— Christine Valters Paintner
One of my very favorite writers on the spiritual life is Christine Valters Paintner, an author, Benedictine Oblate, and Abbess of the online retreat center Abbey of the Arts. When one of her emails graces my inbox, I notice my pulse slowing, and I take a deep inhale and exhale. For I know reading one of her essays inviting me to once again slow down, pay attention to my senses and the world around me and embrace the spiritual journey will stir some deep longing within, resonate with my heart and inspire a new practice. We would all do well with a daily dose of Christine VP in our lives.
This month at the Patheos Book Club, we’re featuring her latest book, The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within. I sent her some questions about the new book across the pond in Galway, Ireland, where she lives with her husband and serves as a self-described “monk in the world.”
What inspired your new book, and what’s at the heart of it?
This book is really the fruit of my own spiritual practice over the last several years. My husband and I began making what we call “ancestral pilgrimages” to landscapes which shaped the lives and imaginations of our ancestors. This eventually led to us moving, first to Vienna where my father grew up and is now buried alongside my grandparents, and then later to Ireland where we are putting down roots. In this process of embracing pilgrimage as a way of life, I discovered some essential practices which shape this way of being. So the book arose from life experience and wanting to offer others some insight into why they might go on pilgrimage.
Define ‘pilgrim’ for us.
Someone who makes an intentional journey courting holy disruption. The desire to become the stranger, be uncomfortable for the sake of breaking apart our well-constructed defenses is at the heart of this journey. The Latin root of the word for pilgrim, peregrini, means stranger.
There’s been a renewed interest in the idea of pilgrimage in recent years, be it a small group choosing to walk the age-old Camino de Santiago Trail in Spain together or the more modern quest of a young single woman hiking a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the popular book/movie Wild. What do you account for the popularity of pilgrimage today?
I think people are really hungry for embodied practices, they want their spirituality to become enfleshed. Walking is an ancient way of coming to new understanding about ourselves. I think of the phrase attributed to St. Augustine “it is solved by walking” and the poet Wallace Stevens who said “sometimes the truth depends upon a walk around the lake.” By putting ourselves in foreign landscapes we also stretch ourselves by embracing strangeness as a gift that can break us apart in new ways. We allow ourselves to become vulnerable, and in the process the divine can enter us in ways we never expected. By walking paths that thousands of others have walked, we bind ourselves to a community of seekers across time.
Your book is not so much about the outer journey of pilgrimage as it is the inner journey. What’s the difference? How do we take an inner pilgrimage?
When we make a physical pilgrimage with intention (as opposed to being a tourist on vacation) we always have an inner journey as well. However that inner journey isn’t dependent on the outward travel. I find the metaphor of pilgrimage an empowering one. Sometimes daily life thrusts us onto a new journey we would rather not embark upon, we find ourselves in a strange landscape, perhaps following a job loss or illness. We can respond as victims of circumstance, or we can call upon the ancient idea of pilgrimage, that life is a journey which breaks us open again and again. By showing up fully, not running away, and opening our hearts we are softened and changed. Our capacity for resilience is made wider.
You lead your readers on an inner pilgrimage in the book; what’s the trail map you lay out for your readers for this journey?
I offer a series of practices and try to avoid using the language of “steps” or “stages.” I invite the pilgrim to certain embodied stances in the world that can help them enter into an experience from the perspective of pilgrimage such as packing lightly and embracing the unknown. There is a chapter on “making the way by walking” as the journey will be different for each of us depending on how we are called and how closely we listen.
Creative expression is a common theme in your books and retreats on the spiritual life. How is the artistic life, or expression, an accomplice to spiritual growth?
Art-making can be likened to a pilgrimage as well. I draw upon the tradition of the expressive arts which is process rather than product-oriented. We can enter into a creative experience as a form of prayer or meditation, where the “goal” isn’t to create something beautiful to display, but to tend moment by moment to the unfolding of the creative Spirit at work within. This is wonderful practice for life itself and how we can respond to what happens. I often describe the artist as the one who creates out of the materials given, not out of an ideal set of tools or circumstances. We can learn to welcome life’s holy disruptions with an open heart and discover the graces offered.
You’ve been living in Ireland for the past several years, which was itself a pilgrimage for you and your husband. What prompted that journey, and what have been its fruits in your lives?
My husband and I had started traveling to Europe together in 2007, in search of these ancestral landscapes. My spiritual director is a Jungian analyst and he brings in a lot of family systems work to our conversations. John was teaching high school and we would go in the summers for a month or more at a time. Then we started going twice a year, adding a trip at Christmas. I was experiencing a deep healing on these journeys, so was drawn to deepen into them. My father was an Austrian citizen even though I grew up in NYC. When I finally took the steps to claim my Austrian citizenship and passport, it opened up the possibility of living there. My husband had been teaching high school for several years and was ready for a break. February of 2012 some sweeping changes were announced to the curriculum he was teaching and very soon after we decided this was the moment to act. So many synchronicities appeared to usher us forward. We lived first in Vienna for six months and then moved to Ireland.
The fruits have been many and continue to unfold. Certainly my own capacity to be present in the midst of challenge and strangeness has been widened. The healing I described above has come in many layers. I describe following certain threads in my book which have led me to a deeper relationship with the divine feminine and welcoming in the invitation to give up striving and reaching and allow myself to be fully nourished by what I offered so freely to me. Ireland has been an incredible muse for my own poetry and of course for the work my husband and I now do in leading pilgrimages. We never expected it to become so significant a part of our work when we first moved.
This is your eighth book on spirituality and contemplative prayer. What is your call as a writer? Do you ever worry you’ll run out of contemplative topics to write about?
I have been a writer for as long as I can remember, in grade school I was always writing poems and stories. It is how I discover things about myself and the world. I have the heart of a scholar and love to throw myself into ideas and see what unfolds. I love the beauty and power of words to change the way I see things. I feel fortuate that I always seem to have more ideas than time or energy, and so if anything, one of my biggest struggles is having more projects I want to complete than time to do so! I think as long as I am paying attention in this life, there will always be more to learn.
How has living in Ireland influenced or changed your writing on the spiritual life, if at all?
Ireland has offered so many gifts, it is a place so rich in both spiritual tradition and creativity. We live in Galway, a small city on the west coast of Ireland, perched on the sea. We really felt drawn there geographically because it was this place on the “wild edges” of Europe. Being here calls me to travel to my own wild edges within, to stretch my imagination even further. The stories and poems from this place are a continual source of inspiration, and the landscape seems to break open new layers within. You are so close to the elements here with the fierce winds, the roaring sea, and the hills of limestone and granite. I find they help strip away the excess and get me to the heart of things. And as I mentioned above, I have felt very drawn toward developing my poetry here and have found a wonderful community of poets and writers to support this.