Christine Valters Paintner’s Eyes of the Heart is an invitation to experience a spirituality of beauty. Often the mystical tradition has been other-worldly in focus, seeing the body as a prison house and impediment to experiencing God and counseling seekers to turn away from sense experience in the quest for the unfathomable, insensate God. A photographer who revels in the diverse hues and shapes of the physical world, Paintner takes another path to divinity. While she recognizes the apophatic truth that God is always more than we can imagine and recognizes the importance of iconoclastic spirituality, Eyes of the Heart is profoundly kataphatic, inviting us to love God in the world of the flesh. God is revealed in all of our senses – in fact the world is sensational for those who awaken to the many revelations of God strewn throughout each day.
Two theological affirmations are at the heart of the quest to experience God in the world of the flesh:
- Omnipresence – God is present in all things. All things are words of God, unique and inspired variously by God.
- Incarnation – the word is made flesh in the midst of the complexities of human life. Incarnation opens the door for dramatic and varied revelations of God in the dynamic world of space and time.
The interplay of omnipresence and incarnation gives birth to the experience of beauty that is the focal point of Eyes of the Heart. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once noted that radical amazement is central to authentic spirituality. If you’re not amazed at the world, the human condition, and the wonder of your being, it is difficult to describe you as religious. In fact, the current dichotomy of “spiritual” and “religious” and the rise of self-described “spiritual but not religious” persons is an indictment of an institutional faith that has made the experience of God routine and manageable and has robbed religious experience of awe, wonder, and mystery. In the spirit of Annie Dillard’s words, we should expect to be awestruck and overwhelmed occasionally in worship. We should anticipate being amazed at the wonder of our being and the beauty of the cosmos.
Although Paintner is rooted in the Christian tradition, her spirituality is global in orientation, encompassing the insights of the world’s great wisdom traditions and the piety of aboriginal spiritualities. Paintner’s proposal that seeing with the eyes of the heart illumines the world and opens us to new dimensions of spirit within daily life reminds me of Navajo blessing that has become important part of my global Christian spirituality:
In beauty may I walk.
All day long may I walk.
Through the returning seasons may I walk.
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk.
With dew about my feet may I walk….
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.
This past week has be the height of the cherry blossom season in Washington DC where I currently live. About a mile from my home in Chevy Chase, the Kenwood neighborhood hosts the second most abundant concentration of cherry trees in the area. Each morning last week I walked beneath a canopy of cherry blossoms, reveling at their beauty, and also marveling at their fragility and temporality. In a few brief days, the cherry trees blossom and then the blossoms evolve into leaves. They are here for but a moment. Their beauty is in their delicate hues and also in the brevity of their blossoming. For some, the brevity of life turns their attention to the unchanging and eternal. They see temporality, mortality, and change as a deficiency and focus their attention on an eternal and unchanging God, whose primary manifestation is in an eternal and unchanging soul. We are the cherry blossoms, we are the children of the moment, but the whole of God is in every cell and soul, and in you…the whole earth is filled with God’s beauty.
There is no doubt that change is difficult: we must constantly let go of the familiar and persons we love. As I write these words, I grieve the possibility that I will be moving away from Washington DC after only a year to pursue another professional possibility. Moving will involve leaving behind loved ones and at least the immediacy of regular encounters for a while with my grandchildren and their parents. I mourn that, but I treasure each moment of playing with blocks, reading books, telling bedtime stories, and kissing good night.
Beauty is found in the temporary nature of life and in the contrasts of sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes. Complexity, intensity, brevity, joined with attentiveness and love, bring forth the beauties of life. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead claims that the goal of the universe is the production of beauty and, I believe, Paintner would agree. She and the philosopher would also agree that beauty is found in the here and now and not some distant eternity or unchanging realm. Louis Armstrong marvels at a “wonderful world” in all its change and beauty; and the photographer, poet, philosopher and parent revel in the simple beauties of this unique and temporary here-now as they invite us to walk with beauty all around us. Rejoice in “bright blessed days and dark sacred nights.”
For more conversation on, and to read an excerpt from, Eyes of the Heart, visit the Patheos Book Club here.