On Thin Places, Glimpses, and a particular brand of Emptiness

I dislike the distinction between being a tourist and being a pilgrim. It ignores the crucial similarity in mindset that all travellers (learn to) have: we seek out thin places. We seek out the places that inspire us and take our breaths, that fill us with awe and wonder. We seek out the places “where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine”.

We even follow the same rules. Have no expectations. Be open to new experiences. Don’t overplan. Because being fixated on what we expect to see – whether it is the Pope or the Stonehenge – kills spontaneity. “Nothing gets in the way of a genuine experience more than expectations, which explains why so many “spiritual journeys” disappoint.” (Eric Weiner, Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer)

The difference in intention then – the pilgrim seeks out God and thus walks the Camino, while the tourist cruises through a fjord and thus finds God – is less significant than our similarity in attitude. It is our curiosity and our childlikeness that opens us to the glimpses of heaven.

This is why, at a certain level, all travellers are pilgrims. This is why Tonga was a salve for my wounds – it let me glimpse another intersection between heaven and earth when I had lost faith in miracles. This is why I travel.

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I have come to love traveling for the glimpses that it offers – of heaven, of earth, of wonder, of creation, and of people.

But while planning my Philippines trip a few days ago, I caught a glimpse of something else. I caught a glimpse of my emptiness. I saw myself, just for a brief moment, traveling, and even with a soulmate, I felt isolated and unfulfilled and vain.

This is not wholly unfamiliar. Sitting in a plane, up in the air, I have often felt this particular brand of emptiness. Too uncomfortable to sleep but too tired to read or write, it is as if the illusions of the world fall away and all that remains is this emptiness. It is the emptiness of being both physically distant from worldly concerns and emotionally cut off from human connection. It is the emptiness of knowing that The World Is Not Enough.

Aeroplanes, airports, trains, boats, and other places of transit are, after all, often thin places.

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Monsignor Heng’s homily on the wicked generation asking for signs attempted to explain this TWINE emptiness: we are called to love God, not His consolation, nor His signs and miracles. God allows us to experience desolation and emptiness so that we learn to love Him rather than simply loving His graces. We are supposed to love the Giver and not just the gifts.

But if I have to love beyond God’s consolation, God’s otherworldliness, God’s creation, God’s power, or God’s glory, then what more exactly am I called to love? What more than a sum of His attributes am I called to seek out? What is it about God – in His unfleshed, unvocalised, and unseen form – makes Him a ‘who’ that I can truly love as a person and not just an idol?

St Augustine offers an answer that I do not yet fully understand but am nevertheless drawn towards:

It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers, and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God — a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.”

What I am only now beginning to realise is that emptiness does not preclude the kind of soaring intimacy that St Augustine talks about. And perhaps, why this TWINE and this miracle-less emptiness is so terrifying for me is because I have not grounded myself enough in God’s intimacy. When I felt God’s affirmation after the musical, it made me realise just how rare those moments were for me. To paraphrase Fr Rolheiser, I have been praying out of duty or to gain some insight or to find quiet, but I have not gone to prayer to experience intimacy, to have my heart touched and soothed by God.

Because in the end, hearing Him say that He loves me – that relational closeness, beyond emotional and physical proximity – is what truly matters. “Because before that happens, nothing is every completely right with you – and after that happens, everything is really all right.” (Fr Ronald Rolheiser, Restless Heart)

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I do not yet know what God wants me to find in this emptiness. I do not know if I am being pretentious, and if these words have truly began their journey from head to heart. I only know of this paradox: that the emptiness leads back to God. There is nothing else to turn to. There is no one else to turn to.

This is why I can doubt, I can question, and I can even stop praying. But I cannot unbelieve.

Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,
My need of God
Absolutely
Clear.

– Hafez (Persian poet)

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About Mel

I dreamt I was a whale. https://melvynfoo.wordpress.com/about-mel/