Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/20/2011

Me ‘n Angela Foligno, falling into thin places (to be read skeptically)

A few days ago I was talking with an old friend (well, he’s not old—not quite as old as I am). We met when we were both wee tykes—one of those friendships that hibernates for years and resurfaces at some later time. I was telling him (he’s a clergy person now—no, not one of those, but of the out gay variety) about my coming to the point of virtually no belief in anything religious. I mentioned my fairly regular attendance at the big Episcopal church to hear the music. I said, in spite of my lack of belief, virtually every time I attend services there, I experience a “thin place,” that is, “a place where mortals like ourselves are most likely to travel to the other world” (1). These are places, for example, in Irish mythology where the Leprechauns slip through to bother humans.

My use of the term “thin place” comes from Marcus Borg, who says

A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened. They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts and we behold (the “ahaah of The Divine”) . . . all around us and in us (2).

In my conversation with my friend, I attributed the idea to the wrong theologian because I drift through life unable to pin almost anything down, especially ideas or experiences that are not physical in some way. I’ve never met Marcus Borg (I do have his book, so you’d think that would enable me to pin it down). I blame TLEpilepsy. An altered state of reality. Or simple inattentiveness.

Once again, I’m writing about, I suppose, some kind of “religious” experience even though I declare absolutely that this is not a blog about religion. So I’ll rush right in where I don’t intend to tread.

This vision transcends the illusion of separateness to discern the unity, the unbroken wholeness that underlies the diverse forms of the universe. Our perception of connectedness, of our integral place in the web of life, emerges as an attribute of our connection with the eternal, beatific source of all existence (3).

Maxwell, a physicist, is writing about “an emergent ecological vision” that is “consistent with modern science and rooted in the perennial wisdom of the world’s spiritual traditions.” I’m not sure I understand his article. However, when I attend services at St. Michael and All Angels, I get so close to a “thin place” where—please don’t accuse me of mysticism or heightened religious experience brought on by TLEpilepsy—my “perception of connectedness, of our integral place in the web of life, emerges as an attribute of our connection with the eternal, beatific source of all existence.” Notice, I did not say “my” integral place or “my” connection with the eternal. I quoted Maxwell directly: “our” place and “our” connection. I did say it’s “my” perception.

Whether it’s our place or mine, it is my perception, and it’s a pain in the neck. I may perceive I’m connected to the “diverse forms of the universe,” but I cannot figure out why on earth that perception comes alive singing a Psalm in the middle of a service about Jesus, almost none of which I believe (even metaphorically or in some other way designed to make belief possible). I don’t get it. My old friend the gay clergy person, when I said I almost always fall into one of those bothersome “thin places” during the service, said something to the effect that I have a very high percentage of those experiences during church services. His implication was that most people don’t very often fall into one of those “thin places” at those times.

This whole business is a pain in the neck because I don’t understand either why I set myself up for it or why it happens. Shall I try to explain “it?” First there is always an emotional thing going on that has no obvious cause or purpose. It’s simply overwhelming. Not grief (I think), not pain (I know). I don’t know, but the emotion is powerful. I usually have to stifle tears. Or not stifle them. And I can’t continue reading or singing. It’s a pain in the neck. And then there’s the problem of perception. It’s something like the altered perception of a TLE seizure, but not quite. The huge space doesn’t recede into the wrong end of the telescope, but almost. It’s just weird, and I’m not going to say any more.

So my “thin place” is really just a seizure? Maybe. Maybe not. I read a lot about this stuff because I want to figure it out. I’d be ecstatic (bad pun) to discover it’s all neurological. I convince myself often that it’s only an emotional response to what’s going on in the service, a conditioned response brought about by a lifetime of associations, most of which are esthetically and socially pleasing—beginning with sitting on my mother’s lap hearing her sing and looking at the stained glass windows of the First Baptist Church when I was five years old. That explains, of course, why falling into a “thin place” happens in church. I just need to get over it. Stay away from churches. Or talk to my neurologist about it again.

Instead I foolishly search databases for combinations of terms such as “Eucharist experience numinous spirit.” What do I expect? Articles about horse racing?

Here’s the kicker. Much of the “religious” experience scholars write about seems fantastically strange. My database search yesterday (once more trying to find some explanation for my falling into those thin places—prompted by my conversation with my friend) produced the article, “Ingesting Bodily Filth: Defilement in the Spirituality of Angela of Foligno.” I couldn’t resist. I won’t tell you the details. It’s nothing you can find in a Yahoo online group. It’s disgusting. But, of course, I read most of it. Repulsed? Yes. Mesmerized? Yes. Angela and others (surprisingly, St. Francis of Assisi)

all demonstrate that depravity can be a condition for sanctity. In the unique case of Angela, her revolting repast and defilement become a sacred act reminiscent of the Eucharist, representing her “descent” into spiritual exaltation and joy. . . reminding us that the spiritual journey toward God can be as complex and contradictory as the lives of the saints themselves (4).

One might wonder why Molly Morrison, Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Ohio State University researched this and why a prestigious journal of Romance languages published it. And why I read it or am writing about it here.

Simple. People fall into the “thin places” all the time. Or they make up the thin places—sometimes through extreme measures. I stumble into them at church services—and elsewhere, let me hasten to add. I have no clue what they mean. I only know that I, virtual non-believer that I am, keep having this “perception of connectedness.” I suppose if I go to church this morning, it’s because—for all of my protestations—I want to have the experience. Me ‘n Angela Foligno. Episcopal church services aren’t the only place I fall into “thin places,” but they almost never fail.
_______________
(1) Morehouse, John. “Thin Places: A Sermon.” Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Feb. 1, 2004. Web. 20 Mar. 2011.
(2) Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity (2003). Quoted in Morehouse (I’m too lazy to find my copy right now).
(3) Maxwell, Thomas P. “Considering Spirituality: Integral Spirituality, Deep Science, and Ecological Awareness.” Zygon 38.2 (June 2003).
(4) Morrison, Molly. “Ingesting Bodily Filth: Defilement in the Spirituality of Angela of Foligno.” Romance Quarterly 50.3 (Summer 2003): 204-216.

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  1. Just let the mystery be…

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