Christine Valters Paintner is the founder of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery that offers classes and resources on contemplative practice and creative expression. In 2018, Christine attended a summer writing workshop at the Collegeville Institute. She has written twelve books on monasticism and creativity. Her newest book, Earth Our Original Monastery: Cultivating Wonder and Gratitude Through Intimacy with Nature, was released in early April. In March, June Mears Driedger spoke with Christine about her book and the climate crisis.
How did you come to understand the Earth as an “original monastery”?
The image came to me during my studies of desert and Celtic spirituality, where seeking the Divine in the wilderness creates a radical encounter. An encounter with wilderness moves you beyond your sense of security and the comforts of being in society. What these monks were acutely aware of was the way in which wilderness can be disorienting and stretch us beyond the limits of our patterns and preconceived ideas. This discomfort calls us into a new relationship with the Divine presence. The monastic tradition is rooted in the Psalms, which describes all of creation in a continual liturgy of praise to the Creator.
Also, the ninth century Celtic theologian John Scotus Eriugena first articulated the concept that nature is “the first book of revelation.” My own spirituality is nourished by the monastic tradition’s understanding that an intimate, radical encounter with the natural world opens us up to new ways of seeing the world. Ways that move beyond my habits and preconceived ideas.
In the book’s introduction you identify your vocation as contemplative. How do you engage with the existential dread and anxiety of climate change?
Being a contemplative is the only thing that saves me from complete despair. Yet, even so, I still experience those feelings of dread and anxiety. There are beliefs which are the core of my contemplative practice: one, a deep trust in Love as the foundation of everything and the ground of all being; and two, the ability to actively cultivate a relationship to this abiding Love. When I feel anxious and fearful, I return to the belief that beneath everything is Love.
I fundamentally believe the contemplative practices of sitting in silence and walking in the woods enable me to deepen into that trust. Additionally, I believe in a God of complete mystery while honoring the limits of my own imagination. I trust that God is more expansive than anything I can imagine, which gives me a great deal of hope because it means my own limited imagination isn’t the final word on everything. There is a much bigger imagination out there.
The thrust of the book is encouraging people to cultivate intimacy with the earth. If you are in love with this source of beauty, grace, sustenance and nourishment, you will invest in preserving it however you can.
But what do we do with the dread and the despair that we feel and how do we sustain ourselves? How do we get up in the morning and continue doing the necessary work of showing up for ourselves and for one another with compassion? For me, I spend time walking in the woods as a way to be connected to the seasonal rhythms unfolding around me, the diversity of life in all its forms, and to be present to the wisdom that comes through other ways of knowing that are more intuitive and embodied.
If you are in love with this source of beauty, grace, sustenance and nourishment, you will invest in preserving it however you can.
In the letter from the Catholic bishops regarding the environmental crisis they describe three responses: prophetic, aesthetic, and contemplative. The prophetic response speaks out about justice issues and often works on political levels. The aesthetic response is the concrete actions we might take in our everyday lives, like fasting from using plastic or trying to reduce our meat consumption. The contemplative response is really the heart of my book, that is, giving ourselves the opportunities to deepen our sense of love and kinship with Earth.
In chapter five, “Earth as the Original Icon,” you discuss the necessity of lament and how it can influence our approach to the climate crisis.
I’m influenced by Walter Brueggemann’s book, The Prophetic Imagination, and his idea of lament as an essential act of both truth telling and grieving. We live in this culture which rejects grief as too messy, too time-consuming, and too burdensome. And yet, I believe deeply that lament allows us to fully experience grief, rage, sadness, and fear, which unleashes resources within us to be able to see whatever we are grieving in a new way.
Part of our limited imagination comes from limiting our capacity for full emotional expression and response. Who doesn’t feel incredible sadness and grief over the fires in Australia, California, and the Amazon rainforest, over the devastating loss of species, over the poisoning of our seas with plastic and oil spills? We need to allow space to feel these feelings. The lament itself is a way of saying, “This is what’s wrong, this is what needs to change.” It leads to acts of justice.
You write about how animals, the creatures of the earth, can deepen our relationship with creation and with the Creator.
Having a dog is one of the great gifts and joys of my life. Just her sheer delight and joy, and lack of anxiety and dread, makes it healing to be in her presence. Animals and plants do not try to be something other than they are. They just show up in the moment as fully themselves.
Your book is very counter-cultural.
I see the monastic path as a call to live in resistance to the dominant culture and the dominant ways of thinking and being in the world. I think the monastic path puts you intentionally on the edges of cultures that emphasize speed and productivity, or value profit over people. Any kind of deeply rooted spiritual path is resistance. I think any set of practices and beliefs which places generosity, hospitality, humility, and love at the center of our lives puts us on the edge of the culture.
Any kind of deeply rooted spiritual path is resistance.
Many people around the globe are “sheltering in place” due to the coronavirus pandemic. Do you have suggestions for city dwellers on how they can experience nature during this season?
There are a few things. One is to grow something – get a pot, plant a seed, and nurture it. Or a house plant that gives you a connection to something that’s living and breathing and thriving. Something simple too, like paying attention to rhythms of light and darkness outside, to attune yourself to sunrise and sunset. Even watching gorgeous nature documentaries as a prayer practice, as a way of letting the natural world open your heart to this sense of intimacy and connection.
Pay attention to living things that are in your neighborhood, such as a dandelion growing up through the cracks, a tree in a nearby park, or a snail on the wall. These moments invite us to pause and be with the wonder of creation.