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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As always, my soul is touched by the Spirit awakened with with your thoughtfulness.
So thankful that I was guided to your program. So much beauty in words and guests and your interviews.❤❤❤

Thanks for sharing your thin places. For me they happen in close-up photography and the wondrous things I discover there. The awe before nature.

yes! i absolutely agree Christa - and one of the wonderful aspects of the camera lens, as a vehicle to help us be present in the moment and see the beauty in simplicity of our surroundings

Thank you for such a beautiful blending of words and images. I, too, am on a quest for thin places, but my journey occupies only four tenths of a mile of gravel road in Chattahoochee Hills, southwest of Atlanta. I have committed myself to a 365-day photography odyssey, venturing out into the landscape every day of 2014. I am seeking windows into wonder -- ways of seeing and experiencing place that are transformational. What I have discovered so far is that our everyday world is full of amazing things, if we stop and notice them. The blog of my journey, CommonPlace Nature, is located at I would be honored if you would pay it a visit at some point. I would also enjoy meeting you someday, as another photographer embarked on a spiritual quest. Thank you so much for the inspiration you share with us.

Clifford Blizard, PhD,

Clifford, thanks for your feedback and sharing of your work. I enjoyed exploring your site and learning how you describe your sense of place. Lovely and inspiring.

Sarah, we have a place that we refer to as a thin place. It is a Young Life camp in British Columbia, Canada, called Malibu Club. You would love it.

Thanks for your note Ky -- British Columbia has such stunning beauty, I've always wanted to spend more time there, I've only been to Vancouver and never gotten to experience the wilderness. Malibu Club looks like an incredible experience for young folks!

Sarah, I knew you as a thoughtful child, almost from the day you were born. Just receiving the gift of your words and photographs has brought joy and gratitude to my old age. You have fulfilled every hope and dream a parent could hold for a child, speaking for your beloved mother who is no longer around to say those words to you.

Patsy, What kind and thoughtful feedback, thank you so very much. Part of the essay actually came from some words I put together for my mom's service at the Wellmont Hospice House where she volunteered. It seemed that her "thin place" was her time spent at hospice and where I learned more about the strength of her spirituality. One of her most endearing qualities was her sincerity of presence - her combination of authenticity and vulnerability - that connected her so deeply with hospice. Although I miss her dearly, I am ever so grateful to share this with my dad - he has always been so supportive of both my spiritual journey and my art. He has had a profound impact on my work and was actually the one who introduced me to the concept of "thin places" as a way to explore the deeper meaning my family experiences when being at the lake. thanks again for your sweet note



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