By Tori Black
When my father, an only child, passed away, it was time for my grandmother to relocate. She was 82 and living by herself in a rather remote location but now she was without my father to keep tabs on her. Her home was a one-bedroom cabin, and it was always neat and tidy. As my siblings and I prepared to move her, we were a little amazed to discover just how much stuff she had. She was a genius at squirreling away the bits and bobs of life. In tiny house parlance, she understood the practical aspects of “living small.”
My grandmother, however, did not squirrel things away because she was part of some movement in search of simpler living. She hid away her belongings because she had lived through thin times. Her family had immigrated from Poland before she was born, settling in Pennsylvania coal country. Her father died when she was 15 years old, and shortly thereafter the Great Depression cast its long, thin shadow across the planet. She and her mother and four brothers worked together to survive.
In those meager times, my grandmother learned to “pinch nickels until they made dimes.” She did this by keeping and using those bits and bobs – flour sacks, yarn, scraps of old clothing – and fashioning them into new and useful household items. The skills and thrift born of necessity in her youth gave her the means to provide for her family and bless others during challenging times. In seasons of plenty, she prepared for the lean because she knew that times of abundance don’t last forever.
My grandmother had respect for thin times. Maybe that is why she also respected thin places. The ancient Celtic Christians had a saying, “heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.” “Thin places” are sacred locations where earth and heaven meet. Of thin places, George MacLeod, a minister in the Church of Scotland during the Great Depression said, “only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual.” For my Catholic grandmother, that meant cemeteries and shrines – the settings where she most closely felt the comforting and protecting presence of God and her beloved, departed family.
Author Eric Weiner says that thin places “transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.” The thinnest of places are where the people who made us and make us are also the thickest – family and home. Isn’t it interesting that in a world that is grappling with the definition and meaning of family, with so many distractions that pull at family members and on family time, with evils that corrode this foundation for life, that a tiny microbe should force upon us this thinness of time and return us to our most hallowed of thin places – home. Coincidence? I think not.
Like my grandmother, who lived through economic hardship and loss of loved ones, but who ultimately overcame them, we have been presented with our own moment of thin time and thin place. There is no disputing the tragedy that has accompanied this pandemic. Likewise, there is no denying the opportunity it presents for us to strengthen our families.
In a 2005 speech titled “Protect Our Homes, Renew Our Powers,” Shirley R. Klein, former associate professor and chair of the Home and Family Living Program in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, addressed the negative influences tearing at the threads of our social fabric and stealing their way into our homes. She likened it to a war being waged on our homes and recommended a strategy to protect and defend them.
Klein suggests that we reinforce the sacred nature of home by consecrating “everyday activities…such as mealtime, prayer, scripture study, music, caring for your home and yard, recreation, laundry, and everything else that takes place in and around your home.” Home is where we learn and hone character virtues and ethical behavior. It is where families “learn about moral truths and practice honesty, patience, brotherly kindness, and charity in their daily interactions.” As author Leila Marie Lawler so wisely puts it, “The home is the School of Virtue.”
Lawler makes the point that just as the world has forgotten the meaning of the family, it has lost touch with the deeper meaning of the Christmas season. An increasingly secular society has narrowed and diminished Advent, those four weeks when we remember the mother preparing for the birth of her Son, the promised Savior, and her husband, so faithfully shouldering his responsibility to protect. But, in a fortuitous twist, the pandemic of 2020, has curtailed many of the events by which we have traditionally observed the season and simultaneously allowed us to re-evaluate what is truly important and what makes Christmas the best of “thin” times – when heaven is close.
So, may our holidays always be “thin,” and as this momentous year draws to a close, may we remember the lessons we have learned as we have experienced thin times and the connection we have felt as heaven and earth have brushed shoulders while we gathered our families close and sheltered them from harm. There are still challenging days ahead of us. There will always be. But we can be certain of the guiding hand of Providence as we work to honor and protect our homes and families.