Water, Wind, Earth & Fire

Water, Wind, Earth & Fire: The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements
By Christine Valters Paintner
Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2010
Review by Carl McColman

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures” (also known as the “Canticle of the Sun”) is a powerful and poetic evocation of God’s presence in the elements of nature. But few Christians, in my experience, seem to draw the connection that if the elements are indeed agents of God’s blessings and means by which we can offer blessing and worship back to God, then it might make sense to think in terms of “air prayer,” “water prayer,” and so forth. This is the simple yet powerful premise of this lovely new book from Christine Valter Paintner, a Benedictine Oblate and the founder of the Abbey of the Arts website which explores the connection between spirituality and creativity.

Some of my readers may wonder if this is a crypto-Wiccan book, and indeed anyone interested in creative cross-fertilization between Neopaganism and Christian spirituality will find much to explore in this book. But let’s be clear: the four elements (air, fire, water and earth) are universal energies, since they are grounded not only in the nature of the earth, but indeed in our very bodies (think of it: your skeleton and flesh are earth, your blood is water, your lungs and breath bring you air, and the very heat your body generates is the fire within you). Historically speaking, knowledge of the four elements and exploration of their spiritual meaning can be traced back to Greece, where Plato speaks of the elements, following the earlier Sicilian philosopher Empedocles. In other words, our earliest knowledge of the elements is not occult or magical, but rather philosophical and scientific, in scope. For Christians today, befriending the four elements is a way to honor the incarnational dimension of our faith, seeing God’s presence in nature just as we believe the Holy Spirit and the Mind of Christ is present among those who are knit into the community of faith.

Water, Wind, Earth & Fire is essentially a workbook (“playbook”?) for prayer, divided into sections where Valters Paintner explores each element through poetry, stories, blessings, quotations, lectio divina, and suggestions for prayer and reflection. Most of the connections she highlights are obvious enough: water is linked to baptism, air to centering prayer, earth to feasting. This is not a book of secrets revealed so much as earthy common sense: water goes with the flow, fire brings passion and creativity, earth stabilizes and grounds us. Weave all four elements together and we find balance, perspective, and a sense of being at home in the good universe God has given us.

Obviously, this book should appeal to anyone with a love for Franciscan or Celtic expressions of Christian spirituality. But I think the author was wise not to limit her exploration of the elements to those particular strands of wisdom. Water, Wind, Earth & Fire feels universal in its tone and its application — it is a book for all Christians, and indeed, for all people, anyone who might be interested in finding out what mystics like Hildegard of Bingen or John of the Cross or Thomas Merton might have to say to the question of bringing prayer and nature together.

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  • http://stroppyrabbit.blogspot.com Yewtree

    Just a gentle reminder that Wicca is also a religion, not just a magical / occult practice.

    This sounds like an interesting book.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thanks for the clarification. My words were rather artless, written in an attempt to blunt the criticism of those who do not see that veneration of the elements does not necessarily involve magic.

    One thing I didn’t say in the review is that those who are familiar with Wiccan thought may not find too much that is new in this book — but hopefully can appreciate that for many Christians this represents a liberating approach to prayer.

  • Shadwynn

    While we’re on the topic of the elements and such, may I recommend a book which I have always treasured for meditational inspiration. It is truly in Matthew Fox’s spirit of “deep ecumenism” and lends itself well to expansive approaches to spiritual reflection:

    Earth Prayers From Around The World: 365 Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Honoring the Earth, edited by Elizabeth Roberts.

  • http://virtualteahouse.com Beth Patterson

    Hi Carl–
    I resonate with your thoughts–Christine’s book will not add a lot to those already steeped in earth based traditions, but her lens of traditional Catholicism through which to view the natural world–as if with new eyes, will be of great benefit to many.

    I’m taking an on-line Lenten Study course with Christine right now (and 5 fellow students) and am finding her approach extremely helpful, especially to those of us who carry and are healing from religious wounding.

    I also use ‘Earth Prayers’ consistently. Great stuff there!

    Thanks for doing this sweet review of this important book.

  • http://www.maidtoqueen.blogspot.com Laura

    Fantastic! I would be very interested in this topic. It makes me think of Jubilee in Asheville – which is still one of my favorite places. We’re going there for Easter.

  • http://abbeyofthearts.com/blog/ Abbey of the Arts

    Carl, I am very honored by your gracious words. I love your comment about it not being a book of secrets but earthly common sense. You articulate the heart of my book so well and I am grateful. Blessings, Christine

  • http://desertfishing.wordpress.com dFish

    Makes me muse: why does the “Franciscan spirituality”, at its best the most grounded expression of Christian sacramental spirituality, was not able to mingle with Chinese indigenous spirituality characterized by these 4 major elements (more ancient than the Greek scientific understanding)?

  • http://brazenbird.wordpress.com brazenbird

    I’m so excited to know about this book!

  • http://heartofflame.blogspot.com Yewtree

    I think it’s great that Christians are exploring this area. After all, it’s not the exclusive preserve of Pagans or of Wiccans – medieval Christianity included the four elements and even astrological symbolism.

  • Ellen N. Duell

    I also have a well-thumbed copy of Earth Prayers! The Celtic traditions are alive and well in me–I have much Scotch and Irish in my heritage. Thank you for reviewing this new book. Natural settings–not too much human intervention–bring me blessings of spirit and body.