By Doug Gehrman
There existed “thin places,” the early Celtic people believed, where one could experience closer access to God and the divine. You’ve maybe been to such a place, where the veil between our human existence and heaven seemed so “thin” as to be translucent. The Grand Canyon, Michelangelo’s David, St. Peter’s Basilica, The Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Spiritual clarity reaches a higher level and the sacred becomes visible.
In the Celtic belief, God was everywhere and there was little separating the secular from the divine; you just had to look for it and experience it. The light at dusk behind a cloud, sun through rain, a moment shared, a hand offered. It could be anything or found anywhere.
Some of my “thin” places are the births of our three children, the birth of my sister, my marriage to my wife, certain beauties within nature, the kindness strangers have extended me, the power of the love of my mother, and so many parts of living.
Thin places continue to appear in my life. During a trip to India in December 2011, I had the opportunity to see the Taj Mahal. My father had been to the Taj in 1931, and I wanted to relive his experience. I had seen pictures of the Taj Mahal so I thought I’d be ready for what I was about to see. I was in for an awakening.
Before the Taj was revealed, I entered a courtyard, traveled up several steps, and walked through a short gallery for my first viewing. As I got ready, I thought to myself that I was just crossing something off my list. I wasn’t expecting anything special to happen. But when I stepped through the gate, my breath caught. I was humbled at the beauty of the building and gardens. I wondered what the picture had missed. What it couldn’t capture. The size of the Taj, the smell of the gardens, the perfect blue sky, the detailed inlay of precious stones, and the realization that I was in the presence of something special. The grandeur and symbolism of the Taj Mahal cannot be communicated in a still photograph.
Construction of the Taj began in 1632 and took over twenty years to complete. The work of over twenty thousand laborers, artisans, architects, and engineers, combined with a thousand elephants, created the mausoleum. It was commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and built with great sacrifice, motivated by the passionate love Shah Jahan had for his wife. Love is powerful.
The building rests on a marble foundation about twenty feet high, which lifts the perspective of the building off the ground. The Taj was framed by a clear blue sky that day. Because of the elevation provided by the foundation, the building appeared to be floating on its way to heaven.
I wondered how man could create something so magnificent, and at the same time regretted that I would never create such beauty. It seemed strange to cry at the sight of it, but the image was so intense, I couldn’t contain my feelings. I was looking at the most beautiful and inspiring manmade structure I had ever seen.
I encountered another “thin place” in the fall of 2013. My wife and I were traveling down the Rhine River, and one of our stops was Passau, Germany. In Passau, we visited the town cathedral for an organ concert. The spectacular cathedral boasted an organ that I believe is the largest in the world—the organ contained a total of seventeen thousand pipes divided in five different sanctuary locations.
In that sacred place the concert began. On the commencement of the first few organ notes, I became moved. The beauty was overwhelming: a combination of the music, the skill, and passion of the organist, and the regal aesthetics of the church setting. I wanted the moment to last for hours, but of course it didn’t.
“Thin places” are inspirational, emotional, and transcending. For me, “thin places” are created out of love. It was the love of the Shah for his wife, the love and passion of the music composers, the love of the organist to bring the music to life, and the love of those who built the beautiful cathedral that spoke to me.
In my lifetime, I have missed many “thin places.” My focus was always on the goal. To see India. To see as much as possible along the Rhine and Danube. To get the degree, secure the job and promotion, finish the book, get fit, lose weight.
For years, I drove to the office, five days a week. If you asked me to name the cross streets on my route or businesses I passed, I couldn’t. I focused completely on my life’s goals, and as a result, I must have missed many “thin places” on my way to achieve them. Experiencing “thin places” requires a discipline and sensitivity to the world around us, and I wish to experience as many as possible.
Upon reflection, I need to stay in the moment, be observant, and approach life with an attitude of love. If I do, I will likely experience the “thin” places that are part of the everyday. And if my love and compassion are strong enough, I can create “thin” places in those desolate and empty places I encounter. This means I must try to see the divine in every person and connect with each person’s desire for belonging, respect, connection; in other words, I must love them.
Doug Gehrman teaches transformational leadership at Houston Baptist University. He had a 40-year corporate career in energy and financial services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.