I received an email last month that began this way: “Hi Dr. Geis: You probably don’t remember me but I took your Providence, Suffering, and Freedom class at St. Norbert College in the Spring of 2005. My name was Becky Zehr then. I truly enjoyed your class and valued your insight. I know this may be completely out of line and would not be upset if you did not respond, but I recently buried my infant daughter, and I find myself in a very difficult place. . . . During this turmoil, I am searching for answers or insight and thought of your class . . . and didn’t know if you could guide me in any way. Thank you, Becky.”
Although I don’t recall ever having had any extended conversations with Becky, I recognized her name immediately, and remember her face and beautiful smile quite clearly. This was my first contact with her in nearly 11 years, but I wasn’t at all surprised that my remembrance and recollections of Becky were so vivid. You see, she was a member of one of the most exceptional and memorable classes I have ever taught – and I’ve had a number of pretty exceptional and memorable classes in 23 years of teaching. There were about 30 students in this class which, to a person, changed my life forever, and for good. And that happened in spite of the instructor; it usually does.
Something very special happened in that class where, in my humble opinion, “heaven and earth came closer.” In Celtic spirituality, this “distance” is spoken of in terms of “thin places” – where the outermost “edges” between heaven and earth, between eternity and time, almost “touch.” “Thin places” are those “points” at which we encounter the really real. We don’t go looking for these “thin places” so much as they are dis-covered. I read somewhere of an Apache proverb that says: “Wisdom sits in places.”
“Thin places” are often sacred ones – St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City is one such place for me – but not necessarily so. These “thin places” can be as disparate as the lonely peak of Mt. Everest and a noisy, crowded bar – or even an ordinary classroom.
I have a sort of ritual I’ve observed, for as long as I can remember, at the end of the last class of each semester. After the last student has left, I walk around the classroom and reflect on some of the sweet, special things that happened, as well as some of the awesome truths we discovered together about the world, about each other, and about ourselves. I’m consistently struck by how this ordinary space was, in truth, extra-ordinary: a cathedral of sorts.
And as I walk slowly from seat to seat, placing my hand on the back of each chair, whispering a prayer for each of my students, by name, I thank God for making the “thin places” a little thinner, and my life a lot richer for having known them. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for their having allowed the God who creates and inhabits these “thin places” to love me through them – realizing that they, too, have changed my life forever, and for good. What a gift; what a Grace.