‘Perhaps the quintessentially thin experience is the act of human kindness at its spontaneous, miraculous, best.’
We all have some idea of ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ places. ‘Thick’ places are intrusive, irritating and bothersome. We have to fit in to them, to change, and accommodate ourselves to them. For me that’s noisy cities, especially busy train stations. By contrast, ‘thin’ places are those where what is – what is physically real, what we can get hold of – somehow thins out, to allow access to another world. We sense this spiritual dimension alongside, or behind, the physical reality of a place, in the same way as we might find a backing to a picture.
Most of us can all think of examples of thin places. They seem to have this signalling or revelatory quality to them, leading to an extra dimension of depth behind the everyday world. The Gower Peninsula is one of mine. The Irish and the Welsh (thin places: lleoedd tenau), have been said to be especially sensitive to them.
Alongside thick and thin places, we can also think of thick and thin experiences. Anger and anxiety, in this way, might be thought of as thick personal experiences, which blot out other aspects of reality. Thin experiences are the exact opposite. Notable thin experiences are those times that we appreciate something extra, beyond what is simply functional in any particular sensory experience. The beauty of birdsong is a good example of such an ‘extra’, beyond the survival or practical value to the bird. So are the amazing weaving movements and colours of butterflies, as recently described in a poem in these pages by Jonathan Wooding. Other examples are the extra gratuitous beauty – sometimes quite overwhelmingly so – of flowers or music.
In this way, beauty, or value, is a very basic ‘thin’ experience. Perhaps the quintessentially thin experience is the act of human kindness at its spontaneous, miraculous, best. Emmanuel Levinas wrote a great deal about this aspect of ethics, as did Plato, many centuries earlier. Aspects of nature, on one level, and the Good in human experience, on another, have this thin quality, and provide an experience of revelation.
Thin experience is a pointer to the spiritually transcendent. These experiences do not shoehorn easily into a scientistic frame of reference. The transcendent can be described as an extra aspect of the world and humanity, which touches, at moments, our existential human situation. How might we explain it? Many people try to grasp it in terms of the sacred, or divine.
But however we try to grapple with it, it exists. Levinas and Plato, and bird- and butterfly-watchers, are simply describing it. Thin experience is substantially different to the hidden God of Isaiah, so familiar to the poet RS Thomas. It is not something absent, but something present. It need not be effaced or eradicated by logic. The ‘thin’ adds quality to life, and to life’s meaning, and remains utterly mysterious.
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