Tuesday, 22 May 2018
On Tuesday the 15th of May, Angela Gallipoli conducted the monthly Spiritual Reading Group in the Carmelite Library on Christine Valters Paintner. Here is Angela’s introductory paper at that seminar.
I first came across the author Christine Valters Paintner while in the Carmelite Library.
One of her books was prominently displayed on a bookshelf, and I was drawn to it, initially by the dazzling cover, displaying a single, flaming red autumn leaf, and then by its captivating title : Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice . The work is about cultivating one’s inner and outer vision, about receiving images rather than taking them, and about discovering the holy in everything. I found it a most enriching and inspiring book to read, particularly its exploration of the principles of photography as metaphors for the spiritual journey, as well as the many creative and contemplative processes offered to the reader to engage in and explore.
I then went on to discover and read several more of her works. These included :
The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom;
Illuminating the Way : Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics;
Desert Fathers and Mothers : Early Christian Wisdom Sayings (annotated and explained);
Water, Wind, Earth and Fire : the Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements; and
The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within.
As these book titles suggest, Christine’s works deal with spiritual and soul journeying, exploring the spiritual wisdom of monks, mystics and early Christians, and engaging creative spiritual practices as tools for the development and enhancement of one’s spiritual life.
Christine Valters Paintner is a Benedictine oblate, writer, poet and expressive artist, and her life and work is very much concerned with integrating the contemplative with the creative. Originally from New York City, she lived in Seattle, Washington, until the spring of 2012, when together with her husband John, she sold up everything and moved overseas, firstly to Austria, her father’s native country, and then on to Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, where she lives out her commitment as a monk in the world.
Christine has a Bachelor degree in Philosophy, and a Masters degree in Systematic Theology.
She completed her Doctorate (PhD) in Christian Spirituality, through the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley (California). Christine is also a trained Spiritual Director and supervisor, and a registered Expressive Arts Consultant and educator (with the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association). She is a yoga teacher trainer, and a facilitator of the expressive arts practice of Dancing Mindfulness.
Together with her husband John, Christine has developed and runs a virtual online monastery called Abbey of the Arts. The website portal offers self-study online courses, some of which are companion courses to her books, as well as a range of resources including books, icon images, CDs and DVDs relating to the work of the Abbey. The couple also offer spiritual pilgrimages, visiting monastic sites and sacred landscapes in Europe , including Ireland, Germany and Austria.
Over the past decade, Christine Valters Paintner has authored ten books. In addition to the works previously mentioned above, Christine has also written books on the ancient contemplative practice of Lectio Divina, the use of the creative arts in Spiritual Direction, and connecting women to their bodily wisdom and wholeness, through writing, visual art and movement.
Her most recent book, The Soul’s Slow Ripening, to be published later in 2018, explores twelve spiritual practices informed by Celtic spirituality and the lives of the Celtic saints.
Christine also has a first collection of poetry, titled The Dreaming of Stones, due to be published in 2019.
In her writings and works, Christine Valters Paintner draws from numerous traditions and influences, including: Benedictine spirituality, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Celtic Christian monasticism, the concept of Nature as a revelation of God, and the creative and expressive arts.
As a child, Christine had a love of the natural world, and already had some sense of its connection to the sacred, as she describes in the Introduction to Water, Wind, Earth and Fire :
“In the summers, my family would travel to my father’s native Austria and spend time hiking in the Vienna woods and the Tyrolean mountains. Even though my parents were not religious people, as a small child I had a profound sense of that stunning, humbling mountainous landscape as a window onto something much larger and more powerful than myself that I would eventually come to name God.”
In her book Lectio Divina, Christine speaks about the importance of Benedictine spirituality in her life :
“What drew me to becoming a Benedictine oblate was the profoundly balanced way of life that Benedict proposed in his rule… Benedict believed that everything was sacred – even kitchen utensils were to be treated as reverentially as the vessels used on the altar. The routine of fixed hour prayer, with its reading of Scripture and saying of prayers regularly throughout the day and evening, becomes a way of sanctifying time. Benedictine spirituality calls me to move through my day mindfully, remembering the sacredness of each act, each object, each encounter with another person. In a world where business is praised and productivity is the sole measure of value, the monastic path offers me support and guidance in choosing to live in a contemplative way, with more presence in everything I do.” (Lectio Divina, p.18)
Another major influence on Christine’s decision to become an oblate was the 12th century Benedictine abbess, Hildegard of Bingen:
“I was smitten with her creative breath and outpouring , her love of music, her poetic writing.
I wanted to know more about what shaped and inspired her soul, which led me to the Benedictine path. She was the doorway to my growing love of monasticism and eventually my becoming an oblate”. ( biographical comments on the Abbey of the Arts website)
Christine Valters Paintner’s works deal with the human longing and desire to seek out the sacred and to encounter God in our lives. They invite us to embark on journeys of spiritual and soul pilgrimage, and to embrace the art of contemplative and creative spiritual living, which involves cultivating and nurturing aspects of ourselves through which communication and relationship with the Holy can be fostered.
For Christine, the contemplative state is a particular state of heart, and “the heart of the contemplative path” is slowing down, paying attention, and becoming fully present, whether this be to the sacred word, to an image or object, to ourselves or others, or to nature and the world around us. In The Artist’s Rule, she states: “ One fruit of contemplation is that we slowly become more conscious of everything as a sacred vessel : each person and object, each moment in time is a dwelling place for the Holy Presence”. (p. 38).
And in Lectio Divina, she states : “ While contemplation is fundamentally a posture of being and resting into God’s presence, if we commit to regular practice, it will inevitably infuse our doing in the world.”.
( p 136).
Spiritual and monastic practices (such as cultivating silence, creating sacred spaces and rhythms, praying Lectio Divina) are presented, in Christine’s works, as the means by which we deepen our encounter with the sacred. Further practices, (such as obedience, stability, and beginning again) assist us to stay on the path, and help us to get back on course, in the face of challenges, difficulties and resistances faced on our spiritual journeys. In the process of our spiritual practices, both we, and our lives are transformed. We develop new ways of being, seeing, hearing, relating and expressing ourselves, in our lives, and in the world. We become more open, receptive and present in a heart-centred way, both to ourselves and to God.
The creative and expressive arts, (such as poetry, writing, photography, mandala drawing, collage, body movement and dance, chanting and toning), are presented as processes by which we can enter contemplative states of being and consciousness. They help us to become present to, and be able to express our experiences, in the moment, as they unfold within us. They are “each unique languages of the soul”, which can take us on journeys of exploration, discovery, revelation and prayer, and truth-telling, when they issue from the heart instead of from the mind or ego. This form of creative expression is concerned with process, not product, and it is most important to notice moments of self-judgement and criticism, and to be able to breathe, stay present, and let them go.
In her books, Christine Valters Paintner draws from both her own personal experiences and spiritual journeying, and from the wisdom and insights of the spiritual traditions which she has embraced. She speaks from her heart and shares intimately from her own personal experiences and convictions. Throughout her books, Christine extensively quotes from and references other spiritual writers, both ancient and more recent, which helps to expand the reader’s experience and understanding of the themes and topics being discussed, as well as serving as a useful introduction to those writers.
Christine’s books really need to be read “with the heart”, and are meant to be “worked through” rather than simply read through intellectually, in order for the reader to gain the most benefit from the many reflections, suggestions for prayer and creative exercises and meditations that she offers, with the emphasis being on the process, not the product, of any creative endeavour that she suggests.
Christine Valters Paintner’s books offer the reader creative ways to deepen their experience of spirituality and the Divine. Her works suggest that to have the experience or encounter of the sacred, one has to engage in the process of relating and communicating, whether this occurs in contemplation, prayer, meditation, physical or creative activity, and that one needs to be centred in one’s “heart-space” during this engagement.
Her works can inspire and guide us to change our perspectives, our patterns, our ways of “seeing” and responding to life and what it presents, so that we can have deeper, more meaningful and more sacred experiences of living in every moment.
Wednesday, 16 May 2018
On Tuesday the 15th of May, Angela Gallipoli conducted the monthly Spiritual Reading Group in the Carmelite Library on Christine Valters Paintner. Here are the readings used during the session, with the book titles from which the passages are sourced.
How to Feel the Sap Rising
Walk as slowly as possible,
All the while imagining
Yourself moving through
Pools of honey and dancing with
Snails, turtles and caterpillars.
Turn your body in a sunwise direction
To inspire your dreams to flow upward.
Imagine the trees are your own
Wise ancestors offering their emerald
Leaves to you as a sacred text.
Lay yourself down across earth
And stones. Feel the vibration of
Dirt and moss, sparking a tiny
Revolution in your heart
With their own great longing.
Close your eyes and forget this
Border of skin. Imagine the
Breeze blowing through your hair
Is the breath of the forest and
your own breath joined, rising and
falling in ancient rhythms.
Open your eyes again and see it
Is true, that there is no “me” and “tree”
But only One great pulsing of life,
One sap which nourishes and
Enlivens all, one great nectar
Bestowing trust and wonder.
Open your eyes and see that there
Are no more words like beautiful,
And ugly, good and bad,
But only the shimmering presence of your
Own attention to life.
Only one great miracle unfolding and
Only one sacred word which is
The inner monastery:
The inner monastery is a quality of consciousness you bring to everything you do, including creating.
It is the crucible for your transformation, and everything you need to be whole is right there within you already.
The desert monks would say, “Sit in your cell, and it will teach you everything” (Thomas Merton, Wisdom of the Desert). This cell is the cave of your heart, that interior place of reflection and struggle. It is the place where the spark of the divine glows and you carry that with you wherever you go. As you make art or write, the process is a container for awareness. Everything that rises up- judgments, blocks, and insights – is a reflection of the whole of your life. Your cell, the blank canvas, the white page – each of these invites you to pay attention to what is happening right in this moment. There is no need to go elsewhere to find enlightenment or transformation. The space within which you dwell and the container for your creative expression can each become the holy site of struggle and freedom. Whatever you encounter in prayer and in art making is a microcosm of the macrocosm of your life:
You do not need to leave your room… Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice.
It will roll in ecstasy at your feet. (Franz Kafka)
(The Artist’s Rule : nurturing your creative soul with monastic wisdom)
The art of beholding is like this. “Behold” means to hold something in your gaze. To behold is not to stare or glance; it is not a quick scan or an expectant look. Beholding has a slow and spacious quality to it.
Your vision becomes softer as you make room to take in the whole of what you are seeing. There is a reflective and reverential quality to this kind of seeing. You release your expectations of what you think you will see and instead receive what is actually there, while in the process everything can shift …
When you cultivate the art of beholding, you nurture your capacity to see the world with the eyes of the heart. Hold your camera in your hand and open yourself to grace and revelation hidden in each moment, just beneath the surface of what seems to be another ordinary moment … Your camera isn’t just a tool but a portal …
Contemplative seeing and beholding are conscious acts of becoming receptive and dropping, as much as possible, our own ego desires and projections. It is only from this space of openness and wonder that we truly see the movement of God in the world.
(Eyes of the Heart : photography as a Christian contemplative practice)
The heart is an ancient metaphor for the seat of our whole being. To be “whole-hearted” means to bring our entire selves before God – our intellect, our emotional life, our dreams and intuitions, and our deepest longings. The heart is both active and receptive. The heart listens, but also hears; the heart savors and supplies nourishment to be savoured; the heart responds but is also open to the call of others.
The heart is also where we cultivate compassion for ourselves and for others; where we discover we are intertwined with other human beings, with all creatures, and with the Divine …
Above all it signifies integration and relationship : the integration and unification of the total person within her or himself, and at the same time the centering and focusing of the total person upon God …
Lectio divina is the practice of being present to each moment in a heart-centred way. When we pray lectio we see sacred text as God’s living words being spoken to our hearts in the moment. The practice allows us to encounter God in an active and intimate way. The invitation of lectio divina, therefore, is to cultivate a heart-centered intimacy with the sacred texts that is a different way of engaging them than pure interpretive reasoning. Lectio divina asks us to listen, savor, and respond – not simply understand their meaning. The purpose of this practice is that we gradually bring these qualities of being to the whole of our lives and everything is potentially a sacred text through which God can speak to us.
(Lectio Divina – the sacred art : transforming words and images into heart-centered prayer)
“Walking” Lectio Divina:
Sometimes for prayer, I engage in a “walking” lectio divina, choosing a text and praying with it as I walk. Recently the passage … about an experience St. Benedict had at the end of his life had my heart burning. “The whole world was gathered up before his eyes / in what appeared to be a single ray of light.”
I took these words on a walk with me, entering with Benedict into his final vision. I began by relishing the words themselves, savouring them within me. Then I allowed my imagination to unfold, to let images, feelings, and memories stir in me. I was flooded with images of creation infused with radiant light – sitting by the sea, walking deep in the woods, climbing a mountain, breathing in a field of wildflowers – each place luminous and connected in a sacred way to the others through this luminosity.
From these images and memories rising up in me, I listened for the invitation God had for me. How am I being called in response to what I have seen and heard in my prayer? It was springtime and I turned a corner and saw clusters of daffodils splayed across patches of grass. White and gold petals were open in their own prayers of supplication, illuminated by sunlight. In a moment of grace, I saw the daffodil was not radiant just because of the sunlight dancing across its surface. Suddenly the daffodil was lit from within. The sun merely calls this spark of God forth, the spark residing within each person and each extravagant moment of creation.
I saw that as it is with the daffodil, so it is with me as well. The sunlight spread across my skin, warming me with its radiant heat. And in this way, the sun reminded me of the way God illuminates me from within, dwells within me as a spark. When I open my heart I become a burning flame. My invitation is to carry this light into the world and to see fire everywhere I look.
Becoming Fire :
Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said:
Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts :
now what more should I do ?
The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire.
He said: Why not become fire?
- Desert Fathers
I love the story from the desert fathers above. In the spiritual life we keep our practices, spend time in prayer, seek God in all things, and yet at some point even all this is not enough – and we are asked to become fire. Becoming fire means letting our passion for life and beauty ignite us in the world.
It means, as St. Ignatius of Loyola wisely said, that we are called to set the whole world on fire with our passion for God.
We may find ourselves drawn to creative expression because it taps into what is most vital and alive in us. The burning in our blood seeks expression in the world, whether through art, song, cooking, gardening, our work, relationships, or in our presence to others. Becoming fire means saying yes to life by the very way we live.
Outcasts and border-dwellers :
In my book The Artist’s Rule, I present the monk and artist as archetypes, that is, they each have an energetic presence within us and are present to people across time. I describe the inner monk as that aspect of us which seeks out a whole-hearted connection to God and cultivates the ability to see the sacred presence shimmering everywhere.
The inner artist seeks to give form to our inner longings and create beauty in the world. Both the inner monk and inner artist are border-dwellers. Neither fit neatly into mainstream society as they both call us to new ways of seeing.
The monk calls the world to presence rather than productivity. The monk takes the demanding path of inner work and growth. The world offers possible ways to distract them from these struggles.
The monk chooses a simple life in the midst of abundance of riches. When we commit to a contemplative path, we begin to let go of the things that aren’t important anymore. We release the non-essentials of life that society tells us are important.
We strangers on the pilgrimage seek to embrace the unknown in service of the journey. The pilgrim journeys to the edges of the inner and outer world because we know there is more of God to be found there.
Crossing the Threshold :
The Desert Mothers and Fathers valued their monastic cell as a vitally important place. As with all things, they view their cells as a way to experience stillness and as a place to quiet their inner life.
Much of the desert journey is about becoming present in our emotional life. The pilgrimage helps us see our own feelings, thoughts, and voices that we battle. The gate is narrow because there are few who are brave enough to enter this inner cell and stay present to the storms. I seek to stand and stay present to my own experience. I want to make space to feel this grief, welcome my feelings of helplessness, and rage at injustice; I let it all in …
When we begin to cross the threshold, we are confronted with the greatness of our unknowing. We are called to recognize that we do not know what the future brings. This allows us to rest in humility rather than theological platitudes. We may want to try and come to some resolution to obtain a feeling of control. Yet that is another way we run away from the fierceness of the storm.
The practice is that we stay present with ourselves on this journey. We should not abandon the call luring us forward. We should avoid going back to the comfortable. It is well for us to remember how the familiar suffocated our inner and outer lives.
(Soul of a Pilgrim : Eight Practices for the Journey Within)
Radical hospitality and the inner witness :
St. Benedict wrote in his rule, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” …
For Benedict, our encounters with the stranger – the unknown, the unexpected, and the foreign elements that spark our fear – are precisely where we are most likely to encounter God. This is a practice of outer hospitality.
The concept of inner hospitality is to open our inner selves to all of the elements about us that we fear and reject – the painful and dark feelings, our shadow side, or the things we do and long for that we don’t want anyone else to know about. If we embrace Benedict’s wisdom for our deepest selves, inner hospitality might be seen as hospitality that proceeds from the very core or root of who we are and an invitation to extend a welcome to the stranger who dwells inside of us …
How do you welcome in the range of your feelings without being swept away by them? One way to do this is by cultivating your inner witness and connecting regularly with your calm, non-anxious, compassionate core self… When you notice yourself resisting an inner voice or shutting your inner door on it, take some time to intentionally invite this voice inside to the table. Ask what it has come to tell you. Listen past the first layer, which may sound ugly or painful, and tend to the deeper layers underneath. This takes time, much like growing in intimacy with a friend. Our rejected selves will need some coaxing.
When we choose to receive guests as a window into the sacred presence, we choose to live and relate from a more intentional and reverential place. When we engage in a dynamic encounter with what we are fearful of, it relinquishes its power on us, and a new wisdom and energy are released. It is in this place of hospitality to the unknown where we encounter God. (Wisdom of the Body : A Contemplative Journey to wholeness for women)
Stability and Conversion :
Conversion for me essentially means making a commitment to always being surprised by God. Conversion is the counterpart to stability. If stability calls us to be rooted and persistent, conversion is the recognition that we are all on a journey and always changing. God is always offering us something new within us. Conversion is a commitment to total inner transformation and a free response to the ways God is calling us and to new images of God …
Lectio divina demands that we stay the course, that we listen with a willing heart, and that we open ourselves to ongoing radical transformation. Soul work is always challenging, and calls us beyond our comfort zone. Prayer isn’t about baptizing the status quo, but entering into dynamic relationship with God who always makes things new.
Scripture challenges our ingrained patterns of belief, our habitual attitudes and behaviour. Conversion is about what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind”, a reminder that we are called to approach our practice with the heart of a beginner. St. Benedict speaks to this practice when he describes his rule as a “little Rule for beginners” and calls us to “always begin again”.
(Lectio Divina – the sacred art : transforming words and images into heart-centered prayer)
In the gospel story of the Transfiguration, it says that Jesus “shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white (Mt 17:2). Fire and illumination again become a window onto the divine. The burning light that once appeared to Moses in the bush now radiates from Jesus himself.
For Gregory Palamas (a fourteenth-century Orthodox monk), it was the disciples who changed at the transfiguration, not Christ. Christ was transfigured “not by the addition of something he was not, but by the manifestation to his disciples of what he really was. He opened their eyes so that instead of being blind they could see.”
Because their perception grew sharper, they were able to behold Christ as he truly is, a source of radiance in the world. We will only see the light that already exists if we train ourselves to do so. To peer into a deeper reality is a metaphysical endeavour, requiring that we “see” with more than merely our eyes, and that we sense with more than merely our natural senses.
The discipline of spiritual practice helps us to cultivate our ability to see below the surface of things, to have a transfigured vision of the world.
(Water, wind, earth and fire : the Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements.)
Praying with Air :
* As a way of entering your time of prayer, take time to get in touch with your breathing.
Don’t try to change the rhythm of your breath; simply notice your natural rhythmic rise and fall.
Imagine as you breathe in that God breathes life into you.
As you breathe out, imagine releasing all of the distractions and worries that keep you from being fully present in prayer. See if you can just set them aside for a time.
* Simply spending time with your breath as a way of deepening your awareness of the God who sustains you moment by moment is enough. Take time to become aware of your breathing, and allow your heart to fill with gratitude for this most basic gift of life.
* You can also create your sacred phrase or mantra to repeat on the in-breath and out-breath.
For instance, upon breathing in say, “I receive the gift of life; upon breathing out say, “I release and surrender”.
Spend a few moments in silence to see if you can receive the words of your own breath-prayer, those that rise up from your heart, rather than intentionally creating it.
* Take time each morning to begin the day with gratitude for the gifts of the Spirit. Allow the dawn to be a time of praying with the air and honouring ruach, the holy breath that sustains you.
Get in touch with your breathing. Give yourself time to tend to what is stirring in you those first few moments of the day, becoming aware of the blossoming that feels possible in this time of awakening.
Inhale love, exhale fear.
* We all have places in our lives where we feel uninspired, where we are going through the motions.
Pray with God’s gift of air and imagine the Spirit blowing new life into those places where you have fallen asleep or have become deadened. Spend time asking for renewed vigor and energy, or try to notice if you are being invited to let those uninspired places go in order to make room for new possibilities.
* On a spring or summer day, go to the beach or the park and spend some time watching birds fly overhead. See if you can enter into their flight for a moment in your imagination.
If you had wings, where would they carry you ?
Blessing of Water
Spirit of Living Water,
You hold all creation in your womb
And spring us forward onto the earth at birth.
Spirit of the Tides,
Remind me of the rise and fall of your rhythms
So that I may discover them deep within my own being.
Spirit of Greenness,
Bring moistness and vigor to my life
So that I might savor the experience of your energy
Moving through me out into the world.
Blessings of water be upon me.
May I be carried by the flow of the great river of life.
May I discover a hidden spring within, gushing forth,
May I be carried to the shores of the sacred and renewed.
(Water, wind, earth and fire : the Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements.)