I truly believe things like, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts, and the whole earth is full of His glory,” and, “His splendor covers the heavens, and the earth is full of His praise.” Holiness is everywhere, in everything. We’re just piss-poor at seeing it, that’s all. Even a skyscraper or a clear cut or a littered highway or a mountainside raped for minerals is holy, though in distress. I imagine the materials in a mall and its parking lot emitting long, woeful groans of protest, “Why did you put us to such use?” They are no less holy for what we did with them.
Holiness is in every place that many might consider profane. Is a stripper or a prostitute going about his business less holy than you are? Is his body somehow less precious or less sublime than yours? Is the soul of a child abuser rejectable, worth less than stinking refuse, because he puts heart, mind, and body to despicable use? Maybe so, and there are people who would agree. More to the point, in all these supposedly profane places with their awful, profane goings-on, is God not there? Does holiness evacuate at the mere whiff of moral pollution, like so many “holy people” do? Does God abandon every victim, later remaining smug and pat when they come around to plead, “Why?” Or is God suffering in every one of them, absorbing cruelty, cringing under every stroke, skin crawling, battered, bleeding, and terrified, curling up with them until hope, just maybe, returns?
A new friend at last night’s table likened the profane to error, falsehood, illusion, to what is not. I liked that. I wonder if by “profane” we actually refer to holiness in distress, holiness abused. The profanity we humans often seek and the horrors to which we subject ourselves and each other are stupidities, perversions, delusions, but they don’t render profane or corrupt the things we subject to such abuse.
If there is such a thing as the profane, it’s in our attitudes, in our flights from reality, in the phony overlays we paste on things, not in the things themselves.
My turn came, and I expressed my frustration as best I could, hoping I wasn’t going to end up the designated downer of the evening. But true to form, everyone listened, made eye contact with me, even nodded or smiled occasionally. It culminated a growing feeling I’d had throughout the round. We had, as usual, a wide variety of reactions to the topic, maybe a bit wider than usual. Our thin places to the holy were in astronomy, in caves, in goal-oriented planning exercises, in the hard work of building relationships, in the laughter of children, in each others’ eyes. And as each one shared, I realized that no matter how far out from left field a comment might have seemed at first, someone managed to relate it to something else more familiar. A lattice was being weaved. A whole was emerging. Even my objection to the topic somehow got fit as an integral strand. Thin place the first.
Then we split up into two groups for open discussion. At one point, someone mentioned European cathedrals as places where centuries of prayer and devotion expressed to God continue to accumulate and resonate; another kind of thin place. Most at the table seemed to agree heartily. I debated whether to comment. I’d just narrowly escaped downing the initial discussion. In my world, cathedrals accumulate and resonate with the groaning and weeping and bleeding of countless backs on which all their ostentation was acquired, transported, crafted, and erected for the pleasure of powerful sociopaths. How was I going to contribute that perspective constructively? I couldn’t think of a way, so I kept quiet. We went on talking about pilgrimages and dualisms and holiness. My son became quite animated about the holiness of sound. You might guess he’s a musician. I’d never heard anyone talk about auditory spirituality the way he did. Another friend couldn’t see the many ways that humans have corrupted the planet as anything but profane. The listening and the connecting continued. The latticework grew.
Later that evening, reflecting at home, I realized what I’d missed while sitting at the table earlier. The cathedral thing still nagged, but then it dawned on me. We were looking at two sides of the same hand. There were centuries’ worth of prayers and expressions of devotion to God made by honest, precious souls in those places. There were also groaning and weeping and bleeding of countless backs. There were also schemes of the unscrupulous, empty posturing of hypocrites, smiles of lovers, and maybe even the giggles of infants. It’s all there. It just depends where you focus. It’s all holy. The truth of a lie–that it’s a lie–is holy. Integration. Thin place the second. Quite an evening.