Thin Places and The Transforming Presence of Beauty

Monday, March 17, 2014 - 3:00pm
Photo by Sarah Blanton

Thin Places and The Transforming Presence of Beauty

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."

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.

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.

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.


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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.

What a wonderful experience you describe. Yes, being open to nature is the way to thrive. Thank You!

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.

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


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!

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.

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.

Ah, these last days of foliage. At 3:40 this afternoon driving North into Manchester, the sky was black when the sun broke just long enough, and, I caught my breath. I thought camera, phone, then, no, don't miss it, drink long and deep, it was gone that fast. A thin place can't be held. Just when you think you know beauty you are given a glimpse and just as quickly it's gone, leaving you with the same fragile memory as before.

I witnessed the hatching of small birds from a hanging plant on my deck. I watched the mother bird hover over the event. Several minutes later the babies flew into the woods in flight behind the mother. One fledgling could not fly off the deck I wondered what to do. Several minutes later the adult bird flew back and hovered over the newly hatched bird. Fluttering it's wings while hopping up and down finally became air born. The beauty of the universe warmed my heart and sour.

give me a thin place to rest my head
a foggy blanket and mountain bed
where the mountains absorb all that confounds me
through thick and thin I dance on the water, dive
to its depths, break surface in the sunlight where
stillness quietly, perpetually astounds me
smiling silence always open to my embrace
we listen together to Life's joyous grace

Molokai was like that thin veil that seem to merge your subconscious and conscious mind. I seemed to be aware of everything and worried about nothing. My mind finally slowed and I was sitting on a big rock in a parallel universe.

Absolutely breath taking photos. "Thin Places"... I love it!

Thank you for the short mental breathing slowed, my mind calmed and I remember why I became a nurse

It all makes sense now, the intense sense of being drawn to Chincoteague Island, VA. I live in WV and discovered Chincoteague was a real place in the late 1980's quite by accident as I was looking at a map. I had read the book Misty of Chincoteague as a child but thought it to be a work of fiction. I at once planned a trip there and have been going back every chance I get ever since. It feels like I'm going home and I had no idea why until I read about thin places today. Chincoteague must be a thin place for me. I have tried to explain my yearning for the place to my husband but have been unable to communicate exactly what "it" is. Maybe I can explain it now with this new perspective.