Thin Places and The Transforming Presence of Beauty

Monday, March 17, 2014 - 3:00pm
Thin Places and The Transforming Presence of Beauty

A photo essay contemplating the Celtic concept of thin places, spaces where the veil between visible and invisible worlds are lifted — all from a quiet lake nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee.

Essay by:
Sarah Blanton,  guest contributor
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48 ReflectionsRead/Add Yours
Credit: Sarah Blanton

I have spent the last 20 years trying to portray the sense of place I experience at the lake of my childhood. Located in Upper East Tennessee, South Holston Lake is cradled in the Appalachian Mountains.

Being in the presence of a deep, quiet body of water gently surrounded by this wise mountain range pulls me out of the shallow fray of my frantic life to rest in a centered awareness. It is a threshold — a true “thin place.”

The concept of thin places comes from Celtic mythology. Peter Gomes, a Harvard theologian, writes:

“There is in Celtic mythology the notion of 'thin places' in the universe where the visible and the invisible world come into their closest proximity. To seek such places is the vocation of the wise and the good — and for those that find them, the clearest communication between the temporal and eternal. Mountains and rivers are particularly favored as thin places marking invariably as they do, the horizontal and perpendicular frontiers. But perhaps the ultimate of these thin places in the human condition are the experiences people are likely to have as they encounter suffering, joy, and mystery."

Credit: Sarah Blanton

South Holston is where I bump up against the truth of my spirituality at its most sincere and humble levels. At this frontier, I see most clearly. Resting by these waters creates an awareness of the moment where I can finally stop the racing thoughts of our world. At this still point of mindfulness, I finally come into remembrance of the transforming presence of beauty.

Spirituality, described as the art of homecoming, is that universal experience of suffering, joy, and mystery. The driving desire behind this ongoing body of work tries to convey feelings of belonging, of homecoming as the soul lies against the threshold of such thin places.

Credit: Sarah Blanton

Illustrating the spirit of South Holston through moods of seasons and weather, perspectives and light, I find a growing sense of intimacy and purpose.

My personal journey seemed to mirror my artistic choices, and the images progressively have become more personal. The importance of self-reflection emerges through simple attraction to the reflective properties of the water. Expanding, my attraction moved to objects and structure that underscored this growing introspection.

Credit: Sarah Blanton

The role of courage to embrace a sense of separateness surfaces as a strong undercurrent serving to highlight the difficult journey of self-acceptance. Through critical self-reflection, I have become aware of the powerful force of solitude in both my spirituality and my art. Enveloped in that solitude are suffering, joy, and mystery that carry me to that thin place.

Credit: Sarah Blanton
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Sarah Blanton is an assistant professor in the doctor of physical therapy program at Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. Although professionally a researcher, spiritually she is a photographer trying to return to her roots in art. Dr. Blanton’s medium has ranged from black and white photography, color film, and Polaroid transfer techniques to abstract digital work. Her current project interweaves narrative medicine with photography to develop family education manuals for stroke survivors and their care partners.

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Thank you for sharing your beautiful photo essay. I had never heard of thin places ,but l am reflecting now on a special spot in Michigan.At night the stars draw me up, during daylight , life flys and swims and fishes and floats.Its grounding and uplifting. The Au Sable River is my thin place.

Sure appreciate your feedback Mary - lovely words to capture the dynamic contrast of being grounded and uplifted at the same time, perhaps part of the way we know it is a thin place. The Au Sable rives sounds very dear.

Oh, but so cold. I have swam in the Au Sable. Brrrr.

The Au Sable is a special place. Back in '74 I spent the summer with my grandfather at the family cottage. We were 1 1/2 miles from the river. Daily I walked down into the meadow and through the tag alders into the edge of forest, locate a certain tree, and sat down. A few minutes later I'd hear two chirps behind me and two downy young Red-wing hawks popped-up in front of me. 20 minutes later two chirps behind me and the young ducked back into their nest. I took that as the time to walk away. One day as I was walking into the forest an adult hawk hovered in front of my face, perhaps 10 inches away from my eyes, I eased my walking stick from my side to between the talons and my nose keeping my gaze down and stood still. Less than 5 ft way 3 hawks, the other adult and the two adolescent young took off from the limbs of a tag alder, the defending hawk joined the others. Shortly after that incident all four hawks were on the wires within the cottage landscape visiting us.

Your photographs beautiful and lovely. Very much appreciated.

South Holston is rarely crowded and always transforming

so nice to hear from you Armand, you have been a special person to our family.

I had never heard of that term. "Thin Places"; they abounded in the Amazon, right by the river, up on the trees, or on the water, watching the light and the water dance and play and weave an infinite grid of colors, shadows and reflections, a parable to the timeless affair between light and dark. I have also found them in the swamps in Louisiana, in the marshes inhabited only by cranes, turtles and gators, who often startle the peace and crack the bubble of haunted magic the bayou drapes upon the onlooker. Texas also has them, the wild grasses dance and whisper their longing for water, but resign themselves to the caress of the breezes, and then deer and rabbits dart and I realize I'm never really alone. In this House of Love we now live in the Thin Places abound; there is a vortex of serene energy tangible, like a spell, around the Champion Oak that bewitched me from the first day, when I could see myself walking around it, in a labyrinth, leading a queue in silent moving meditation, and there is a special thinness in the forest, where so many trees have fallen, making it look like a battlefield, the thin line between the living and the dead ragged and torn, inviting me to peek in and take back with me the conviction that the choice to live with full commitment and intention entails creating a Thin Space within and without, routinely.

thanks for your reflection and rich description of the presence of thin places throughout the world and our lives, a nice reminder of being ever present and mindful to place

Thanks Sarah for your wonderful photos and your thoughtful words. I too have been going through a period of learning to deeply love myself and found that I needed to clear out quite a few limiting beliefs. I had an experience a few nights ago of seeing and feeling the almost full moon reflecting on the sea. It served to remind me that as the moon reflects the sun, God's love is poured into me and I reflect it back to others.

appreciate your comments Nancy - there is something incredibly special when watching the way the light dances on the water as the moon crosses the sky. One of the images that continues to elude me as a photographer is one that captures that feeling of the moon rise at the lake. I've found comfort on those dark nights, thinking of the moon as a portal from the temporal to eternal.


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