I remember my brother Martin Arthur was a beautiful boy. He had a round head with dark, wavy brown hair. Full lips for such a little one, that would curl up into his chubby cheeks—cheeks grandmothers love to pinch. He had long, thick eyelashes, the kind that women covet, that swept over dark brown eyes flecked with gold, revealing the soft soul within.
He was a curious little one, and strong. I remember his chubby thighs. They were proof of his love of food. He rolled over at a very young age, and crawling always became an adventure. When he took his first steps, Mom and Dad were taken by surprise. We all agreed that his first word was dada, but that could have been wishful thinking. Nonetheless, Dad beamed.
Martin had the look of an angel, but you knew that just below the surface there lived a trombinik, a little troublemaker. You know the type. Gives you a smile and then runs away giggling, doing exactly the opposite of what you asked. You know you should scold; it's all you can do to keep from laughing, too. Martin had a glorious giggle. I remember the first time he reached out to catch the snowflakes, he shrieked with joyful abandon. He just seemed to be comfortable in his skin, as if he had an old soul.
Martin packed a lifetime of living into his first years.
Martin was the pride and joy of Mom and Dad. One cold winter day, Martin caught a cold. A little bit different than the others. It developed into croup. They could hear him working to catch his breath. Mom called the doctor, who rushed over. Grandma was there. Dad was on his way home. The doctor called emergency services. Ambulance, fire truck and police were all there to help. But it was too late. Nothing could be done. His throat had closed. Martin Arthur died at the age of two and a half.
Martin was buried in the children's section of the cemetery where his paternal grandparents were waiting for him. Such a small plot and headstone. When I visit him, I place a stone on his monument. It is a symbol of remembrance. It tells Martin that I am here. He is not forgotten. Martin Arthur died I was born two years later, almost to the day. We meet here. It is a place where there is but a thin veil between the past, the present and the future. It is a thin place, a sacred space for the two of us.
The phrase "thin places" comes to us from legends of pre-Christian Ireland. It is part of Celtic spirituality. Ireland is a mystical place, an island of the ephemeral. Mist sits comfortably on top of the hills, rolling gently down into the valleys. Then, for a moment, the mist rolls back, revealing a hidden place, a sacred space, a thin place. Heaven and Earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart; but in a thin place that distance is even shorter. It's a place where we can sense the Divine more readily. Or perhaps it refers to a place where one can travel back and forth between two worlds: this one and the eternal world. Stonehenge comes to mind. As does Mount Sinai, where the cloud hovered and the Presence was felt, and the Word was given.
We encounter God in the thin places, which become sacred spaces when we sanctify the ephemeral with monuments and altars. When Jacob wrestled with the angel and his name became Israel (meaning he who struggled with God), he marked the place. The place where Abraham's hand was stopped before sacrificing Isaac is sanctified by the Temple Mount.
The Bible tells us of meetings between the human and the Divine: Abraham greets visitors and is told of a pending birth. Moses removes his shoes for he is standing near a burning bush—sacred ground. It is God, who has been waiting patiently for Moses to recognize this thin place.
February 27, 1949.
There are man-made thin places. Cathedrals that soar, taking our sight up and our breath away from here to another place. Or the small house of worship that cried out to Saint Francis of Assisi to be repaired. There is music that breaks the barrier between the here and now and what will be. We have all had those moments when we felt touched… by something. A sense of wonderment and awe: the Mysterium and Tremendom. The Unio Mystica.
The Sages say that we look for meaning not only in the paragraphs of our sacred books but in the sentences, the words, the letters in the words, and then the thin places between the letters. God is waiting for us, patiently, to encounter Him. They say in their prayers, "My God, where can I find Thee? And where cannot I find Thee? Thou art hidden and unseen, but all is filled with Thee."
Mindie Burgoyne wrote in "Walking Through Thin Places" that thin places "probe to the core of the human heart and open the pathway that leads to satisfying the familiar hungers and yearnings common to all people on earth, the hunger to be connected, to be a part of something greater, to be loved, to find peace."
Thin places, sacred spaces, are points of holiness where God shows Himself; where the soul finds room to breathe again. There was a time when the table was a thin place, a sacred space. When the Israelites escaped from their enslavement in Egypt and began their 40-year sojourn in the desert, they were told by God to build a table of gold to be set inside the Tent of Meeting, God's Sanctuary. All the dishes, cups, jars and bowls were to be made of gold as well. And 12 loaves of bread were to be placed on the table, in two rows of six, each Sabbath. The table became a sacred place for sacred time together. It was here that symbols held layers of meaning and rituals were repeated with reverence for those who came before with the hope that they would be sent forward.
Religious rituals, traditions and symbols connect us to the sacred. Whenever I have chicken soup, I remember Friday night. Shabbos. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described the Sabbath as a sacred place where God is present in time rather than space, in history rather than nature. The morning always began with my mother and my grandmother in the kitchen. Everything was homemade, from scratch, except for the challah, a yeasty, sweet-tasting bread, always braided, that was special for the Sabbath and picked up fresh that day.
My grandmother was all of five feet on a good day. She stood straight like a stoic wood soldier. Her hair was wavy steel-grey that gently curled under at her chin. She always had the same facial expression. Stern. She always looked old to me. I think there was some security in that. She was someone who never changed. Looking back, she probably gave me a sense of order in a world that is always changing, even chaotic. She would stand over the stove frying the onions, getting the potatoes ready to fill with ground beef for the knishes. And she would add extra salt to the soup. By dinnertime, the house was filled with the rich and savoury aromas of chicken soup, roast beef, chicken, potatoes and, in season, some kind of freshly baked pie. My mother had a talent for making pies with flaky crusts and juicy fruit.
Friday was always special, but when we had company, the table was exemplary. We were, in a sense, preparing a sacred place for a sacred time together. White linens, cloth napkins—paper ones were an everyday item not good enough for Friday night. My mother put out the "good" dishes, the company cutlery and the best glasses. No bottles were allowed on the table. Condiments were put in little bowls.
I remember my mother standing tall over the Sabbath candles with my tiny grandmother beside her. Mom would light the candles and the two women would bow their heads, their hands placed before their eyes and quietly invoke the prayer over light. My father would stand proudly at the head of the table, lift his cup of wine in one hand and the prayer book in the other; with joy he would pronounce the blessing over the wine, followed by the Friday night prayer. He would say the blessing over the bread for the Sabbath, cut it, salt it and pass it around.
It was at this table that I learned about charity, caring for others. People would join us for dinner. They would be strangers to me, but they were somehow or other related to the family. Some had just come over from Europe, with very little to start a home. My dad bought a lot of refrigerators. And he sent money and clothing to distant family on distant shores. Helping others, including family at home, was not really discussed. It was done. Part of life. A sacred duty.
I remember years ago having lunch in a beautiful restaurant in Chicago. Sitting at the table across from us were about a dozen people. Suddenly, they rose and began to sing a Gregorian chant before the meal. This music is haunting. There are those who believe that Gregorian chant is the last remnant of music the Levites sang in the Temple in Jerusalem. One could not help but be taken with the music and the mystery of the moment, to join these people in their joy, their gratitude, their belief, whether one believed in God or not. The moment was electric for all in the restaurant. For a moment, all of us in the restaurant came together. Heaven and Earth moved a little closer together.
How sad, today, that the table has lost its place of honour. We rarely think of the table as a place where we can encounter the ethereal, a sense of the sacred. It has become a utilitarian place now. A quick pit stop on the way to somewhere else: school, work, a soccer game. It is no longer a place to spend time together. Often, it is a place where individuals sit together but are busy in their own worlds, with tablets and mp3 players and cellphones. Texts coming and going. Talk at the table becomes an interruption. It is rarely a place where we see goblets and jars and bowls and trays of gold.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote, "Entrances to holiness are everywhere. The possibility of ascent is all the time. Even at unlikely times and through unlikely places."
For me, one place is the cemetery. I visit my parents, who are in a different cemetery from Martin. I tell my parents not to worry, that I am caring for Martin. I tell Martin to take care of our parents.
No, I didn't know Martin. I didn't know that he had even existed until I was eight or nine. There were no pictures of him, no talk about him. Relatives who had known him never said a word. It was how it was done. I never spoke of Martin until my father was in a coma. I waited that long. I knew the pain he carried. I would whisper in his ear each day when I left, "Don't worry; I'll take care of Mom. You can go to Martin now."
After my father died, I would sometimes talk to my mother about Martin. That is how I learned about how he died. She blamed herself. My mother never called him by name. She referred to him as "my boy." I would visit his grave and come back and tell her, and she would look up and say, "You saw my boy?" I carried her wistfulness in me. Her sorrow, her loss, her emptiness. In an attempt to help my mother, I told her a parable about a little boy who had suddenly died. Everyone wanted a reason for his death. It didn't make sense. A little boy? What had such a little boy done to die so young? Isn't that the universal question?
The story goes that we are born with a soul. And that soul grows inside a body that is the container for the soul. Sometimes the body gives out before the soul has finished developing. So God, in His infinite wisdom, puts the soul into another body until the soul has completed its growth. Then, the soul returns to God. That's why the little boy died. The soul only needed a place to grow for a short time. I often think back on that story. It was a story based on religious beliefs. I get great comfort from those stories. I prefer them to stories I have heard from social workers or psychologists. They're dry. No opening to the ephemeral, no possibility of connecting to something beyond ourselves, something greater.
There is a Hasidic saying: "There is nothing so whole as a broken heart." Is it because the peculiar sadness of compassion is brought forth by broken things, or is the promise of wholeness simply folded into love for the broken?
I still visit Martin's grave. It is our thin place, our sacred space. Just the two of us. I keep him up-to-date on the family. He's listened to me as I became a parent and then a grandparent. I talk to him as if I have known him forever. And in a strange way, I have. I carry Martin within me. I miss a brother I never met but feel I know intimately. I miss the might-have-been. I wonder what kind of man he would have become.
When he died, so too did the dreams my parents had for him. And then I was born, and their dreams for him lived on in me and mingled with mine. And we became one. I internalized Martin. I sometimes think I am living two lives. For as long as I live, Martin lives, too. We meet in the children's section of the cemetery where our grandparents are buried. It is, for me, the place where God retreats a bit, tsimtsum, to make room for human interaction. It is a thin place, a sacred space, for a sister to connect with her brother.