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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North of no where in British Columbia Canada sits a small lake called Pentz. On hot summer days it is full of children from the local reserve, but, come evening and they return to their homes it becomes a thin place that draws me to stand in awe of the oneness of it all.

We just loved these images. Often, when we are hiking, I find myself wondering about the Divine in these "Thin Places" and I imagine that these are snippets of Paradise that God is promising all of us. Two of my most favorite "Thin Places" have been Bharrat Scouts in New Delhi, India; and Land's End in San Francisco. Bharrat Scouts, adjacent to Humayoun's Tomb, speaks to all the Lovers of the Divine. You can feel the crispness waking the inner soul and hear the words through the singing birds, no matter what time of year. At Land's End trail, one sees the Bridge (Gold Gate) and knows that we have to build good and do good to get across to Paradise. At the top, you see and hear the variations of the struggles of this life. You can see the Divine surrounding you, hear the crashing of your soul upon the waves of the shore and see the creations that you have mastered to come and see your Beloved. These are my "Thin Space". Thank you for putting together this beautiful photo essay. You allowed my inner soul to be awaken.

wonderful images, thank you!

Thank you for sharing....I have not heard of thin places ...and it is quite true....I too have experienced this in the appalachian mountains and rivers where I live...I find that even when I am not physically near these places they are within me....I now feel the river in me....the mountains and rocks and breezes....within...

Dr. Blanton has done a wonderful work here. Just reading it and studying the pictures took me to a "thin place" right here in my office at home. What Dr. Blanton describes is best explained for my by meditating on the Creator, Jesus Christ, and His wonderful works so beautifully displayed in Dr. Blanton's photos here. When I set time apart to be "alone" with my Savior I experience much the same emotional spirituality and closeness to "the other side" by simply talking and praying in the Spirit to the One Who Made it all. Beautiful work Dr. Blanton.

Thank you so much, Sarah, for sharing your beautiful photos and thoughts and, by doing so, generating all the comments that followed and your thoughtful responses - so interesting to read all.
My personal thin place - love the term - would have to be, of all spots, the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
I was able to follow a well worn path on a promonotory, sit down at the end of the path, with my feet dangling into the canyon that was all around me and just "be." I remember the amazing feeling of looking into the earth and absorbing the sensation of milions of years looking back. It was just wonderful and I sat there for about half an hour. During that time a solitary crow spent his/her time soaring in the updrafts and I was alone watching. When I got up and walked back toward the main road a bus full of tourists was just pulling into the parking area. I am so thankful for my special time with the Canyon and have cherished it since.

My thin space unfolds every time I turn off onto a gravel road in northwest Iowa on a summer day when the sky is a blue bowl filled with clouds. if I get out of the car and walk down the road, the space thins so much that I feel as if I will lift right ff the ground.

What a beautiful photo essay. I feel a sense of peace just gazing at the photographs and contemplating the Celtic concept of thin places. I think the sense of mystery is the basis for my spirituality ,especially during the moment between the inhalation and exhalation of the breath during meditation. Thanks Sarah for sharing your beautiful work but more importantly your spirit.


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