A Japanese cedar tree in the Azores

I recently stumbled across an interview that I hadn’t thought about in years. It’s a 2013 conversation that Krista Tippett had with Dr. Esther Sternberg, an immunologist, who discussed the role of physical environment in promoting healing. I ended up buying Dr. Sternberg’s book about this, but as happens so often with books I love, I encouraged some friend to read it, and now I can’t remember who has it. Anyway, check out the interview.

I blogged about it back in 2013 (see here and here). I also wrote something, based in part on an interview with Dr. Sternberg, about how my late sister lived much longer with her terminal cancer than most who have that diagnosis do, perhaps in part because of her outlook, including living in the country. Read that piece here. Excerpt:

Ruthie grew up fishing on our father’s pond and regarded it all her life as a place to get away from daily stress. After her diagnosis, she went to the pond as often as she was physically able. In Sternberg’s 2010 book Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being, she explores how modern science has begun to vindicate the ancient Greek belief that resting in a place of natural beauty can help our bodies resist disease and rebuild after sickness.

In the Krista Tippett interview about healing and place, there was this exchange:

Ms. Tippett: There is a phrase that especially occurs in Celtic spirituality: thin places. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that.

Ms. Sternberg: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: The idea is, well, a lot of people would think of cathedrals as thin places or, you know, green pastures, still waters. Um, being in a place where — and this is the way some people will say it — it feels like the veil between heaven and earth has worn thin, where there’s a sense of being, you know, planted in the earth and yet also having some kind of almost physical sense of transcendence. I just wonder how you react to that, knowing what you know.

Ms. Sternberg: Well, I react to that. I have heard of that notion and I am actually very interested in exploring what is it about such places, about beautiful vistas of mountains, about the infinite horizon of the ocean. What is it that makes you feel that way about a cathedral? There are certainly physiological and neuroscientific bases to that feeling, that sense of awe. And I am convinced — I know — that these things can be measured and that’s the exciting new frontier for me, to ask exactly that question: What is it that makes one feel transcendent and is the environment something that we can consciously manipulate to find those feelings of transcendence? You know, if we’re so grounded in clay is there a way to at times, by simply going to a different place, achieve that sense of awe and transcendence?

Haven’t we all had experiences like this? For me, they have occurred in some churches — my first visit to Chartres cathedral, when I was 17, was life-changing in this way. To have this experience in a church is not surprising, I suppose (though rarer than one would think), but I have been startled by having them in other places. This past summer, when my family visited the Azores, I was deeply struck by groves of Japanese cedars. I can’t tell you why they affected me so strongly, but the veil between the material and the spiritual felt very thin there. I am not often moved by nature, so it amused my wife and kids to see me so moved by those trees. The feeling was not one of awe as much as it was of a profound sense of harmony and peace. Not just with trees, but with those particular trees. I can’t explain it, but I did feel it. It was as if something came over my body — a sense of tranquility and of oneness with the world. I can’t find the words for it without sounding New Agey, but it was and is a real thing.

I have never spent time in an Alpine setting (except for passing through on a train), but I long to rent a cabin in Switzerland, Austria, or far northern Italy — not so much for the usual tourist reasons (though I would certainly enjoy those things), but because I have a strong and inexplicable desire to be in those mountains. Not just the mountains, but those particular mountains. I wish I knew why.

I have had a similar sense of being drawn to the Black Forest in Germany, another place I’ve never been. My idea of heaven is to live in Tom Bombadil’s house.

I have been fortunate enough to visit many beautiful places, places that I loved, and will remember for the rest of my life. But this experience of being in a place that feels thin, in the way Krista Tippett means, where the sense of harmony and transcendence is palpable — that is a rare thing.

Has it happened to you? What was it like? Have you been able to recreate it?

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