Thin Places: Opening the Heart

Part 8 of 12 | Based on The Heart of Christianity, by Marcus Borg

In the eighth chapter of his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg shifts to addressing God breaking into our consciousness as individuals and community, then draws attention to why God would do such a thing: to open our hearts.  When we use the term heart in a non-medical sense of the word, we are generally talking about a person’s deeper self, their identity, their passion, their emotional life – a range of things.  This is similar to how biblical writers employed the term as well, using it to refer to the inner self as a whole.  If a person’s heart was off, or not “in it”, or closed, it meant there was something deeply wrong.  This is because, as Borg notes, “The heart is an image for the self at a deep level, deeper than our perception, intellect, emotion, and volition.  As the spiritual center of the total self, it affects all of these: our sight, thought, feelings, and will” (120).

A closed heart, therefore, would refer to a person who wasn’t seeing fully, thinking correctly, has a poor attitude, and isn’t likely manifesting itself in the kinds of behavior God would encourage.  There are times when our closed heartedness catches up with us and slaps us in the face (or worse).  When we see it, we know we’re in a mess, which often brings us to a fork in the road where we humble ourselves and open up to God, ourselves, and others about it and begin moving in a healthier direction.  Or we double down and stay stuck, choosing instead to beef up our pride, puff up our chests, deny any wrongdoing and pretend things never happened.  This latter choice makes our hearts harder still.  The former choice, however, opens us up to the experience of God by created “thin places” that allow God to be especially present right here.  Thomas Merton expressed it well:

Life is this simple.  We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.  This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything – in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. It’s impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it.

The reason God chooses to come close is to help open and keep open our hearts, our deepest selves, to God’s presence and purpose for life.  We are a part of the whole, we impact the whole, and when we are open, we bless the whole.  Open hearts allow people to see more fully, think more openly, walk through life with life-giving attitudes, and act as God leads.  This is where beautiful things can happen.  Borg notes: “The Christian life is about a new heart, an open heart, a heart of flesh, a heart of compassion.  The Christian life is about the Spirit of God opening our hearts in thin places” (131).

A concept Borg noted in his chapter on being born again that stuck with me fits this pursuit of thin places.  He wrote about “spirituality as midwifery”, that what we do with our lives, and in particular our spiritual lives, fosters the born again experience.  Only God can truly make it happen, but our actions play a role in improving the likelihood of the new life being born in us.  So, how do we move beyond closed hearts toward open hearts?  We allow for, we facilitate, we create opportunities for thin places where God is more likely to get through to us.

Borg highlighted a handful of “tools” that help us cultivate thin places in our lives.  Music, for many people, has the capacity to take us to higher heights and deeper depths.  Sometimes it’s the lyrics that connect.  U2’s Grace comes to mind for me.  Sometimes the song doesn’t need to have lyrics to be powerful.  Barber’s Adagio for Strings comes to mind.  Worship provides a thin space where music, community, and learning come together.  Study is a means for me – when I read something of depth, or listen to a good podcast, or watch an engaging video, it opens me up to God’s voice somehow.  For many, nature is the quickest path to thin places, where we are caught up in creation which always reflects the Creator. 

For our culture – now more than every before in history – I think we need to consider one other variables that I believe will provide space – think places – for God to break in: silence.  We surely live in the noisiest time in history.  If the sounds of traffic, construction, emergency vehicles and the like aren’t enough to pollute your auditory senses, there’s always that gadget in your pocket or purse.  Our phones.  Which are TV’s, juke boxes, and – oh yeah – telephones, berate us with an assault of noise.  Seemingly constantly.  Biblically, however, silence seems to go hand in hand with experiencing the inbreaking of God’s voice.  I would even suggest that the Way of Christ whispers.  Constantly.  That Way – God’s Way – is all over the Bible.  The creation hymn in Genesis 1 begins with silence, broken with God speaking everything into being.  Adam and Eve were hiding in silence when that critical, post-forbidden fruit talk needed to happen.  Abraham no doubt heard God in silence.  Joseph, his great grandson, experienced God’s visions in the silence of dreams.  Job only heard God responded after his friends stopped talking, and when he himself finally shut up.  Samuel heard God calling only when he was alone and quiet.  Isaiah had a vision which undoubtedly necessitated silence as well.  Elijah heard God in the still, small voice – literally in the sound of silence.  Zechariah was quiet before God in the Temple when he heard the news that he was going to father John the Baptist.  Mary had to be quiet enough for the angel to speak, and Joseph had to be asleep – quiet! – for the angel to get through to him.  Jesus himself, after his baptism, spent 40 days in the wilderness alone in the quiet to sort out what God wanted him to do.  Peter was quiet in meditation when he received the message about including Gentiles.  Paul was quieted by Christ’s surprising visit, then spent a season in quiet learning about what was true and what wasn’t.

We may not be comfortable in silence, but how are we to hear the whisper of God if we constantly keep the noise on?  We need to learn how to quiet ourselves.  It takes time and work.  Olympic athletes don’t suddenly become incredible – they started somewhere and kept learning and growing.  Some folks can barely go 10 seconds before their minds are wandering all over the place.  Depth cannot develop with such short attention spans.  So, get an app that will help you develop the skills of meditation, so that you can be quiet, then quiet before God.  Imagine all you have missed over your life because you simply weren’t listening!  Imagine what awaits!  Listening in quiet provides a thin place which become sacred space which leads to open hearts which leads to life at its best for everybody.

Dag Hammarskjold, Swedish diplomat and Secretary General of the United Nations (1953-1961) understood what cultivating an open heart represents, as witnessed in his journal which he used while on a peacekeeping mission in the Congo.  May his pray be ours:

Give us pure hearts, that we may see you;

Humble hearts, that we may hear you;

Hearts of love, that we may serve you;

Hearts of faith, that we may abide in you.