May 2023 Set and Setting Structure

Places and Spaces: Where Are We, Exactly?

A few weeks ago, we talked about Set and Setting. Set means where our heads are at when we encounter or enter into an Extraordinary Spiritual Experience (ESE). Setting means where we are in the material world when an ESE is upon us. One of the subsets of Set and Setting is Places and Spaces. 

Back in the late 1980s, I had the opportunity to go backpacking in the Beartooth Mountains, outside of Red Lodge, MT. The mountains there are high, craggy and rough. The Beartooth Pass rises to 10,500 feet above sea level, and Granite Peak is the highest mountain in the Beartooth Range, at 12,800 feet. The group I was with for my backpacking trip was let off at the top of the Beartooth Path, on the Sky Top Lakes trail. 

Normally, the trail is easily spotted from the road and then easily followed into the deeper realms of the mountains. This year, however, the trail disappeared as soon as we went over a ridge or two. Then we were in many feet of snow. Pretty much anything over 9,000 feet was still covered in deep snow, even though we were there in mid-July. 

Prior to this trip, I bought brand new leather hiking boots. They were Italian and had excellent build quality. I thought I had broken them in, but it turned out I hadn’t, and by the third day on our eighteen day trip, I had massive blisters on both heels. Since we were hiking through wet snow every day, all day, our socks and boots were wet every night. By day five, my blisters were also infected. 

The pain of the blisters was varying degrees of annoying to excruciating. When we came to the ridge leading to the Sky Top Lakes, my heels were like spikes driving up my legs. The pain was unlike anything I had experienced up to that point in my relatively short life (I was 16 at the time). I could taste metal in my mouth as we rose up onto the ridge. My entire body was tingling from the upward hike of the day. Pain resonated through my entire being. Sometimes, I thought, “If I just lie down in the snow here and fall asleep, that would make everything better.” Pain does weird things to the mind. 

Sky Top Lakes, Montana

Then we came to the top of the ridge. The Beartooth vista was below us – fantastic, alien, vast, and glistening white with sunlight and snow. Something flipped inside of me. It was as if my skin became permeable and all the abstract walls that separate me from the world dropped at the same time. I became a pass-through point for light to get from one side to the other and my shadow was merely an effect of presence, not an indicator of person or even thing. It wasn’t that I became one with everything, but there was no division between me and everything else. The fields of hierarchy between self and rock and wind and snow and sun no longer existed. It was as if I were made of some transparent, fluid-like matter that rose up into the experience of the moment. 

This was one of my most profound Extraordinary Spiritual Experiences I have ever had. My conception of what it meant to be a human in relationship to the natural world, or rather, a natural human who experienced that from which we have all arisen, radically altered from that day forward. There was a sense of God in all things, and yet each thing had its own spark of divinity within, a collapse of the universal and the personal. 

I understood during the moments on the ridge that we exist in a continuity within the natural world. I knew that God, or whatever one desires to name the organizing principle(s) of the universe, was a continual presence reflected in the things of creation. I knew that we were small, little things in the face of a vast grandeur, the forgetting of which would be at our peril. I also knew that our capacity to experience and be aware of that experience was a powerful and profound gift which set us on the far end of the continuum of Earth’s creative expression. Beauty, from the point of view of this ESE, was never and could never be “in the eye of the beholder”. Instead, beauty was and is a force of the universe – indefinable and noticeable only in effect and by way of awareness, not unlike gravity, which is a force we only know of by inference rather than by observable presence. The pain in my heels may have been the catalyst for the ESE, or perhaps even the primary source, since passing out from pain was not really an option. After the ESE, the pain in my heels was not so important anymore. If anything, the pain became a grounding presence and a reminder of the permeability of the human creature in the natural world, an anchor to the material in the thrall of the spiritual.  

It is this experience in the mountains upon which most of my other ESEs have been built, and it is why I am exploring these things right up to today. I use the above example as a way to show that places and spaces are highly important as we think about what an ESE means. 

As Wallace Shawn points out in the wonderful movie, My Dinner with Andre, enlightenment is available whether you are at the top of a mountain or at the cigar shop right around the corner. This ESE could have happened anywhere, and that is true. But just as each ESE is unique, so is the Place where it has occurred. 

Places and spaces function as containers or ‘sinks’ that retain the experiences which happen there. The name of a place, those who have been there prior and their stories, stories ancient and new are all held in some way in a space and place. Our interaction with the place and space creates a two-way communication between the self and the information and history contained within a place and space. 

I am speaking somewhat abstractly here, but there is a theory which speaks to what I am saying. It is called Actor-Network Theory (ANT), developed by Bruno Latour. Latour was a French philosopher who focused on technology and modernism. ANT quickly became a highly influential perspective in multiple disciplines, such as anthropology, archeology, sociology, and humanities. ANT essentially says that meaning is not held within persons or things, but instead is generated by the interaction between persons and things. People, things, places, and rituals all become transmitters of information and in that shared relationship, meaning emerges within the network of present meanings held by all the actors, human or otherwise, within that network. All definitions, meanings, and realizations are completely dependent on the relationship between the immediate people, things, places, and rituals of the particular place and space.

ANT goes far to explain locations of ‘thin places’ in the Celtic Isles. Thin places are ‘landscape events’, where the material world becomes loose, hazy, thin. The space becomes a doorway between this world and some other world, often understood to be the realm of the fae, the fairy world. Many of these thin places are well known to the long-term inhabitants of the surrounding land. It is usually thought best to avoid thin places, since engagement with faeries can either go really well for you, or really bad for you, depending on the whim of the faeries. 

Later, after the Christian missionaries established the faith in the land of the fae, such as Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, thin places became the locale of churches and monasteries. New stories were added onto the ancient stories in those places, in the same way new cities are built on top of the location of old and ancient cities. Such places as Tintern Abbey along the River Wye or the Blarney Stone in Ireland are examples of places that were thin places long before Christian influence arrived, and remained thin places, now in the service of a doorway to God and spiritual experiences for the faith. The thin places became places where the distance between the person and the divine became very narrow, in large part because the place itself became a harbor for the transformative and transitional stories of that place. 

View of Tintern Abbey from the River Wye, by Benjamin Williams Leader

Thin places begin to make sense when we think of places as containers of information necessary for making meaning, and when an agent of meaning making, namely a human being, comes into contact with such a place, information is transferred. The story of a place interacts with the history of the person, and the story of the person interacts with the history of the place. We begin to know things in these places we didn’t before. Spaces and places become defined and known by the relationships interacting with those spaces and places. 

I had the privilege of visiting one of my ancestors’ villages in northern Wales, Llandudno. Llandudno is a tourist town, and sits on an outcropping overlooking the Irish Sea. It was also a fishing town when my ancestors lived there. When I got off the train in that village, it was as if I was walking into a dream. I didn’t know anyone, but many of the people there looked like me. I felt ‘at home’ in a place I had never been. Some people acted as if they recognized me, until I spoke, proving myself to be an American traveler. The American traveler is often looked down on in some parts of the UK and Europe, because Americans can be bossy, loud, and unwilling to minimally conform to local customs. I told a group of locals in a restaurant that my last name was Jones and I was visiting where my ancestors lived. Then, the mood of the people changed entirely. It was as if I was a long lost relative welcomed back from a great journey. I was told to go visit a woman in the center of town and she would put me up for the night. 

For me, the whole town was a kind of thin place. The information held, and then unlocked, in a place is not translatable into facts and figures and isolated events. Rather, in my experience in Wales, it was a feeling sense that my DNA was resonating with the memory of place. To be clear, being named “Jones” in Wales is not a surprising thing. It is the most common last name in the country. It also helps that, in the final analysis, few people are friendlier than the Welsh. Information about the place unlocked in a profound way when I stayed with the woman in the center of town. She was in her 70s and was something like the town historian, and was herself a Jones. She fed me, gave me tea, and told me many stories, most of which I no longer remember. Outside her house was a memorial pole with the names of those who had died in wars going back almost 200 years. 

In this place, a network of meanings created a foundation that held deeper meanings for those who would seek them. This is how thin places function, and it is one of the ways ESEs interact with places and spaces around the world. Some of those places and spaces are ancient beyond comprehension, such as most of Wales. Other places and spaces hold the chthonic, natural information of all living things, information that is barely translatable to our understanding. Then, something happens in that space and new networks form. Stories are told. Meanings are made. Relationships develop between people, things, place, and the stories and meanings. These seep into the soil and the land and the rocks and growing things and are held until the network is expanded and new meanings are made. 

ESEs, based on ANT theory and our brief exploration of thin places, depend on these elements to arise and transmit meaning. Deeper knowing comes from not only recognizing the weave of the tapestry in these places, but also weaving ourselves into the stories and meanings that are already there. 

Thank you for reading!

Peace to all.

Rev. Dr. Seth Jones

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