The road turns right almost as soon as it leaves the village, and twists again in the other direction at a place where a bit of lake-edge swamp comes up close to the pavement. That's where something changes, at that spot. I don't know what it is: but each time I come here, I get that same feeling whenever I pass that stand of reeds: that I have left one part of this particular world and stepped into another.
It's the woods in part: woods almost always get to me, especially when they're near water. I know that. I do indeed have a "thing" for woods and hills, because that's where I first sampled this particular taste, in taller forests and bigger mountains, many years ago. But people report the same feeling in deserts and dunes, on the top of barren screes, on buttes, at wide silver water, along a shore at low tide. There are sacred rocks well known to the people who live close to them, and holy springs, and clearings that have a certain radical peacefulness. Who knows? Maybe there's some phone booth on a Manhattan street corner that has something special about it. I'm not willing to rule it out.
Up here in the Madawaska Valley there are miles and miles of wood, and miles and miles (although not as many) of riverside and lake edge. It's lovely, wild, bony country. When you're here, you get clonked with the realization that this is the civilized, highly populated fringe of the Canadian Shield, and the Real Thing goes on and on, largely unpeopled, for, oh, something like a thousand kilometers to the north and west: a huge mass, terrifying in its immensity. Is that vastness spotted, as this country is, with places with this feeling? Or do you have to have people there to notice the feeling? It's the old tree-falling-in-the-forest problem. (Would God be in this world if we weren't here too? I think too highly of moose to believe otherwise.)
But there is that feeling here, just at the turn in the road and on. It's somewhat thicker and stronger where the community has its white-painted house and its working buildings, and thicker and stronger still on the island among the reeds, where the log chapel stands. A sense of something peaceful and yet gloriously alive: of Joy lurking somewhere in the landscape.
The Celtic tradition had a phrase for it (Celtic tradition would, of course!): it call places like this "thin places," or so I've been told. There are spots where this world and the realm of the spirit come close together, some claim. That may be; or it may be that there are some places, like some chords in music, that evoke something spiritual in people, as the smell of burning leaves can bring back childhood to many of us; and that some places have more of that power of evocation than others. Whatever. I don't know, and I'm not sure it's all that important anyway. Even if scientists could pin down the loci of the brain centers involved and isolate the requisite stimuli, would it really make any difference?
The important thing about this particular thin spot (or whatever you want to call it) is that it fetched a holy woman--a brilliant, passionate, fiercely courageous woman whose Godlove was huge and whose energy was boundless--and she found her own particular Madonna in these sandy pine woods. Her cabin is on the island and the feeling there is so thick you could almost slice it and use it for shingles. She founded a community that keeps going through hard work and cheerful begging and that has tendrils reaching far out into the world. I come to visit this community sometimes, partly for the community itself, but largely because this place feels like a drink of cold water when you're really thirsty.
I was talking about all this to an old priest who lives here, one who'd been close to the holy woman and had known this place almost from the first days of the community. I asked him the tree-falling-in-the-forest question: did that woman find Mother Mary already here in the woods, or did her prayers bring Mother Mary here? Mary had always been here, he said; the woman had only named her and had taken root here because of Mary's presence. Question answered.
But, he said, while there are places that call us toward holiness, maybe it's a two-way street. Maybe there are places that we can help make holy. That felt right: I have known places (my home church is one such) that seem to seep the same feeling from their walls as I got from this place, as though the prayers and joy and pain and angel-wrestling of the people who had worshipped here had, in some fashion, sunk into the very fabric of the joint. The priest said (he had known her very well) that the woman's cabin was like that; it was, for him, full of the scent of her agony. What had that agony been? I asked him. "That Love goes so unloved," he answered.
Maybe--I don't know--if we could be completely open to God's love, as we never seem to be able to do, maybe we could make more thin places. Maybe by love and prayer we could clear some of the rust and debris that evil has left spotted on the face of this earth, the scars on the faces of God's children, by facing them front-on and loving them as best we can.
A more radical thought: maybe we could work on becoming ourselves the thinnest places we can manage to be. Not thin in the sense of meagerness, as fashion models are thin--in fact, now that I think about it, the "thin place" people I know are as often as not quite comfortably upholstered--but thin in the sense of transparency: being as full as we can hold of the love of God, and leaking it like crazy. Highly permeable membranes. The priest himself was like that; he leaked a deep and quiet peace.
Sounds simple, becoming a thin-place person; but in fact, it's not easy at all. Our notion of love often isn't Love but ego, and it needs to be stripped down to the chassis and rebuilt. It means giving God leave to do whatever we need to undergo if we're to become the vessels God wants us to be. That may involve being opened and stretched in ways that I, for one, find terribly painful at times. God's hand is very tough on the clay at times, and if you think that's rough, you should see what he does to brass.
And sometimes it seems like it's all for nothing. Listening to the priest talk about the woman who had lived here, I felt like a scant and wavering taper next to a glowing potbellied stove. I feel muffled off from God's love so much of the time. I can take only a sip at a time of all the living water on offer, however much I want to gulp it down. I've got my areas of indifference or cruelty, spite and self-serving. I too don't want to see or be seen too much or with any real accuracy. I too don't love Love, or at least not often or nearly well enough.
But the thin-place places and the thin-place people don't judge us; they call us, fetch us, offer us the startling gift of grace, get lodged deep in our inmost selves. They tell us, here, this is what Love tastes like, this is what Love's supposed to be. And nothing else ever really feels the same--which is good, really; it keeps us from looking for God's Love in things and people that aren't equipped to give it. It helps if you can see that the idols are only plaster; you can even feel sorry for them.
God-love is alive and active in this world; God's fingerprints are all over the landscape. That love bubbles through among these particular pines and rocks and in communities like this, but it also surfaces in all love: in a mother's gaze on her sleeping child, in the affection of friends or care for strangers, for all love is ultimately God's, love passed on. It's in the stillness of contemplation and in the action that flows out from it. It's yeasty and unstoppable and willing to suffer anything to get through our stubborn unlovingness to reach us. It's here. You just have to be willing to step into your particular woods, stand still, breathe deep, and open your soul to it.
For Fr. Emile