Thin Places and Angel's
Finding the sacred in the mundane
In Celtic tradition, thin places are where the veil between the world and the beyond is porous. Sacred or magical spaces where the landscape or architecture or light inspires awe or wonder or a sense that mystery—often divine mystery—is close and potentially overwhelming to the senses. People often venture to these places for rituals or pilgrimages. To seek quiet or to be in closer proximity to the divine. I have some seem-to-be-thin places I visit routinely. Holy Cross Monastery in Esopus, New York, a small Hermitage Centre in the Wicklow Mountains in Glendalough, Ireland, and any desert or forest anywhere in the world. These places help me to be “in but not of” this world in a way that draws me in and out at once. They are beautiful and quiet places that bring peace and orient me toward listening, hearing and heeding.
But not all thin places are quiet, beautiful or intentional. Some are like B-movie portals that open and close unexpectedly in the least likely places.
Take last week. I’m driving into Brooklyn and hit a massive pothole on the approach to the Triboro Bridge. It’s clear from the sound and the shimmy in the front end that I have some tire changing to do. I get the front right tire changed pretty quickly thanks to my daughter, her partner, and the badass bridge and tunnel emergency guy who showed up with the electric lug wrench just in the nick of time. I don’t know at the time that both the front and back right tires are done-for, so I drop off my passengers and make my way to the closest spot with decent ratings that Kelsey can find—Angel Auto Repair in Greenpoint.
When I roll up to Angel’s, there are cars lining both sides of the street. “This is going to take forever,” I think, “if they can take me at all.” I double park and make my way toward about 8 mechanics working on cars in and outside the shop.
Angel is the first to greet me.
Within minutes he assesses the damage, tells me I need two new tires, sends one of his guys to the warehouse to pick them up, and disappears into the garage. I know I’m at Angel’s mercy on time and price, so I prepare myself for what I’m sure will be an afternoon of waiting way too long to pay WAY too much for two tires.
Instead, I find myself in a thin place.
I’m standing next to my car waiting to hear what’s next and Angel comes around the corner with a white plastic cooler that he drops on the curb near my feet. He leans down, opens the top, looks up at me with a wide grin and says, “lunch”.
Then he digs his hand into the ice, grabs a huge fish by the mouth and plops it on a folding table that I hadn’t noticed was set up on the sidewalk. Before I knew it he’s scraping scales and gleefully telling me about his boat, his family, and the customers who eat for free if they are lucky enough to blow a tire or screw up a transmission at lunchtime.
Angel is a great storyteller. His warmth and quickness to smile and laugh is contagious. He is lighthearted and playful—which is why the abrupt shift from small talk about the marina, the fish and the family business, to a more serious and emotional discussion of his experience with COVID appears to surprise both of us.
His story unfolds quickly, with a palpable shift of tone. He tells me about being on a ventilator in the hospital for a month with COVID and about lingering issues he’s dealing with, including losing his sight and navigating breathing issues and heart challenges. He speaks lovingly about his wife and how she cared for and continues to care for him. He discusses the toll it took on his four young children and how he is grateful to be alive. He tells me that he didn’t believe in God before it happened, but something changed in the process, and he came out the other side of the ordeal a different man. Tears well up in his eyes as he shares this, and I am moved. I stand on the street next to my car, watching him prepare the fish and listening to him share his story.
The moment ends as quickly as it begins. We look at one another as if we’d been through something together. He returns to the shop, leaving his father to heat the grill and prepare the fish.
I walk across the street to get out of the sun and cancel a few meetings. I watch the life of the garage through the trees and feel deeply still and content, despite my circumstances. I pause to reflect on Angel, his family, the fragility of life, and what it says about who I am, how I live, who I serve and how I serve them. It makes me think about God, divine appointments and what we can see when we open the eyes of our hearts to the sacred housed in the mundane. I acknowledge that what transpired between Angel and I is meaningful. Profound. More important than my tire or an afternoon “lost” to a pothole. Angel may have agreed since, rather than overcharge me as I’d feared, he chose not to charge me at all for the service—just the wholesale cost of the two tires.
On my way out, I thank him for the kindness—and for his story. I tell him I would likely write about our encounter and he agrees.
We part strangers—or maybe not.