A Spiritual Trellis

My grandmother’s backyard had an ancient trellis of faded white wood. The ivy my grandfather had planted near the house found it, eventually, creeping up the thin but sturdy slats.

The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom is not unlike such a trellis. To be honest, I have only sampled and browsed it. I’m saving it for the hectic start of the semester, for a bit of regular, contemplative reminder about Life amidst busy lives. Here, I simply want to share what I see at the start of the journey, with a bit of context from what I do.

Speaking as a professor of spiritual practice, I am reminded that ‘rule’ in the ancient sense of the word, within monastic circles, speaks not of law or governance, not of ‘rules’ or ‘ruling’ today. The image often given is that of a trellis, a sturdy, orderly, tended structure on which domestic and wild plants may find the sun, grow into their beautiful blossoming ways. And yes, even wild plants, things we may call weeds, can be beautiful! Author Christine Valters Paintner provides such windows and samplings of this monastic ‘rule,’ complete with preliminaries of Sacred Tools, Sacred Space, Sacred Rhythms, and lived out in monastic values of obedience, stability, conversion, humility, hospitality, community.  Amongst these ‘sturdy slats,’ countless generations of faithful lives have grown to maturity in things of Spirit. [One of the gifts of the Benedictine way, you see, is this openness to, provenance for, life that grows within and seemingly outside of staid-traditional words like dogma, doctrine, belief. It’s not that such words do not exist in and fund Benedictine community life, but they are secondary to Life itself. Demonstrative of it, encouraging of it, in the best sense.]

Week Six, “Humility: Embracing Your Imperfections and Limitations”, drew my attention in this first exploration of Paintner’s pages. The sub-title or description fits well with thinking here, serendipitously: “Humility – Telling the Truth about Our Earthiness.” Paintner contextualizes this most significant aspect of faithful life well. Humility is exceedingly difficult to discuss in our “me-first”culture and especially for women upon the coattails of patriarchal, religious history(ies). I think humility is something best encountered along the way—hence, chapter six—but her reminder that the term arises from humus, which means “earth” (p. 82) is significant in starting as well. That it actually means “being rooted and grounded” seems especially significant. Knowing who you are, accepting one’s limitations as gifts, not just as sad signposts of being finite creatures, offers important wisdom.

One of the greatest strengths in this volume, however, is the multi-traditional offerings alongside a clear identity in a long-rooted tradition of faith, Benedictine spirituality. When so rooted, guided by an ancient trellis of centuries’ stature, new life breathes into biology and true artistry mayindeed blossom. It has roots to hold it, and life to live amongst challenges, thorns. Expressiveness and a life uniquely created, yet aching to be shared.

Amen to that, I say.

Lisa M. Hess listens, teaches, and writes as a Presbyterian minister (PCUSA) and practical theology professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.  Visit her Expert Site at Patheos for more information.

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