Looking at William Blake’s interpretation of Jacob’s dream, I’m struck by how I’d always imagined the angels to be coming and going on the ladder to heaven full of busyness and purpose, occupied with the work of God. Blake seems to see the ladder more as an elegant staircase by which the angels move between heaven and earth with all the variety and ordinariness of a Georgian street scene. Heaven and earth are closer than we think.
Thin places and shrines
So is it just in that one place that heaven and earth are joined by a ladder? Has Jacob happened by chance or God’s guidance to fall asleep on the one spot in the world where the angels tread like Neil Armstrong stepping onto the face of the moon? I suppose it’s possible. But I think it’s more likely that Jacob has simply been given a vision of what every place is like – a touching place of heaven and earth.
That’s not to say that it’s just as easy to be aware of that touching place wherever we are. There are some places – the old Irish and Northumbrian saints called them ‘thin places’ – where it’s easier to be aware of the presence of God and his angels. The two places where I know most easily that the ladder touches earth are, unfortunately, some distance away – the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the Northumbrian coast, and the shrine of Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral. There’s something about the nature and history of those places – not just of my own history there, but of centuries of prayer and dedication to God – that makes prayer incredibly easy and reminds me that heaven is not far away.
There are other places that become ‘thin’ as we work at it, or by association with a special experience of God we’ve had there. There are places in church I find it easier to pray when I’m on my own in there. The monastery at Glasshampton is becoming another place where I find it easy to know that I meet with God, and through my life there’ll be others.
It’s natural to build shrines in thin places – as Jacob did at Bethel. We want to remember and return. But we need to be wary of the danger – just because we’ve met God deeply or easily in one place, that doesn’t mean that he’s any less present and near everywhere else. So if we’re always looking back to our shrine, we may miss what he’s doing around us, here and now.
Where are your ‘thin places’?
Jacob meets his match
The story of Jacob and Laban shows the schemer meeting his match in his uncle Laban. These chapters read like an account of two cynical men trying to get one over on each other – and when you add in the family dynamics of Jacob’s wives, sort-of-wives and children, it’s no wonder we’re getting set up for some more family tensions down the line.
Yet in the midst of it all, with all the scheming, deceit and mulitple marriages, God is still working. The ladder still touches earth, even when Jacob has temporarily forgotten about Bethel.