thin places

The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism

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The Breaking of Bread at Emmaus

Both parts of my talk, The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism, are now available via Ancient Faith Radio. Get them here: Part 1, Part 2

I have to say that this is one of my favorites among the things I’ve written. A number of folks have actually asked me to expand this into a book, but I don’t think I really yet have the experience or background to have enough material to warrant a book on this. Perhaps I will someday.

The Church is Not the Building

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Holy Trinity Cathedral, Jordanville, New York

I hate it when people say that. Yes, there is a certain truth to the statement The Church is not the building. But it is usually said in the context of talking about buildings, and so what is meant by it is not really a counter of an obviously ridiculous idea, namely, that the Church is equal to a building.

Who actually thinks that? Is there anyone who believes that the Christian faith and tradition are about buildings? I don’t think even church architects actually think that. (Actually, they probably think something rather like what I am about to say.) Yes, of course, it does not matter if I have a spiritual life, love God, love my neighbor, or grow in holiness, just so long as I have a nice building to keep and maintain!

Yes, of course, we know people who act that way, but the problem there is not with the building, just as the problem with a dysfunctional home life is not your house. No, saying The Church is not the building is not a serious statement of policy—I’ve never known someone who said that who wanted to move all church services outdoors—but it does present a problematic dichotomy, and it’s also rooted in a certain theology of its own.

One of the inheritances of the streams of Christian theology whose origins flow from 16th century Western Europe is a deliberate de-emphasis on the matter of, well, matter. As many Christians stopped believing that sacraments (ritual acts believed to be means by which God communicates grace), iconoclasm (“image-breaking”) also came alongside. Much of the physical side of being spiritual came to be regarded as idolatry and was shunned in favor of what was summarized in the motto “Four bare walls and a sermon.” Salvation was for people’s hearts and souls, and pretty buildings, vestments, iconography, bread, wine, oil, water, etc., had nothing at all to do with it, because those things pertain to the body and not the soul.


This theological attitude finds its roots originally not in Christian theology but in pagan theology, particularly the dualism that was characteristic of the philosophers who opposed the prevailing polytheism of their time. Dualism’s essential idea is that “spiritual” things are good, but physical things are bad (or at least of a much, much lower importance).

Orthodox Christianity is not dualist. As such, we believe that man—being a union of both body and soul—is not a soul trapped in the prison of the body. Rather, he is a body just as much as he is a soul, and even if the union of the two has suffered and will suffer because of the disruption of the Fall of Mankind from the time of Adam and Eve, that essential union remains and will eventually be fully healed in the general Resurrection.

What that means is that physical stuff has a spiritual side to it. And if that is the case, then that means that church buildings have a spiritual character, too. We can see this basic intuition in all of mankind, not just traditional Christianity. Everywhere one goes, buildings meant for religious usage have a special character and usually a special beauty to them. Even among the very poor, there is a desire to impart a particular beauty in the place where prayers are said.

For Orthodox Christians, the church building and all that adorns it are icons—that is, they are physical images that connect us with spiritual reality. We don’t worship such things, because only God is due worship, but we do pay them honor and treat them in a special way, because they put us in touch with the divine in a way that our emotions, intellect and imaginations alone cannot.

Ironically, iconoclastic Christianity still makes use of some very physical elements—how could it not? One typically finds sermons and music in such churches, aural expressions making use of the vibrational and resonant properties of physical matter. Orthodoxy essentially just takes the very necessity of physicality in worship and all spiritual life to its fullest and most natural conclusions. The body is intimately connected with the soul, and so what you do with the one will affect the other.

For Orthodoxy, this essential intuition that our species has, that the physical and spiritual have very much to do with each other, was fulfilled in the Incarnation of Christ, that everlasting moment when the invisible, incorporeal, untouchable, ineffable God became visible, embodied, touchable and approachable. God became man, and so physical matter received the possibility of becoming sanctified and sanctifying. He did it all the time when He was here visibly—not just by taking on a body, but with very physical actions in order to effect real changes, e.g., turning water to wine, smearing mud on a blind man’s eyes, raising the dead, etc.

So, no, the Church is not the building. The people are the Church. We get that. But there’s a reason they built that building, and it’s not just a container. There is something there that speaks of the power and majesty and closeness of God, something that connects us to Him in a way that nothing else can. And Orthodox Christians believe that God will not only honor that intention from His creatures, but will respond and, once again, use the physical to affect the spiritual.

Consider this for a moment: What does the building your faith uses for prayer convey about what you believe? Does it connect you with Heaven? Does it connect you with God?

Thin Places (The Transfiguration of Place, Part IV)

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St. Columba's Church, Donegal, Ireland
The following is Part IV of a talk I gave on April 2nd at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” Read Part I, Part II and Part III. There are six parts in all.

In the British Isles, the ancient Celtic Christians spoke curiously of certain places in their experience as being “thin.” In these places, they believed, this world and the otherworld were nearer to one another, the veil between them being “thinner” than in other places. It is probable that the belief in thin places precedes the introduction of Christianity to the Celts, but even if it is pre-Christian in origin, this idea is one which is also thoroughly Christian in its essence, not because of some doctrinal statement by the Church, but because of a basic human understanding of the interaction of the divine and the created, especially the human.

From the Christian point of view, we have to ask ourselves what is it that makes certain places “thin.” It cannot be that there is some inherent material element in a place that makes it “thin,” for while we might point to many mountain-tops as thin places, we can also find caves and pits in the earth which show forth a special sanctity. Neither open spaces nor closed-in ones are exclusively characteristically thin, nor even are places untouched by human architecture exclusively so. What draws all these places together seems to be summarizable in one word: pilgrimage. What they all have in common is that human beings have thought of them as places to go where we get in touch with the divine. Whether they are forests or caves or deserts or churches or huts or mountains or islands, thin places are destinations for divinity. And in being so, they are therefore places of prayer.

It is prayer that sets man most completely apart from the rest of creation. We have the ability to communicate with the divine. We do not offer up only wordless obedience to God as the rocks, the plants and the animals, though of course we do say such poetic things as that the heavens declare the glory of God. But nothing else in creation goes to a place to pray. While we believe that we can and should pray everywhere, there’s just something about pilgrimage. Whether our pilgrimages are long journeys to far-off lands or only the few steps from our bedroom to our icon corners at home, we have a sense that prayer involves going to a place to make it most effective.

What we as Orthodox Christians are called upon to do is to make our places, wherever they are, into thin places. God made us all to be the priests of creation, to offer up creation to Him in prayer and thanksgiving. And in receiving that offering, He sanctifies it and returns it to us as a vehicle for our sanctification. When a Christian takes that vocation to heart and continually prays for years in the same place, giving it his love and his attention, then that place becomes holy. It becomes a thin place, a place where the divine breaks through from the otherworld and into this world.

When someone finds himself in such a thin place, he finds himself freed from the slavery of this world. He feels that he has possibility. He is almost overwhelmed at the power of the place, because there is God! Those of you who have made pilgrimages to places sanctified especially by centuries of prayer know what I am speaking of. A holy place helps to make us fully human, to heal our humanity, to set us free from the shackles of the fallenness and falseness we carry around with us everywhere. There’s just something about those places, that there we know we can be better, nobler, higher, truer, more beautiful.

And this connection between true humanity and the holiness of a place is reciprocal, as well. A holy place makes us more human, but a human being who is dedicated to the life that God has created for him makes a place holier. The holiness radiates from the holy person into his environment, and the holiness of a place permeates those who visit it.

On to Part V.

Christianity and Ecology: Lessons on Sustainability from the Early Irish Sea

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A fascinating event held recently at St. Paul’s was this seminar and discussion led by Prof. Alfred Siewers of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (referenced in this previous post). You can now listen to both parts of the recording made of the seminar via Ancient Faith Radio:

  • Part One—the bulk of the seminar, introduced by your host, in which I warble on a bit about my 2001 pilgrimage in the British Isles. Prof. Siewers gives a fascinating talk about Irish Christian monasticism and how it lived in terms of ecology (“the story of home”).

  • Part Two—the question and answer session, featuring both Prof. Siewers and your humble servant.

Interested parties can also download Prof. Siewers’s handout here.

Sweet Afton

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River Afton, Ayrshire, Scotland

Flow gently, sweet Afton! amang thy green braes,
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

Thou stockdove whose echo resounds thro’ the glen,
Ye wild whistling blackbirds in yon thorny den,
Thou green-crested lapwing thy screaming forbear,
I charge you, disturb not my slumbering Fair.

How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighbouring hills,
Far mark’d with the courses of clear, winding rills;
There daily I wander as noon rises high,
My flocks and my Mary’s sweet cot in my eye.

How pleasant thy banks and green valleys below,
Where, wild in the woodlands, the primroses blow;
There oft, as mild Ev’ning weeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me.

Thy crystal stream, Afton, how lovely it glides,
And winds by the cot where my Mary resides;
How wanton thy waters her snowy feet lave,
As, gathering sweet flowerets, she stems thy clear wave.

Flow gently, sweet Afton, amang thy green braes,
Flow gently, sweet river, the theme of my lays;
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

Robert Burns, 1791

I’m not entirely sure why, but this poem’s been on my mind ever since my son Elias was born on Sunday. I must admit to first being introduced to it by Nickel Creek, who included a musical version of it on their debut album, framed by a melody which is so clear and appropriate that one feels that it could not have had any author.

There is something about the anchoring of and in place that comes forward at the birth of a child, particularly (if I may) a son. Since the days of Adam, men have as part of their vocation on this earth to provide stability, unity and name. (And women provide civilization and a motivation for men to undertake their calling.)

Both of my children have so far been born in Pennsylvania, while both their parents are native Virginians. This seems right to me, in a way I cannot quite explain but which is particularly informed by the reality that, in my own immediate family, between five members are five native states. That’s just how things turned out for us, but it’s not something I’d like to perpetuate.

With a new man comes a new grounding in the ecology (per Prof. Alfred Siewers, “the story of home”), a new generation to be ordered among the fathers and grandfathers. Here in 21st century America, the fathers and grandfathers rarely call the same place home.

My prayer is that my generation may be among the last to be so scattered across this world. It seems to me that the Incarnation almost expects it.

Images of Emmaus

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The Shelter House (1734)
The Emmaus Shelter House (Zuflucht Haus), built in 1734, is the oldest continuously inhabited structure in the Lehigh Valley. It remained occupied by private residents until the 1950s.
The 1803 House
The 1803 House, the home of Jacob Ehrenhardt, Jr., the son of one of the founders of Emmaus. He was briefly expelled from the Moravian Church for joining the Pennsylvania militia during the Revolutionary War, but then welcomed back when the war was over. (Moravians are traditionally pacifists.) It remained occupied until 1975.
Traditional Barn
A traditional barn and home, now part of the Wildlands Conservancy
Wildlands Conservancy Trail
A trail at the Wildlands Conservancy
Emmaus Moravian Church
The Emmaus Moravian Church, founded in 1747
God's Acre
God's Acre is the site of the area's first multi-denominational community church, erected in 1742, and its original cemetery. The first burial here was in 1743. Simply-engraved flat stones mark the graves of Moravian Congregation original members, two Indian girls, and Emmaus men who served in the American Army in the Revolution. 'God's Acre' (Gottesacker, literally 'Field of God') is an ancient Germanic term for a burial ground and now is the traditional term used for Moravian cemeteries.

In the world, but not of the world

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Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 5, 2009

Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
Emmaus, Pennsylvania

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Yesterday was the 233rd anniversary of our country. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the town of Emmaus and its 150th anniversary as an incorporated borough of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This parish is also 22 years old this year, depending on the starting point one chooses. And this year marks the 2000th birthday of our parish’s patron, the Holy Apostle Paul.

I mention all these anniversaries, because they have in common one thing: place. One cannot conceive of the birthday of the United States without calling to mind the continent which is its home or of the city of Philadelphia just south of us. Likewise, the borough of Emmaus has a geography and a history which define it. The same is true for our church, and even in remembering the birthday of St. Paul, it brings to mind his own home town of Tarsus, and it brings to mind this church.

Our modern society, however, seems to have an antipathy toward homes and places. Most people in America almost gladly move to any part of the country to follow their careers. We have no problem traveling to the other side of the Lehigh Valley to get the best price on groceries. If we want something unavailable locally, we simply get online and order it via the Internet. Most of us do not know the people who produce our eggs, beef or milk, those who grow our vegetables, those who build our cars. For many of us, the concept of a “home town” is almost foreign, since the place where one was born, the place where one lives, and the place where one works can easily be three separate towns.

This placelessness is nearly endemic to our world, especially as globalization turns the world not into a global village but rather into an impersonal monoculture which is piped into our homes through our television and computer screens, enabling us more and more to be alienated and separated from the people whose relationships to us used to be mediated by our basic acts of commerce and community. Though there are exceptions, and I hope that many of us are among them, Americans in general do not know their neighbors, even if they share a wall with them.

English is rare among languages in that it can make the distinction between a house and a home. When we think of “home,” what do we think of? Do we think only of our house? Do we think of a home town? Do we think about family? Do we think about our church? We might be tempted as Christians to say that we truly have no home here on Earth, because our true home is in Heaven. Stated like that, that is certainly true. But does this mean that our modern placelessness is somehow a theological good, that our society has evolved to such a state of detachment from the world that we are nearly ready for Heaven? I think any honest assessment of our culture would quickly and resoundingly deny our readiness for Heaven. Our cultural placelessness has not detached us from the world and prepared us for the Kingdom of God.

We know from the Scripture that God calls us to be in the world, but not of the world. Placelessness does not fulfill this command but rather denies its whole context. Placelessness is in fact the opposite, making us of the world but not in it. We as a culture are deeply attached to the pleasures of this world, all the while blind to the very place in which we stand. We know more about politics in California or in Washington, D.C., than we do in Emmaus. We know more about musicians born in Canada and performing on gigantic stages than we do those born in the Lehigh Valley and performing at the local farmer’s market.

So what is the proper relationship of the Kingdom of God to the kingdoms and boroughs of this world? What should we as Christians be doing in and for the places where our homes are, the place where our church is? We know that, in the end, there will be a new Heaven and a new Earth, that the kingdoms of this world will be baptized with fire and superseded by the Kingdom of Heaven. Does this mean that we should simply ignore this place where we find ourselves, just waiting out the Apocalypse?

As you may imagine, the answer to that question is “No.” We are called to be pilgrims in this world, journeying to the Kingdom of Heaven. But if you have ever gone on a pilgrimage, you know that the whole experience is dominated by place, whether it is the destination or the journey to it. One cannot be a pilgrim and be nowhere. The pilgrim is where he is. He is changed by the place where he is, and his presence changes it.

The very word parish comes from a Greek term meaning “sojourning.” We are sojourners here in Emmaus, here in the Lehigh Valley. We are taking up our residence here in this home for a while as we journey to our ultimate Home, which we shall not see in its fullness until after death or until Christ comes again. But in our sojourn, the Master of this home and of the Home which is to come has called upon us to do whatever we can to make this place reflect the Home toward which we are oriented.

Yes, we are surrounded by a world afflicted by entropy, the tendency to break down, to fall into corruption, both physical and spiritual. But especially here in this holy house, in this holy home, we are also surrounded by the divine energy, the creative and dynamic power of God which heals that which is broken and restores that which is corrupt. Though we find ourselves in a world of decay and death, we worship and participate in the God of resurrection, the God of the living.

Thus, we who are Christians wield a curious and awesome authority. We have the authority to participate in the transformation of this place, not to make it something other than Emmaus, Pennsylvania, something other than the Lehigh Valley, something other than America. History may well make those changes all on its own. Rather, we are called to make Emmaus, the Lehigh Valley, and America into what the ancient Christian Celts would have called “a thin place,” a place where the boundary between this world and the next is so thin that the divine breaks easily through the veil and touches those on the other side. If you have ever been to such a place, such as Iona or Lindisfarne, the grave of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, the relics of St. John of San Francisco, or the tomb of Christ, then you will know what I mean. If you have never been, it is time to begin the pilgrimage.

Our calling is to bring the Kingdom of Heaven into the kingdoms of this world. We accomplish this by the authority given to us by God and through the power that He alone wields. If you know anything about the Biblical Emmaus which gives this borough its name, you know that when the disciples broke bread there with the Lord Jesus Christ, they saw Him for Who He was. It was in that Eucharistic moment that true communion, true community was possible.

Every Sunday and perhaps every day, we find ourselves on the road to this Emmaus. And in this one, like the first one, we are also called to commune with our Lord Jesus Christ, to know the dangerous possibility of real community by means of the one Cup and the one Bread. And in doing so, we begin to make the boundary between this world and the next just a bit thinner, so that at this place on 156 East Main Street in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, people will say that here is a holy place. Indeed, the boundary within ourselves becomes thinner, and when people draw near to us, they find themselves encountering Christ.

The degree to which we are serious about our own faith is the degree to which this can happen. It can happen if we pray every day, teaching our children how to do so and using our authority in their lives to prioritize not the passing pursuits of this world but rather what it takes to gain eternal life. It can happen if we put our money where our mouths are, giving back to God just one tenth of the abundance He has given us. It can happen if we are serious about worship, praying not just privately at home but also corporately in this holy house, not just on Sunday morning for 90 minutes but every time we can get away from worldly pursuits to plunge ourselves into Heavenly ones. What happens here, this miracle of communion and community, is not just “a part” of our lives—this is our life.

This past week, I moved for the 20th time in my life, and for those keeping score, it was the 21st move for my wife Nicole. I have lived in six U.S. states and one unincorporated territory, including fourteen separate towns and cities. We know well what placelessness is all about, and we are tired of it. Our hope and our prayer as we begin this new chapter in our own lives is that all the many relocations which have preceded our time here turn out to be simply the prologue to the story of our sojourn for the rest of this earthly life, here in Emmaus.

Our prayer also is that together as a parish family, for as long as God may grant to us, that we work together as co-workers, building and growing not only the quantity of people in this holy house, but also the quality of those in this holy house. We pray that we and this place may become thinner and thinner, more and more transparent, that people will come here, whether invited by us or more directly by the Holy Spirit Himself, and they will say, “There God dwells among His people. In that place, Heaven shines through.”

To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.