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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beautiful place for sure!

Sarah you have heightened my ability over the past 20 odd yrs to see God in greater ways. Nature has always been how God has most deeply spoken to my heart...thankyou once again for sharing the beauty that is in your heart through photos and words that capture the nature of God. So proud of you and thankful for inspiring me to continue to grow in my own spiritual journey.

thank you karen, your kind words mean so much. Undoubtedly, you have been a profound influence on my spiritual journey and taught me the true meaning of "anam cara ", as John O'Donohue so eloquently describes. "It is precisely in awakening and exploring this rich and opaque inner landscape that the anam-cara experience illuminates the mystery and kindness of the Divine. The anam cara is God's gift."

It is captured!

Thin places grant the gift of stillness within. I am blessed by your pictures and thank you for sharing.

Lovely photos. I would like to comment that I am of a heritage and tradition in which sacred spaces have long been recognized, and honored; spaces that figure prominently in our spiritual beliefs. (In fact, some of the spaces in your photos have been power places for my ancestors for millenia.) Watching the destruction and desecration of some of these spaces has been one of the most hurtful legacies of colonialization by people who did not recognize the importance of a spiritual connection to the land, and who did not recognize that our creation stories tell us that we were given these places to caretake and protect. There are still special, powerful places--even in urban areas; places where nature and Creation have carved out niches, prayer spots, holy spaces. N K

A follow up to my previous reflection: as a Native woman, the concept of sacred spaces is foundation to the way I live. Not sure of the 'rules' of sharing other writer's works, but this describes the relationship so eloquently:

Perhaps there are events and things that work as a doorway into the mythical world, the world of first people, all the way back to the creation of the universe and the small quickenings of earth, the first stirrings of human beings at the beginning of time.
Our elders believe this to be so, that it is possible to wind a way backward to the start of things, and in doing so find a form of sacred reason, different from ordinary reason, that is linked to the forces of nature. In this kind of mind, like in the feather, is the power of sky and thunder and sun, and many have had alliances and partnerships with it, a way of thought older than measured time, less primitive than the rational present.
Others have tried for centuries to understand the world by science and intellect but have not yet done so, not yet understood animals, finite earth, or even their own minds and behavior. The more they seek to learn the world, the closer they come to the spiritual, the magical origins of creation.
There is still a place, a gap between worlds, spoken by the tribal knowings of thousands of years. In it are silent truths that stand aside from human struggles and the designs of our own makings.
At times, when we are silent enough, still enough, we take a step into such mystery, the place of spirit…
from Linda Hogan, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World

Nothing like touching back to your roots. Being from East Tennessee, I'm always nourished by seeing and remembering this country and feeling it in my DNA, in my soul. Thank you for this post

I lived for 10 years in the mountains of central Wales and understand completely why the concept of "thin places" is Celtic. Parts of western England and Wales provided the most unexpected spiritual experiences of my long and parapatetic life. They have made me feel suddenly 10,000 years old and part of the earth itself, bonded with the place. It was nothing I looked for actively, but somewhere deep down must have expected because it was never frightening. But it did make me melancholy about how we disregard and disrespect our beautiful earth.

Thank you for sharing your. Insights about the spiritual journey. Touching!


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