Today we are joined by Christine Valters Paintner, the abbess at Abbey of the Arts. I first got to know Christine through an earlier incarnation of my blog and have since been filled with wonder and gladness by the heart- and world-changing work that keeps pouring out of her. The books that she’s written, the courses and retreats and resources she’s created, her writings at the abbey itself: all draw people into deeper, more meaningful, mindful living. I particularly love the ways her work so clearly flows from her own growth and practice.
I’ve asked Christine here today because of her deep connections with nature and the many ways her work contemplates and looks to nature as teacher and guide. (For a description of this month’s nature theme, click here.)
Thank you so much, Christine, for being here!
One of the things I love most about your work is its connection to the seasons – your photographs, your writings, the classes you offer – all seem seasonally oriented. Can you tell us how these connections first began for you?
I have always felt a deep sense of solace out in nature. I grew up in the heart of New York City, but my father was Austrian, so we often spent summers hiking in forests and mountains. When my mother died eight years ago in autumn, it was a very painful time for me. I found tremendous comfort in daily walks. As I moved through fall and into winter I discovered that the world around me was mirroring something about my grief back to me. When I walked I felt like the trees I love so much in our neighborhood park were bearing witness to the journey of release, of stripping away, and of moving deep into a place of barrenness and solitude that I was experiencing as a part of my own grieving journey.
You have written beautifully through the years about winter, in particular, and while many are chafing at its darkness and chill, your heart seems to be soaring. Can you talk to us about your love of winter? What has winter taught you? How has contemplation of it changed you?
We live in a very summer-oriented culture. We value perpetual productivity and fruitfulness. And yet living this kind of energy all year drives us to burnout and deplete our bodies. Winter offers an invitation into a space of contemplation and rest, of incubation and mystery.
In my own process of healing from grief I discovered the wisdom and depth of winter. I have learned to love it on its own terms – not just as a preparation and precursor for spring’s blooming – but for all the ways it calls me deeper into unknowing. Being fully awake and conscious in the dark days of winter can be challenging. Unknowing and mystery are often uncomfortable experiences. We have all had winter seasons in our lives when what was familiar is stripped away and we have to hold grief and open ourselves to the grace of being rather than doing. Winter calls us to trust that fallowness and hibernation are essential to our own wholeness.
Can you say a little bit more about being called “deeper into unknowing”? What does that mean to you, or can you imagine it meaning to the rest of us?
Ah yes, very good question. . .
For me, the spiritual journey is not about growing more certain about the world, but embracing more and more the mystery at the heart of everything. In a world where so many people are so very certain about the nature of things, especially in religious circles about who God includes and excludes, I believe unknowing calls us to a radical humility. As we mature, we must engage with what our own mortality means for us, knowing that we one day enter what I call the Great Unknowing. The season of winter helps us to practice for this. Two months ago I was confronted with this knowledge that I will one day die in a very immediate way – I had a pulmonary embolism while traveling abroad. There were so many layers to this experience, but ultimately it thrust me into the essence of what is important in my life, and also calls me to release any hubris I have over how things work in the world. Winter invites holding this paradox of the clarity that comes with seeing what is most important in your life and the unknowing that comes with engaging deeply with mystery.
Oh, thank you! That’s so beautifully said! I’m wondering…can you talk about the other seasons, too? Have these also been your teachers?
Yes, each one is a teacher for me, but with different wisdom. I love autumn for its call to release and surrender and I love spring for its abundance and profusion of blossoming. I love the gold leaves falling in a luminous cascade on a sunny fall afternoon and the vibrant green of new shoots emerging on branches as spring arrives. Summer is the most challenging season for me, in part because the days are so long in the Pacific Northwest that I find it hard to sleep enough so I often feel tired this time of year. I think we each have a season that we find more difficult and so I continue to especially listen for summer’s wisdom in my own life and keep discovering new layers revealed by being present to my discomfort.
For readers who may have little or no history of connecting with the natural world, and for those who live surrounded by it but so far don’t associate it with their growth of trust, can you suggest some entry points? What practical things could we do to find some of the trust-inducing gifts that you’ve experienced nature to give?
Daily contemplative walks are a primary practice for me. I live in the heart of Seattle now and each day I head to my favorite park and bring myself present to the trees and the crows, the feel of the earth beneath my feet. I allow nature to speak on her own terms and I listen for the invitation each season offers.
Tending the seasons can be a profound path toward the nurturing of trust. When we witness the rise and fall of the year with its cycles and energies, year after year, we may begin to discover that spring does indeed always rise out of winter’s darkness.
When I lead retreats I often have people begin with paying attention to their breath with its four movements: inhale, the pause between inhale and exhale, exhale, and the pause between exhale and inhale. These four movements evoke each of the four seasons: the awakening of spring, the fullness of summer, the release of autumn, and the emptiness of winter. By turning our attention to this primal rhythm of rise and fall, fullness and emptiness, which moves through us continuously, we can connect to a deeper trust in the rise and fall of the world around us and of our own experience.
Thank you again, Christine, for being here!
For those who may be interested in more of Christine’s nature-led insights, check out her e-courses, Water, Wind, Earth, Fire and Seasons of the Soul. She has also created some beautiful reflective art journals that are filled with natural images.