Setting the Inner Compass

THE BATH: A Thin Place

Reading poetry is one of the ways some of us nourish our faith, a way we set or reset our inner compass and stay focused on the big picture, on the spiritual journey. I know that is true for me. In this monthly column, ‘Setting the Inner Compass’ I share some of the poems I find nourishing to the soul.

In recent years, I have noticed a growing interest in Celtic thought and spirituality, a way of approaching Christian faith that invites us to see God as not apart from the world, locked away in religious institutions but in the midst of creation indeed part of creation as well as being more than creation. I think that might be what the psalmist had in mind while writing, “The earth is the Lords and the fullness there of.” Or what Elizabeth Barrett Browning meant when she wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” Nothing against blackberry pluckers.

More and more of us are embracing the creation as, in John Calvin’s words, “The theater of God’s Glory”. We are invited to embrace a God out in the world: in our cities and in the wilderness. God is unbound, mysterious, ever present and always partially hidden and beyond our understanding.

“The whole earth is the theater of God’s glory”. Yet there are some places where people often, not always, but often, feel God as very close, special places that in Celtic thought are called a thin place. In Celtic spirituality, thin places are places where, poetically speaking, the membrane between heaven and earth is almost nonexistent and the Holy feels very near. ‘Thin places’ are in the words of my good friend and Celtic spiritual writer JP Newell, “translucent landscapes where the division between spirit and matter can scarcely be discerned.” In a thin place the veil between humanity and God is so sheer one could almost step through it into the presence of God.

People usually think of thin places as beautiful natural places where “the division between spirit and matter can scarcely be discerned.” I celebrate those places, places like Iona and ‘The Camino”. But the sacred can feel particularly close in other settings. I’ve sensed the “veil between heaven and earth to be very thin sitting in a bar with a close friend talking about things that matter, being with my children, embracing my partner and listening to a blues guitar player playing with so much passion it seems like, no, it is a prayer.”

Another “thin place” where God can be experienced as very close is in moments of compassion and caregiving. This month’s poem is about one of those moments. It is by Laura Gilpin (1950-2007), a nurse. In 1976, Gilpin was awarded the Walt Whitman Award by the Academy of American Poets for her book of poems titled The Hocus-Pocus of the Universe. Gilpin became a registered nurse. She was a founding member of Planetree, which has been described as a “pioneering organization dedicated to humanizing patient care in hospitals”. Gilpin worked to develop and implement hospital care centered around patients.

I find this poem to be beautiful and about a ‘thin place’. It was published in Poetry magazine in May of 1984. I do not know who owns the rights or if it is in the public domain. My mid-summer hope and prayer is that you will be present to the mystery of God and see that even in this broken and divided world, the sacred is present and there are those times when the membrane between heaven and earth is very, very thin.



“The Bath” by Laura Gilpin

I stand here bathing her
while she sleeps
in a far place beyond my reaching.

I bathe her
as I have been taught to do
first the eyes, then the forehead,
the face, the neck.

And as I work
I talk to her-in case she hears me
(believing that hearing is the last to go).

I tell her—I don’t know why
but I tell her the time, day,
the season, what the weather is doing,

lifting each arm to wash and dry it,
laying it down again at her side,
then the chest, the abdomen, each leg.

She offers no resistance,
except that of gravity,
the earth pulling her
down while I lift,
as though something between us
is being weighed.

Then I turn to wash her back
talking to her about what seems to matter
in this life—though I make no promises.

Only this morning
the promise of spring was in the air
and I tell her that.

Rev. Dave Brown is a writer, poet, and the creator/host of Blues Vespers. He speaks about interfaith understanding with Imam Jamal Rahman and serves on the PCUSA Self Development of People Education national committee and the PCUSA Education Roundtable. Dave is the former pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA.

The PCUSA Education Roundtable is working on ways to encourage congregations and individuals to support school boards and public schools as they face increasing attacks from those seeking to ban books and change curriculum in ways that are racist and anti-LGBTQI+ ([email protected]).

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