The first time I encountered Christine Valters Paintner was through my beautiful friend Maureen Doallas of Writing Without Paper. She shared a link to Christine’s website, Abbey of the Arts, and I was hooked. Even just a cursory exploration leaves you yearning for more. More spiritual connection, more sacred moments, more contemplative practice and creative expression.
Recently, I had the gift of spending an hour on Skype with Christine, the Abbess of the Abbey. I am so grateful for her gracious acceptance of my invitation to chat and explore what it means to be a Monk in the World.
My conversation with this amazing woman who lives everyday from that place of sacred connection to the divine essence of every day, left me with a sense of awe and a desire to seek out the sacred in my every day. I felt touched by grace, embraced by the gentle rhythm of her voice and the beautiful images her words evoked of what it means to be “A Monk in the World”. Today, I share Part 1 of my interview with this amazing woman.
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, is a Benedictine oblate and the author of 7 books on monastic spirituality and creative arts including her latest: Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice from Ave Maria Press. For Christine’s full bio, click HERE.
Q. What does it mean to be a Monk in the World?
Being a monk in the world means being committed to helping people reclaim their contemplative self. Everybody has an inner monk, whether you live in a monastary or not. The monk energy is strong in the world, and there’s a growing hunger to live in this meaningful and committed way in every day. My passion is about helping people connect to this ancient energy, this longing. The monk is the part of ourselves that longs for presence to the world through seeking out the sacred in every day moments whether in our homes, or out in the world. To bring that quality of sacred awareness to everything.
Q. How do you stay present in your own experience in the midst of a world that holds a lot of suffering?
There is suffering in our world. There’s large-scale like Boston (this interview took place the day after the Boston Marathon bombings) and in the everyday suffering that we all experience in losses of identity, home, jobs. Being a monk in the world is not about creating a pious always happy persona. It’s about how I bring myself, my full awareness to my experience and how do I make space for that and how do I honour that in what it means to be human. And to trust that there is something sacred that pulses through all the experiences of our lives. And then, to draw upon this sacred presence in the most difficult times.
Q. How do you transmit that sense of the sacred to the world around you?
You live it. It’s not always done well by words. In western culture there are a lot of religious traditions that like to tell people how to live a godly life. Being a monk in the world means striving to always put this into practice. How do I live a life that is full of presence and compassion and hospitality so that others will be moved by my example, regardless of what religious tradition they come from. It is more how I am in the world, how I engage, my presence that that will be the inspiration, or witness to the sense that there is something meaningful, there’s a depth dimension to life.
Q. How did you discover your monk in the world.
On some level, I have always been drawn to a contemplative life. I have always been nourished by it. I am an only child and solitude and silence were close companions and very familiar when I was younger. And then, in my twenties in graduate school that I discovered St. Benedict and through that process of study that I fell in love with a monastic way. And it was a wonderful discovery to realize there was a whole path that already reflects how I live and what I value. It was a way for me to deepen into that practice and articulate it and find a community of people who were already committed to that way of life. I stumbled into it and yet knew that I was already living that way for quite some time and just didn’t quite have the language to put into it.
The monk path is a universal path. Anybody, regardless of whether they have a religious orientation or not, has this inner monk and inner impulse towards this sense of presence to the sacred or towards what is most meaningful. And, we can also root our monk practice within specific religious traditions. For me, its rooted in Benedictine practice which is in a Christian tradition. But I feel like the practice is spacious enough that I could meet with someone in the Buddhist Tradition and while our beliefs may be different to some degree, our practices would be very similar. that’s where we find this kinship which is where living it feels more important that how I explain the beliefs behind it.
Q. How long do you spend in a typical day in contemplative practice?
I strive to keep that awareness throughout my day but I have practices that cultivate it. I will spend time in every day in Lectio Divina, the ancient practice of sacred reading of text whether scripture or poetry or the mystics. I spend usually half an hour to an hour journalling and silent prayer. I find walking and swimming to be contemplative practices. It’s based on the premise that whatever we bring our attention and awareness to can become this contemplative prayer and there are specific practices we might have that help our contemplative capacity. When I go out for a long walk, and I am intentionally walking with this sense of contemplative presence to the world and open my heart to how I might have an encounter with something that is greater than me, that is a contemplative practice. Hopefully, I can bring this awareness to everyday tasks like going grocery shopping or to the bank. Whatever I do.
It takes discipline. It’s pretty essential for me to have regular practices. That I have times in the day that I am consciously and intently cultivating that awareness. And then there are lots of times in my life that that the contemplative artist takes over as a natural practice because of who I am and what I’ve done. Practice though is key, showing up again and again so that we can strengthen that ability.
Q. Are there times when you realize you haven’t been engaged in your practice? How do you reconnect?
What can happen is we fall away from our practice and maybe engage in self-judgment, or because we simply forget. And then we remember, oh, I made this commitment to do this practice and now I haven’t done it for a week. And maybe, I just give up on it. When really the call is to keep returning, again and again. That really is the only important thing to remember — to always begin again. We will all have times when we fall away from this central commitment, it’s just part of who we are as human beings. We forget. We fall asleep. And so to begin again is an awakening, over and over. Whenever we notice we have fallen away, we can begin again, we can come back, again and again.
Next Week: Part 2 of my interview with Abbey of the Arts Abbess, Christine Valters Paintner, PhD on what it means to live as a monk in the world.