Artist, Mystic, Pilgrim, Companion: An Interview with Christine Valters Paintner

Christine Valters Paintner
Christine Valters Paintner

Recently I had the opportunity to interview author and contemplative artist Christine Valters Paintner of the Abbey of the Arts. We talked about contemplative spirituality, pilgrimage, and her latest book,  The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within.

The book celebrates the spirituality of pilgrimage by identifying eight essential practices that can inform and illuminate the journeys and adventures that mark our lives. It grew out of the author’s (and her husband’s) own pilgrimage, when they relocated from the United States to Europe a few years back. If you’d like to learn more about the book, read my review on Patheos (or better yet, order a copy). Here, meanwhile, is the interview.

Can you briefly share with the readers the story of the book? Was it directly a result of your own move/pilgrimage, or what other factors may have contributed to its gestation?

Yes, it has really been the fruit of several years of embarking on what my husband and I call ancestral pilgrimages, to lands which shaped the imagination of our ancestors: Austria, England, Germany, Ireland, and Latvia. Our decision in 2012 to make a move overseas and go on a midlife adventure broke open my own deepened appreciation of pilgrimage as a metaphor for daily life. I think even further back, my own diagnosis with an autoimmune illness in my twenties, and then later mother’s sudden death in 2003 which left me bereft for a long time also contributed to my desire to see these experiences as part of something archetypal.

Now that the book is done, do you have any additional practices aside from the eight that you wish you had included? Which of the eight practices is the most powerful or meaningful for you, and why?

The practice I continue to find the most potent is the practice of being uncomfortable. Living in a foreign culture, new dimensions keep being revealed. Even in Ireland where English is spoken, we keep discovering new phrases. The heart of much of my teaching has become about cultivating this ability to stay present in the midst of strangeness and discomfort in service of widening our own capacity for responding to life’s anxieties from a place of more centeredness and compassion.

There is perhaps another whole book of practices which could also support the pilgrimage journey such as the need for silence and community. I made the intentional choice of not trying to be comprehensive or create a set of stages or steps, but rather invitations into embodied ways to live into the grace of pilgrimage with more awareness.

How do you see the relationship between pilgrimage and spiritual direction or accompaniment? For those of our readers who have a ministry of spiritual companionship, how can your book provide them with a resource for their directees?

Pilgrimage can be a very powerful metaphor for when our lives become challenging and we are thrust into difficult circumstances. Often these are the moments when someone will first seek out spiritual direction. I know in my own journey, having someone there to witness the challenges and graces was essential, and who could reflect back to me the places for growth and where I was being too hard on myself. I think the book can offer some different lenses with which to understand where on the journey the directee could be encouraged to deepen. It can be consoling when you have let go of everything familiar to know that thresholds are considered sacred moments and that moving into unknowing is an essential part of the journey toward spiritual ripening. The book offers ways to frame aspects of the journey and to see that the pilgrim is not alone in their experience.

I really appreciated your willingness to acknowledge and honor the reality that not all “pilgrimages” are voluntary or joyously embraced. How do you make sense of the relationship between suffering and being on the move? What words of hope or encouragement would you want to share with someone who is in a painful place in relationship to their journey: being evicted, or accompanying someone dying, or a pilgrimage through incarceration?

These moments that break us open and move us deeper into the radical vulnerability of being human have the opportunity for so much grace. Pilgrimage opens the possibility that we can welcome in the difficult feelings as intimately tied to our own spiritual growth. In churches we often try to move people too quickly to a place of optimism and hope. They need time to descend into the strangeness and discomfort, but to feel accompanied and accepted in that place. Sometimes this might be a part of a dark night journey, where all certainties have been stripped away. Christian tradition tells us that when this journey is made consciously and we stop trying to avoid the painful feelings, we are broken open into a deeper maturity and wisdom.

The Soul of a Pilgrim
The Soul of a Pilgrim

I love the discussion of visio divina and the invitation to enter into contemplative photography as a spiritual practice of seeing. But some people may feel insecure or self-conscious when invited to create art. What would you say to the pilgrim who encounters anxiety or fear when invited to gaze contemplatively? What is the key to letting go of our inner roadblocks?

My approach to the arts is through a process-centered perspective, so instead of creating something beautiful for display, I encourage others to enter into the creative process as a form of meditation, prayer, and expression of what is happening within. In this way the act of creating is about the journey of discovery, rather than trying to create some predetermined image in our minds. We aren’t setting out to make something beautiful, which takes the pressure off. And what is created from this approach is often deeply beautiful because it becomes an expression of an inner truth.

I also encourage people to just have some fun with it. We can take our spiritual practice too seriously at times and want to achieve some kind of perfection with it. What if we just went out to create for the pure joy and experience of it the way we did when we were children?

Here’s a question born specifically of the Benedictine tradition. There’s a tension between pilgrimage which is such a universal human spiritual practice, and stability, which as you know is a core Benedictine value. How do you understand the relationship between pilgrimage and stability? How can we enter into that tension in our lives?

This is a fabulous question and really gets at the heart of why I love both the Benedictine and Celtic monastic traditions so much, because they each invite me to hold a part of this tension. For the Benedictines, stability is foundational as a way of not running away when things become difficult. For the Celtic monks, peregrinatio was a very unique kind of pilgrimage where a monk would step into a boat without oar or rudder and let the current and wind carry them to the “place of their resurrection.” It was about yielding to the Spirit and releasing control.

At the heart of this tension is our intention and what our motivation is behind either the stability or the pilgrimage. Stability can become an excuse to never take any risks, we can become too wedded to the structure and start to glorify it. Pilgrimage can become a way to run away and find more appealing prospects. Of course the desert monks cautioned that we bring ourselves wherever we go, so running away never works in the long haul.

I believe this is the kind of tension and dance that requires a really solid relationship with a soul friend or spiritual director who can help us see through our patterns. Any practice can become a way of detachment or numbing from real engagement with life. We have to be willing to keep examining and asking the questions.

What was it like collaborating with your husband? He contributes his Biblical reflection in each chapter. Can you share a little bit about the process? The inspiration to work together in this way? Will we see more collaborative work between the two of you in the future?

The journey my husband and I have made over the last three years of growing into our working relationship has been its own kind of pilgrimage within our larger journey. When we made the big move overseas, he had quit his job teaching high school and took about a year of sabbatical time to ponder his own next steps. It was during this time that we slowly started to explore how he might bring his gifts and passions to the work I was already doing with the Abbey. It has been an interesting dance as he discovers his role in the community and as I welcome in more voices. I have a book coming out on spring 2016 on the mystics, and he again has a biblical reflection in each chapter tied to the theme. He has also been offering reflections for some of our online courses, so I think it is safe to say that his role at the Abbey will continue to develop and grow.


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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.

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