I can't remember now when I first happened across the virtual monastery known as the Abbey of the Arts. I was immediately drawn to Christine Valters Paintner's work and spent a lot of time on her blog and reading/listening to the introductory "Free Monk Resources" she offers. And then in January of last year I took a 12-week online course called Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist. This class was hugely supportive as I was finding my writing voice and it gave me the opportunity to explore creative outlets that, left to my own devices, would likely have gone unexplored.
A year ago I had the opportunity to work with Christine in person for the first time at the very first Sacred Rhythms Writing Retreat. It was a rich time of growth and connection and, a year later, the experience is still unfolding for me. (I'll be returning in October and understand there are still a few spots open...join me?)
Today, we are honored to have Christine here answering some questions about her new book, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice. My cameras have been part of my spiritual practice for some time now, so I asked Christine some questions that I've run up against in my own practice. Read on for her thoughts and insight (and see below for details on how you can win a copy of the book).
Alizabeth: You've said before that writing is your main creative form. How does photography support you in your writing, and vice versa?
Christine: When I first started writing my blog, I loved the ability to post images to accompany the reflections I had written. Somehow, the combination of word and image together seemed to express more than just one or the other.
My training in the arts comes mainly from the field of the expressive arts, which engages the arts for healing and transformation, rather than trying to create a beautiful product. One of the fundamental principles of the expressive arts is what is known as multi-modal exploration. It recognizes that there is a deeper kind of wisdom that comes from creating a piece of visual art, then writing about it, and then perhaps dancing from the images. Moving from language to language reveals new insights that might not happen with just one art form. This can happen in any order, the important part is engaging multiple ways of creating.
It calls to mind for me the ancient monks who labored over the illuminated manuscripts and writing the sacred texts of scripture, but adding many design elements, flourishes, and images to enhance what they were expressing. This has been my experience – that my writing is deepened and enhanced by my engagement with the visual art form of photography, allowing me to see the world in different ways than through words alone.
Alizabeth: What is your philosophy on editing photos? When images are "received" in the way you describe in your book, it almost seems wrong to try and improve upon them...and yet editing offers endless opportunities for creative play and experimentation.
Christine: I tend to have a very spacious and open-ended philosophy around editing. The image we receive in the world is indeed a gift, but as you mention, editing can take on a great sense of playfulness. My main caution is when we are editing to make a more “beautiful” image – one that is trying to meet some external standard. It really is all about our intention. If our intention is to enter into a prayerful space and see what we might discover through playing with contrast and cropping and other tools, then this to can be a portal to an encounter with something sacred.
Alizabeth: You say in your book that you've been taking photographs since you were a child. How has what you're drawn to in your photography evolved over time? Have you noticed that certain themes emerge based on what's happening in your life?
Christine: My grandparents owned a chain of photo and hobby shops in the Northeast U.S. and so I always had a camera in hand as a child. Mostly though, this was more for capturing images of travel or taking photos of loved ones. There wasn’t a conscious meditative aspect to it.
In my twenties, when I embraced monasticism as a spiritual path for my life, I began to see photography as a gateway to contemplative practice. This developed over time as I discovered in creating art a wonderful opportunity to both witness my own thoughts unfolding, as well as notice all the times I forgot myself and entered fully into the moment as it was happening.
These last several years, as I have processed some personal losses, I have been very drawn to the spareness of winter trees in particular and playing with black and white as a way of exploring the essence of things. I love the way winter images can help me to honor the experience of grief.
I have a zoom lens on one of my cameras that I love as a way of moving into more intimacy with a particular subject, so I love playing with close-ups and seeing what I discover by exploring the various facets of a particular thing.
For most of my adult life, I have not been drawn to photographing people. I tend to think this is because as an only child, I was the subject of endless photos in my family, and so prefer photographing nature. But I have noticed these last few months a desire to begin exploring what that would be like, to include more people as subjects. I find myself looking at people’s faces and being so entranced by the lines and wrinkles someone has as an expression of their life experience. I am not yet sure what this is about in my life, but I am staying open to the discovery of it!
Alizabeth: Chapter 7 is entitled "Seeing the Holy Everywhere." Can you talk a little bit about how this goes beyond seeing "beauty" everywhere? How can we practice seeing the holy in the less-than-beautiful places, events, and circumstances of our lives?
Christine: This really is the goal of all contemplative practice – to learn to see the sacred presence shimmering in all places, even those that feel hard or “ugly” or ordinary. In many respects it is easy to see beauty or God in the places of ease or circumstances that feel graced. When I am asked how someone can know if they have had an authentic encounter with God, I ask them to consider whether it has expanded their capacity for compassion. Do they see more and more people and events through the eyes of love? This is the journey of a lifetime though, we are always called to expand our vision and welcome in that which we have previously rejected as still offering the possibility of grace.
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Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, is the online Abbess at Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery and community for contemplative practice and creative expression. She is the author of 7 books on art and monasticism, including her latest, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (Ave Maria Press). Christine currently lives out her commitment as a monk in the world with her husband in Galway, Ireland.
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