Several years ago during a church service I was introduced to the term thin spaces. Thin spaces is an ancient term first used by the Irish, then the Celts, and finally Christians. By definition thin spaces are areas where the space between Heaven and earth is thin. There is a Celtic saying that Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin spaces that distance is even smaller.
When I first learned the term I immediately thought to myself of places and times where I’d experienced the sensation of experiencing Heaven on earth. People describe these thin spaces as enabling them to receive a glimpse of God’s glory here on earth. Typically these thin spaces are places of natural wonder. Places that leave you awestruck. A place like the Grand Canyon, where glorious adjectives become inadequate. Places that leave us filled with wonder.
Thin spaces are not always so grand however. Sometimes you sense the border between here and there diminish in simple moments with your family. Moments where everything feels right with the world and you are acutely aware that this is the good stuff and all that truly matters is immediately present.
Many Christians believe in spiritual gifts. Abilities that have been divinely gifted to benefit others. There are a variety of gifts and no individual will receive them all. One such gift is giving, another is hospitality. Marcia Hales has these gifts and uses then well. She has created a thin space and welcomes all to experience it.
In 1998 Marcia and her husband Alan set out to create a Christmas light display worthy of entering in Duluth’s lighting competition. Marcia had always loved Christmas and decorating for it, but this was the first time competing. The couple’s property on the Lake Superior side of Park Point made for an idyllic setting. Alan grudgingly played along, holding the ladder as Marcia put up string after string. Upon receiving second place Alan was inspired to try harder the following year. It seemed that now he too was hooked on the lights. They soon began planning improvements to their display, including a grand tower sketched by Marcia. She asked Alan if it were possible to build it and he agreed to construct her special creation.
Sadly in April of 1999 Alan died of a heart attack at the age of 47, just as his father had. Their love story cut short.
The light display became both a distraction and a way of honoring her late husband. A broken heart did not diminish her Christmas spirit. If she couldn’t decorate with him, she would do it for him. At her request, one of Alan’s closest friends lead the effort to bring her drawing to life, and late in the summer the finished tower was delivered. The men received a heartfelt thanks, but refused any payment. The crown jewel of the display was in place. Marcia dedicated herself to getting the display ready and put up 40,000 lights, 10,000 more than the previous year. She entered contest content with her efforts. Unfortunately, an online glitch meant nine entries were not received and Marcia’s was among them. Disappointing for sure.
But this light display is so much more than a contest entry. Alan and Marcia welcomed people to not just drive by, but rather to get out and walk through their yard. They invited their guests to visit the beach, sit around a bonfire, warm up in the garden house while enjoying hot cider and a cookie. On my first visit several years ago I knew instantly it was one of those special thin spaces. The 120,000 plus white and green lights are surely beautiful. And following the driftwood lined path to the beach will reward you with a view of the city lights twinkling on the hillside and green laser lights illuminating the shore. With the waves of the great lake crashing in – it is both peaceful and wild.
But this is about more than lights. Each and every night from early December to early January Marcia and her lights draw a crowd. Each night she warms her special cider, puts out cookies, lights a fire, and greets her guests. Guests that have come from all over the world. Nineteen years curating this thin space, she says the lights have become her life. Her generous spirit embodies the very spirit of Christmas. It is such a beautiful thing.
Now in her seventies, the workload of such an undertaking gets to be a bit much. She considers stopping, but it is hard to give up. This year was rumored to be her last. For me it isn’t Christmas without a trip to Marcia’s. So upon hearing it may be the last time for this magical experience we made our hotel reservations and planned our trip. Knowing myself, I figured there would be tears shed as we left this year. It is both hard and beautiful saying goodbye to something loved. To make the most of it, I inquired with Marcia about volunteering for an evening. I told my husband and son of my plan and they grudgingly agreed, much like Alan all those years ago. We arrived to Marcia’s on a lovely December evening. She welcomed us into her home like we were family. We were given our tasks, my husband tended the fire and roasted marshmallows with another volunteer. I was to be in the garden house pouring cider and filling cookie platters.
A friend of Marcia’s plays Santa on certain nights, and he was there this night. Some young ladies asked him what he wanted for Christmas. He responded by saying “how about Mrs. Claus” and the girls complimented him on his answer. What they didn’t know was that Santa lost his Mrs. two years prior and was a little choked up after they left. It was such a sweet moment, but this place is full of sweet moments. The Northwestern High School carolers performed a spontaneous concert around the fire. A little girl absolutely mesmerized at the sight of Santa. The young couple lingering on the beach. Countless magic moments on an average Thursday evening at Marcia’s. Several bags of marshmallows and several hundred cups of cider later our four hour shift came to an end.
The visitors asked to depart. The fire extinguished. The cider turned off, The lights went dark. Another night in the guest books.
It was an honor to help Marcia and play a tiny role in this magical place. I have a new appreciation for effort Marcia puts in. The time preparing, the money spent, the physical effort exuded, night after night for a month – all for strangers. Strangers she treats like friends. Marcia is indeed using her gifts well. She has created a place for the community to slow down, take a deep breath, and experience peace.
Thin spaces have deep meaning. Time spent in these spaces leaves our spirit refreshed and our hope renewed. I left with a full heart and hopeful that Marcia will continue making magic. I encourage you to seek time in thin spaces and use whatever gifts you’ve been given, beautiful things happen when you do.
If you are able to visit Duluth you owe it to yourself to visit Marcia’s. The lights are on 5-9 Monday-Thursday and 5-10 Friday and Saturday until January 7th. There is a lovely book written on Marcia that includes photos and excerpts from her many guestbooks, Spirit of the Lights by Chuck Frederick. I highly recommend both.