by Jon White
I’ve been visiting Portland this week for the first time in a long time. It was home once, but not anymore. As I’ve walked the city and rode the trains and buses, retracing the familiar pathways, I have felt the resonance of the life I lived here. Though it’s not where I am “from,” I think I have come to appreciate that the me I am was formed and cast here. It was here that I graduated college, here that I married and became a father; here that I discovered faith, was baptized and ordained; and it was here I became a coffee addict and beer snob too. It has been a joy in these past few days to re-connect with old friends, to visit my favorite places, to hear and smell the rhythms of this particular place.
Because I seem wired to think this way, it’s also been a kind of holy experience. Holy in some conventional ways; the apartment building where I had a theophany, the font where I was baptized, embracing the saints who set me on my journey. But the holiness was also present in re-discovering the myriad little pieces of place that one forgets; the quirky salmon bursting through the brick of the seafood market and the sound of the trolley bell and the trains on their tracks. Being surprised by the once familiar and being invited to appreciate again the uniqueness of a place.
It is the resonance of my experiences that imbues that holiness in this place for me. These are the thin places where the divine entered into my life and touched my soul; shaping and forming the mold where the “I” I was to become would be cast. Some are uniquely my own, but some I surely share with others. I can’t be the only one moved by the riverscape at dusk experienced from the center of the Steel Bridge, and I am certainly not the only one to have bowed my head at the font in St Michael’s church to be washed and marked as one of Christ’s own forever.
And those places where so many have experiences of divinity? The resonances of so many individual encounters become so strong that others can feel and experience them even vicariously. They become not just holy, but hallowed, places vibrating with the energy of the ongoing encounter of human and divine.
But I’ve also been thinking of home too and a small parish church I know that is likely soon to be closed. For the small handful that remain, that place surely must seem holy too. The places where they have encountered the thin division between us and God. As much as we like to say church is the people and not the place, we deceive ourselves if we believe the places of our divine encounters aren’t important too.
Yet, I also wonder whether this place-based holiness isn’t a bit like an analog watch, needing its spring to be wound again and again. Some places are probably so deeply imbued with spiritual energy that their unwinding might take centuries or millennia, the locations of Jesus’ life and death perhaps, or pilgrimage trails like the Camino de Santiago. But other places, like parish churches or summer camp chapels seem to need an ongoing encounter to sustain them or the thin place comes to be clouded and not so thin anymore. Places where maybe we stopped looking for or knowing the divine and somehow began to just go through the motions living only on the encounters we knew long ago.
I don’t think this unwinding in any way negates or devalues the holy encounters that once took place there. The consequences of those encounters will continue to unspool far beyond our ken. I imagine the communities to which St Paul wrote his letters. None of the places where those Christians who first heard those words read aloud still stand. In many cases, the cities themselves, once vibrant places of commerce and life no longer exist. But who could possibly argue that long gone Ephesus doesn’t still impact those who would follow where Jesus led?
I know from personal experience what it is to lose a place of personal meaning; it is a sadness and a wistfulness that what was personally important to me won’t be available to anyone else ever again and that feels like loss. Yet, I am still the person formed there and I haven’t lost that. I may wish that my journey might be available to others just the same way, but the world and the Spirit don’t seem to work that way. Oddly perhaps, God doesn’t seem especially sentimental.
In the end we are called to follow a living Jesus, the one who has nowhere to lay his head. The reign of God can break through anywhere and is as likely (maybe even more likely) to show up in a weed choked vacant lot as in a soaring cathedral bathed in the glow of candles and stained glass. Jesus calls us to follow not to stay. And like Paul, maybe we too can come to see what we lose as nothing compared to what we have gained.
Jon White is a priest in the diocese of West Virginia and Managing Editor of the Episcopal Cafe
image: Thurmond coal tower by Jon White