By Revd Caroline Beckett. First published on her WordPress Blog: WorkPlayRestPray
There is nowhere God is not. Let’s start there.
It’s one of the first things we say about God, that God is everywhere – omnipresent.
That said, I was having a conversation with friends about ‘thin’ places: that in certain places in the world the divide between heaven and earth seems thinner than usual, or God feels nearer. Lindisfarne, Iona, Walsingham, places where revival started, or just places of particular beauty, tranquillity, ferocity or drama. For me, it’s particular trees, or the ocean, or one of the beaches on Iona, or Greenbelt Festival, or a smallish urban garden near Bart’s Hospital, London, where I walked while my husband was dying and which can, even now, be evoked by the scent of rain on certain herbs.
T.S. Eliot, in his poem "Little Gidding" writes of such places, and the complexity of the act and experience of going to them in search of God:
There are other places Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws, Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city-- But this is the nearest, in place and time, Now and in England. If you came this way, Taking any route, starting from anywhere, At any time or at any season, It would always be the same: you would have to put off Sense and notion. You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity Or carry report. You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more Than an order of words, the conscious occupation Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying. And what the dead had no speech for, when living, They can tell you, being dead: the communication Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living. Here, the intersection of the timeless moment Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
As a people, we like a predictable outcome, value for money, the scientific experiment performed 100 times the same that yields a pattern that becomes a principle upon which things (including expectations) can be built. Yet – oh dear! – God does not do God’s part by being predictable. God’s grace is prodigious and prodigal. Just when we think we have the pattern from which we can extrapolate a rule, God breaks in and does something other, extraordinary or new. “You are not here to verify, instruct yourself, or inform curiosity or carry report,” Eliot admonishes. “You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.”
Here are some aspects of what that kneeling looks like in my own spiritual journey: the acceptance of certain things with which a reader may disagree:
That prayer, as a repeated reality in a place over time, can leave a residue – a slow buildup or sediment of faith, or a beaten path between us and God through the wilderness – that changes the place in some way.
That God can break in suddenly, as Jacob saw angels and Moses the burning bush, filling that place with the lasting echoes of that encounter.
That God is not bound to retracing earlier divine steps, but can break in anywhere.
That the confluence of our intent, the place we choose because something about it opens us up, and God’s desire to be met, often results in a meaningful encounter.
That encounter happens more easily in a place that leads me to expect it, or that acts upon me in ways other places do not.
That the mystery of ‘thin’ places is deeply relational in nature because God, in whose image we are, is relational.
That, therefore, the other people present can also make a profound difference to the encounter that takes place.
Accepting these things means I have to do something about the fact that for me, and for many of us, a great deal of our seeking and praying takes place online. The places we visit and inhabit are not solely physical, geographical points on a map, but often generated in digital space. If I believe God is everywhere I am, then God is there and there can be such a thing as digital ‘thin’ places and digital pilgrimage.
It was as Moses went about tending the sheep that he came across the burning bush. If the business we are going about exists mostly in digital space, it is not inconceivable that it’s there God will set things alight in our path. If God is manifest in our built spaces made with physical materials, such as filling the temple (Isaiah 6:1), and if God co-creates and co-curates these spaces of encounter with us, then it’s not too much of a leap to suggest that God is manifest in our digital spaces, built in a different way, or that God co-creates and co-curates them also
Yet the building-inhabiting church often has an instinctive reaction against acknowledging the digital spaces where “prayer has been valid” because they present a different set of benefits and challenges.
Let’s look at some critiques.
You can’t touch the digital, it’s disembodied.
There are many holy sites you can visit but not directly encounter through touch, only through sight and hearing, through a window, or from a distance, such as St. Peter’s Tomb in Rome. I am not sure if it makes a difference, then, if the window is digital. In fact, the view (and audio) through a digital window is often clearer. I am still bringing my bodily senses, I am still embodied as I have a digital experience, and I am still ‘in person’ online.
Many holy sites have websites also: if you have been to the geographical site, the website can evoke that experience, stir it up afresh, re-new it or help you re-member it, piecing it back together, making it real all over again. If you have not been onsite, though, is a secondary experience possible – mediated by those who have been onsite? After all, visiting everywhere ourselves is a relatively modern concept: in older times these places were evoked through the tales, sketches and artefacts of pilgrims.
To the Samaritan woman at the well, caught in disputes over the physical place of worship, Jesus says, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23, NRSV) Was Jesus standing by an ancient well staring into divine knowledge of our digital future? We cannot know.
The digital is ephemeral and transient.
So is a tent, though: you can walk to it, only to find it has moved. Yes, you can follow a URL to a dead end, but likewise, God moves in the Ark and the Tabernacle with the people of God throughout their Exodus wanderings, leaving only a patch of slightly flattened ground behind. Festivals as ‘thin’ places are another example of this.
The digital is anchored to people not places: it has no independent existence.
Neither did the new sacred space of God’s people in exile from their Temple and Holy City. Jesus had nowhere to lay his head, and he said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20, NRSV). The early church was of no fixed abode.
The digital is outside of place and time.
So is God, which perhaps makes these aspects an enhancement not a barrier. The digital brings together voices, thoughts and insights from the communion of saints – those living and those departed – in a way reminiscent of the Transfiguration, with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Going beyond the limitations of geography is a Biblical principle also, as God translocates prophets at need and heals over distance and mediates the lived reality of the early church through the letters of St. Paul. (However, those last are also a cautionary tale – we do not have both sides of that conversation, and context is needed when one takes the local and applies it universally.)
The digital has no history of encounter.
Leaving aside the fact that history is not always a feature of ‘thin’ space, the above statement is in fact no longer true: websites and interactive online spaces have been in existence long enough to gain a character, a flavour, a history built from the interactions occurring there (between people living onsite and online lives and the God they are seeking, and also one another).
I can look at the image on a website that inspired my minister’s sermon, or track the thread that helped someone ask questions and draw nearer to faith, or hear the music that eased the grief of others and have it ease mine too. I can ‘go’ to a space that has inspired others and drink from the same digital well. Online spaces are no longer simply evocative of onsite history or windows onto it, but have a complex, lived, built, layered spiritual and relational history in their own right.
The digital is too immediate: there is no sense of time, travel and effort – of pilgrimage.
The speed and ease of the digital seems at odds with the discipline, effort, waiting and perseverance that characterises traditional accounts of sacred or ‘thin’ spaces. The three points – speed, travel and effort – are separate.
Effort first: this point comes dangerously close to saying we need to earn God’s love. If I live next door to Lindisfarne Priory, is me encountering God there less valid than if I take a car, then a walk? There are also many who, unable to undertake physical pilgrimage, undertake it digitally. They are not so different to the paralytic carried on a mat by friends who broke a hole in the roof for him. The digital is definitely roof-breaking for many.
Travel next. What the digital does do is collapse the boundaries between our various worlds, enabling me to be in my living room and on Iona. Perhaps this touches the edges of that which makes it possible to eat both bread and the body of Christ, the one physically and the other spiritually. Where do we ‘go’ when we pray or have visions, after all? In the body or out of the body – even St. Paul did not know. As Christians we are accustomed to living in more than one realm. The digital extending this makes a kind of sense.
Now for speed. In a digital age many things are faster, but the human brain and its processing speed is the limiting factor. It has been said that online spaces like Twitter or TikTok cannot be a locus of divine-human encounter because of their brevity. But we do not measure other things this way. Seconds of injection are efficacious for years. The marriage vows take minutes to say and a lifetime to understand and enact. For how long did Jacob see the angels? How long was Mary’s life-altering conversation with the risen Christ?
It is an accepted pattern in the spiritual life that a brief moment contains the concentrated injection of the divine which takes weeks, months or even years to fully unfold and work in us. Anything brief that evokes larger concepts can download in the brain like a zip file to be unpacked over subsequent days, or create life like a spiritual seed bomb. Liturgy does this, and so does poetry. One line – for example, “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep” – can connect us to many other texts, experiences, realities and truths at once, some opening up straight away, others sowing seeds in us that only break the surface much later.
So are digital ‘thin places’ possible? I do believe so. I believe digital spaces can operate in most of the ways onsite spaces can, and in some ways they cannot. And for their detractors, perhaps the very difficulty of the pilgrimage to them for those unfamiliar with the medium is part of the wrestling with God that so often occurs in the divine-human encounter which has rarely, if ever, been an entirely comfortable or completely familiar experience.
There is nowhere God is not. Let’s end there.