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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Tough to envisage all this natural beauty, stillness and deep reflection.Living in an urban environment filled with violence, sadness, suffering, poverty, unemployment, sickness , corruption, oh need I go on? Here people are scrambling to get onto the freeway and once there, corroding themselves with road rage and that's a starter for the day!. So it is a real privelege and a gift to read this essay and imagine the possibilities of another life out there.

Thanks, Sarah for your essay and evocative images. I wholly relate to thin places having worked with the dying and experiencing the "thinning of the veil" between the worlds. It is transcendent. My own father died this week so this is fresh. Your images have healing power for me spiritual lungs are re-expanded seeing your photos. With deep gratitude, Steffanie

Steffanie --- a deep thanks for sharing your reflections about this work. My heart goes out to you in this challenging time of loss. Not long after my mom passed, a dear friend gave me John O'Dononue's book - "Beauty: the Invisible Embrace", and I listened to Krista Tippett's interview with him. I found his words such a balm and a great gift. After reading your note, I re-read some passages that connected with some of the lake/mountain images: "Distance loves blue. more often than not, distance will choose to express its faraway-ness in blue. Somehow it feels appropriate that distance and loss have the same color and the color of such sorrow is blue…Blue seems to be the color of the infinite - an endless expanse where darkness and brightness dwell..." (pg. 106-7) For me, his words give added depth when I look upon the mountains and perhaps give insight into some way this thin place is present with me in sorrow and mystery, as well as joy.

Sarah, I just got a hold of John o' Donahue's book "Beauty" and am illuminated by his gorgeous prose and profound understanding. It is the perfect spiritual medicine for my grieving heart. It both accompanies me and transports me. Thank you for telling me about it.
Deep bow of gratitude, Steffanie

For years when I lived in Chattanooga my thin place was roaming the hills, steep ravines and water courses of the Tennessee River Gorge, where the Tn. river cuts through the Southern Cumberland escarpment. I can see in your face that you have spent great time in solitude, as you articulate, in critical self-thinking, contemplating suffering, joy and mystery. The pains of the struggle of constant unity verses constant separation we find away from those thin places is etched in your face. It is the pain that leaves us in a thin place where wisdom resides. And the beauty of this place is that the pain we go through, as we walk through it consciously, we forever take this wisdom with us. The wisdom of experience is etched on our hearts and can be seen in our faces. Yours is a face of strength, stunning beauty, compassion, and yes, great wisdom. Thank you so much for sharing yourself with us here. All the best. I am better for it.


thank you for such thoughtful and supportive comments Graham. it has been a privilege to have the opportunity to share this journey and i'm grateful for the OnBeing folks and their incredible community of people. that connection of spirits is a nice reminder of the joy that resides in those thin places of encounter and what buoys us as we tumble along.

One last thought Sarah, you have inspired me to write an essay for my own expression of my 'voice' as a part of the OnBeing forum. I will hope to finish it soon, and accompany it with some of my own photos of an experimental beehive I have designed and built. My relationship with honeybees is where the veil between me and my spiritual grounding completely disappears and represents the most profound 'thin'place' I will ever encounter, I believe. I hope OnBeing includes it and that you and others enjoy it. ~Best, Graham

One more comment Sarah: you have inspired me to write an essay for the OnBeing forum where we have an opportunity to express our own voice. The veil between myself and "the Genius in the place of all" (Alexander Pope) completely disappears with my relationship with Honeybees. Hopefully OnBeing will accept my essay about, and photos of a special hive I have designed and built for just the exploration of this visceral experience: A 'thin place' of the most intimate type that I have ever experienced with the Spirit of all things. I hope you and everyone enjoy it. Best, Graham and thanks again.

You have a beautiful way about you in your photographs and words. It's a great reminder of how our spirtual journeys are entwined with the beauty of the natural world.

Thanks so much Dee for your kind and thoughtful spirit.


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