Fr Ian continues his sabbatical journeys in search of ‘thin places’…
Further east than Istanbul, further north than Reykjavik the Jacobselv (‘Jacob’s River’) flows into the Barents Sea and forms a remote boundary between Norway and Russia. Notices remind that it is ‘forbidden to make contact with persons across the border.’ The tiny isolated community at the river mouth, Grense Jacobselv, lies fifty miles from the nearest town and is only inhabited by a few in the summer. The road to it, for the last three miles a dust track, is closed by ice and snow for half the year, and the area becomes accessible only by snowmobile.
This is a liminal place – a raw yet beautiful place far away on a boundary, a boundary between land and the icy Barents Sea, a boundary between two very different nations and cultures. A boundary, it is said, between Europe and Asia. Here winters are almost totally dark with just a few hours of a grey daylight, in summer it is in the land of the midnight sun.
Is it a ‘thin place?’ Is it a place where the spiritual world and the everyday world seem very close? I thought so. The remoteness of the place, the immense natural landscape and the mystery of a different culture, seemingly inaccessible, but only a few feet away contributed to making this, for me a special, a ‘thin’ place, a place where God’s kingdom felt very close.
Apparently I was not alone in my thought about this place. In the nineteenth century while touring the remote outlands of his kingdom King Oscar II of Norway visited Grense Jacobselv. A plaque in the tiny Lutheran chapel commemorates the fact that here ‘King Oscar II heard God’s word.’
Perhaps its a fine way way of saying here the king attended worship. However I feel there is more for on leaving King Oscar asked if he could be remembered in some way in this remote place, the church authorities agreed to his request – the chapel is now called King Oscar’s Chapel.
I would love to return to Grense Jacobselv. I may never do so. However, its strange beauty and sparse landscape feed the spiritual imagination. If I don’t physically return there I certainly will spiritually, like the Daffodils to Wordsworth so Grense Jacobselv to me “will flash upon that inward eye, Which is the bliss of solitude.”