Christine Valters Painter is one of the most creative and visionary of spiritual directors with a meaningful online presence. Her website, Abbey of the Arts, functions as a sort of “cyber-cloister,” a place of quiet presence and spiritual nurture where participants are invited to encounter God not only through the words and practices of contemplative spirituality, but also — and perhaps more significantly — through creative expression.
Paintner understands what Evelyn Underhill declared a century ago, that “all real artists, as well as all pure mystics, are sharers to some degree in the Illuminated Life.” But while Underhill repeatedly insisted that artists were the next best thing to mystics, Paintner avoids such a useless hierarchy. The Abbess of the Arts understands that creativity and contemplation are not competitive of each other, but rather that each opens doorways to the mysteries, if we only are willing to gaze silently and respond lovingly. Thus to be a mystic is truly to be an artist, and vice versa.
While some of her previous books (The Artist’s Rule, Eyes of the Heart) directly explore the nexus of art and spirituality, her new book, The Soul of a Pilgrim, takes a slightly different tack. Art is still very much a part of this book, particularly contemplative photography, which forms the basis of an exercise in every chapter.
But the heart of this book is not artistry so much as adventure — specifically, pilgrimage, and while the book’s subtitle (Eight Practices for the Journey Within) make it clear that this topic is very much about an inner pilgrimage, the story around which the book is structured is Paintner and her husband’s own very-much embodied pilgrimage, a semi-involuntary life change a few years ago which led to their relocating, first to Vienna and then ultimately to the west of Ireland.
Yet this is hardly a memoir, for their tale is interwoven with the stories of other pilgrims, from the desert fathers and mothers to the Exodus pilgrimage and the odyssey of the prodigal son. It’s a foundational human truth, after all, that we are always on the move — even the person who lives and dies in the town of their birth still makes a “pilgrimage” through life, journeying from childhood to adolescent, adulthood to old age.
Many times the journeys we undertake fill us with joy (our first trip overseas, the adventure of marriage), but other times they are thrust upon us, sometimes frightening and overwhelming (the loss of a job, a life-threatening illness). Part of the beauty of The Soul of a Pilgrim is that it acknowledges and embraces all these kinds of journeys, seeking to find spiritual meaning and purpose even in the itineraries that emerge out of suffering.
What Paintner does is distill the heart of pilgrimage into eight essential practices — responding to the call, packing lightly, crossing the threshold, making the way, experiencing discomfort, beginning again, embracing the unknown, and coming home — with a chapter devoted to each “practice” (I put practice in quotations because sometimes these practices are less what we choose and more what is chosen for us, like the practice of being uncomfortable).
She weaves story, theological and spiritual reflection, poetry, and several exercises into each chapter’s invitation to fully encounter the sometimes-hidden gifts of each particular practice. Her husband, John Valters Paintner, contributed a lectio divina reflection on a scripture passage for each chapter, covering both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and thereby grounding this book in the Christian tradition.
Other exercises, including a midrash writing exploration and the afore-mentioned contemplative photography, enrich the book with a variety of invitations to help the reader embrace his or her own pilgrimage (whether “inner” or “outer”) in a truly present way. While the book reaches a satisfying conclusion with the “Coming Home” chapter, Paintner acknowledges that a spiritual pilgrimage is an ongoing journey: “Pilgrimage is about diving in and not holding back. It’s about running headlong toward your deepest desire, which always awaits you with open arms.” Amen.
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