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Thin Places

November 4, 2018

Helen Jacobi 

All Saints' Day     Isaiah 25:6-9     Psalm 24     Revelation 21:1-6     John 11:32-44

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“There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller … poet Sharlande Sledge gives this description. 

‘Thin places, the Celts call this space, 

Both seen and unseen, 

Where the door between the world 

And the next is cracked open for a moment 

And the light is not all on the other side.’” [1] 


All Saints’ Day is a “thin place” day. A day when we feel we can reach through the barrier of time and space and touch our loved ones whom we see no more. 

If we come today remembering someone who has died recently our sorrow might be acute – and that is ok. If we remember someone whom we lost long ago our sorrow will return – and that is ok. Or maybe we are pleased to have a moment to focus and to remember. And so we are not so much sorrowful as hopeful or peaceful, and that is ok. 


I have been spending time the last couple of weeks discovering the stories of people whom I didn’t know but who were known by this church, this space. 

I have been researching the 51 soldiers memorialized on our walls (and the three whose names were left off). We walk past their names every time we walk into church, usually without a second thought. Every now 

and then a poppy is placed on the memorial and we know someone has stopped to remember. 


Next Sunday is Armistice Day, 100 years since the end of World War One; and so in preparation I have been researching and finding myself in one of those thin places. When the memorial was dedicated on 27 February 1921 the bishop of Auckland, Bishop Averill said: “We know that those brave heroes are not lying in scattered graves, but that they form a part of that encompassing crowd of witnesses who have passed from death to life and under the leadership of the Great Captain, are leading a fuller and higher existence.” [2] 


The “crowd of witnesses” is a phrase from St Paul that we use on All Saints Day to think of ourselves joining with the “saints”. St Paul said we are all “saints” not just the super holy, super perfect ones. 


Also at the dedication of the memorial the Governor General, Lord Jellico said “that the call of arms was obeyed by the glorious dead whose memory was perpetuated by the memorial. They had answered the call of duty to God, to the King, to the Empire, and themselves.” [3]


How strange that language sounds to us today. History has taught us the futility and waste of World War One – the trenches, the massacre at Gallipoli. 

18, 277 deaths from our population of just over one million. Everyone knew someone who had died. So no wonder there are 51 names listed in our church. 


The Vestry at the time decided “That marble tablets be erected in the church containing the names of all from St Matthew’s Parish who have fallen, irrespective of denomination and that the names of others who have been associated in any way with St Matthew’s be also incorporated.” [4]


Even in 1920 St Matthew’s was a place for all – to be willing to name anyone of any denomination was a bit radical for those days. 


The vicar at the time was William Gillam – he took leave from the parish and did three tours of duty. When he first left to serve in 1915 the parish threw a big party and showered him with gifts [5]. He served on the hospital ship Maheno at Gallipoli and returned to a hero’s welcome. When he left again in 1916 he asked that there be no farewell. He had seen by then the horrors of tending to the wounded and performing countless burials. He returned much diminished and unwell and never regained his full strength. His son Floyd was killed and is remembered on our memorial. 

Rev Gillam retired in 1919 and when he died in 1929 his ashes were placed in the pillar by the consecration stone – there is a plaque there to him. 

How often do we hear the comment that the returning soldiers never wished to speak of the war; families only discovered, often after their death, diaries or letters recounting the full tragedy and horrors suffered. How hard it must have been for them to marry up the official language of serving king, empire and God with the sheer agony of what they were asked to do. The disconnect would have been unbearable. And so they did not speak. 


Would they be pleased I wonder that we remember them 100 years later? 

Would they be pleased that we want to reach through the barrier of time and touch their stories? I am sure they would ask us what have we learnt, what do we do differently 100 years on? And we would have to confess the wars that have been waged and the lack of peace and justice in our world.


The passage that we read from the Book of Revelation today would have been one that Rev Gillam and his fellow chaplains read at funerals or to comfort the dying: 

“the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (Rev 21:3-4). 


Did it help them I wonder? Did they understand that God was on no side in the war but with the suffering and the pain and yearning for it to be over? 

Does this passage help us? 

Can we hear that God is not in some far away place but here “among mortals”; here in our joys and in our sorrows. 


The Book of Revelation was written at a time of suffering and persecution for the early Christians so the words are not sweet words designed to cheer people up; they are real words, burnished with suffering that is very real. 


‘Thin places, the Celts call this space, 

Both seen and unseen, 

Where the door between the world 

And the next is cracked open for a moment 

And the light is not all on the other side.’ [6]


The light is not all on the other side; the light is here, where God is present among mortals, dwelling with us, wiping tears from our eyes. 

Thanks be to God. 


[1] Sylvia Maddox


[2] Auckland Star 28 February 1921 


[3] Auckland Star 28 February 1921 


[4] handwritten in a Minute Book conserved for us by our Diocesan Archives, 24 Feb 1920 


[5] p 75 A Place on the Edge Jack Leigh



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