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The Celtic Way of Mission - 9 - thin place thinking - learning from St Cuthbert

Certain events in our life are milestones on our journey of faith. They shape our future and guide our path for many years to come. Cuthbert as a young man was a shepherd on the Lammermuir hills in the Scottish Borders. One night as he was tending sheep he spotted a strange light in the direction of Holy Island. Cuthbert was witnessing the death and ascension to heaven of the spirit of Aidan of Lindisfarne, apostle to Northumbria and founding bishop of the monastery on Holy Island.

The shepherds around him were fast asleep but Cuthbert experienced a powerful divine encounter. David Adam, former vicar of Holy Island and author in his fictional account of the life of Cuthbert suggests Cuthbert spoke the words "we are so dull and full of sleep that we miss the Glory that is around us."1

This awareness of the connection between heaven and earth marks out Cuthbert as someone who knew how to experience and practice thin place thinking. He was sensitive to the activity of heaven being worked out on earth. He had eyes to see when others were asleep. Jesus spoke of this in Mark 8:18 when he said "Do you have eyes but fail to see." There is a reality in the spirit world that takes certain kinds of in-sight to see. It is a grace of God and a posture of the heart.

In the Celtic tradition thin places are locations where the spirit and physical world are somehow closer, more connected. There is a thinness between heaven and earth. Think of Jacob's ladder in Genesis 28:10-19. Jacob went to sleep unaware that this physical location was a place where angels ascended and descended. In the Genesis account, Jacob is in conflict with his brother Esau, yet in this thin place, the Lord appears to him and makes a promise about the land and a covenant with the people of Israel. Jacob's response is "Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not." And he was afraid, and said: "How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."

Thin places are where the presence of God seems to be easier to access. Despite our own internal and external conflicts like Jacob with his brother Esau, we become aware of a bigger picture, a different dimension and perspective. We are reminded of our calling, both personally, as well as the land we inhabit.

This event in Cuthbert's life triggered a sense of call to go to nearby Melrose Abbey and sit at the feet of the Prior, a holy man called Boisil whom the historian Bede called "a priest of great virtue and prophetic spirit."2 When Cuthbert arrived, Boisil in prophetic mode announced "Behold, the servant of the Lord" which was a declaration of the man Cuthbert would become. He spent the next 13 years with the Melrose monks being discipled by Boisil.

This time of training prepared Cuthbert to become a highly effective missionary bishop. According to Ray Simpson "Cuthbert evangelised in Galloway, founded a monastic cell at Dull-by-the-Tay, and even, they say, a prayer cell that grew into St. Andrew’s University. He kept all-night vigil in the sea at Coldingham, and of course founded the church of St. Cuthbert in the shadow of the Great Rock on which stands Edinburgh Castle." 3

In terms of mission and evangelism, if we develop thin place thinking (the ability to see and hear what God is preparing in a place) it makes it easier for us to join in with what God is actively doing. We are aligning our self with God's will and purpose. Think of the apostle Paul being called to Macedonia. God gave him a dream to motivate him to leave his current path and join a new one. This dream was a thin place experience and started a journey that bore much evangelistic fruit.

In the celtic tradition, the gospel is often followed by demonstrations of heaven's reality. This awareness of thin places is revealed in Cuthberts supernatural ministry of healing and prophecy. Cuthbert was famous for his miracles. On one occasion a sheriff asked him to visit his wife who was suffering from mental distress. Cuthbert gave them instructions that I would term as a word of knowledge (1 Cor 12:8). He said ‘Put the reins of this horse into her soon as she touches them she will be healed.’ The wife was healed through the physical realm interacting with the spiritual.

When we are aware of the activity of heaven, it gives us confidence to interact with physical needs on earth. This is why thin place thinking is such an important mindset to develop. What might we do to cultivate thin place thinking? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Be present in a physical location asking the Spirit to reveal where is God already active

  2. Cultivate gifts of the Spirit such as discernment and words of knowledge

  3. Step out in faith and pray for the sick

  4. Be open to God speaking in dreams

  5. Visit locations such as Holy Island and Iona that are known as thin places

Faith and I are moving to Holy Island in March 2021 and will be offering retreats on thin place thinking. You may want to visit.

  1. Fire of the north: the life of St Cuthbert, David Adam.

  2. Celtic Daily Prayer: Book 2, Northumbrian Community, p939

  3. Celtic Saints from the Tay to the Humber, Ray Simpson, an online retreat in Sept 2020.

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