Writing Songs for Monks and Mystics (guest post by David Ash)

For the last several months, we have been embarking on an exciting creative project and collaboration.  It started with choosing 12 dancing monks to be a part of the original Dancing Monk Icon series painted by Marcy Hall.  These icons were meant to depict some beloved monks and mystics in a joyful and colorful way, reminding us of our call to dance through this life. I have been following with a series of poems I am slowly writing about each of these wondrous figures, choosing moments in their stories to illuminate.

Then we had the inspiration to feature a dancing monk for each week of our Advent/Christmas and Epiphany/New Year's online retreats. In conversation with my beloved teaching partner Betsey Beckman, we started to dream of having a song composed for each one as well, which Betsey would create gesture prayers and dances to accompany them.

So we enlisted the help of some musicians we love, including David and Laura Ash. One of the great joys of the Abbey is collaborating with other artists to create resources that support the life of this community.

I asked David if he might reflect on the process of creating the three songs he and Laura were responsible for, as an insight into the creative process.

If you would like to join us for these online retreats you can find the registration info here:

Read on for David Ash's reflection:

How do you write songs about people you don’t know?  It’s a lot like writing a book report: read, organize, and polish.  But sometimes it’s also like creating an ad campaign: remember what you want the listener to do and don’t forget your target market.

Christine asked my wife Laura and I to compose songs for her latest retreat project with Betsey Beckman.  The songs would be used for movement and meditation during the retreat.  Each song would speak to a particular patron saint of the Abbey.  Our task was to write songs about the biblical King David, St. Brigid of Kildare (Ireland), and U.S. activist and journalist Dorothy Day.

The “ad campaign” part seemed pretty basic.  Songs that had already been selected by other composers sometimes had ostinato refrains and were of a consistent rhythm.  And as the Abbey is committed to inclusivity and mutuality, an avoidance of patriarchic vocabulary is expected.

On to the research!  My songs, with a few exceptions, are logogenic: I start with the words and come up with a melody afterwards.  Laura is more melogenic than I am, but she still usually starts with lyrics too.

To craft those, we went to the source material.  David’s life is written about extensively in 1 and 2 Samuel, and I also looked up all the Biblical references to dancing.  Dorothy Day has any number of quotes to select from her articles and speeches.

The challenge was St. Brigid.  If she wrote anything (assuming she could even write), nothing survives.  Scholarly works about her are filled with contradictions, leading some to doubt whether she existed at all.  Laura instead came up with a list of consistent attributions.

These phrases and images became the basis for her song.

Then comes selection and organization.  You can’t sum up a life in one song, and that wasn’t our assignment anyway.  We chose some aspect of their lives that was appropriate to the project.  After the text was ready, what style of music should we use?  Laura wanted a Celtic feel and modality for Brigid.  I wanted an energetic round for David’s dance.  Dorothy Day’s song took a while.  My first thought was a march in the style of “The Internationale,” but Laura suggested a gospel music feel that might sound like a labor chorus was singing it, and that’s what we went with.  Once we had chosen our rhythms, the melodies and harmonies followed.

Then comes my least favorite but most necessary part: editing.  Betsey and Christine acted as editors.  My title and oft-repeated refrain phrase “I Danced before the Lord” struck a nerve (oops, patriarchy), so it got changed to “I Danced for Adonai.”  It also went from a major key to minor and got faster as it went along (think “Hava Nagila”).

Statements in the Brigid song became questions to make it more about longing for answers and assurance than having them.  And sometimes, the songwriter can get buried too deeply in the source material.  This happened to me with the third verse of “Revolution of the Heart.”  My original lyrics were:

And so, we must fight and cry out for the rights

of the worthy and unworthy we employ.

This was based on Dorothy Day’s own words:

“And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words–we can, to a certain extent, change the world…”

Day was writing about how the rich and powerful divide the poor into “unworthy” and “worthy” and hold up the one as reason to not help the other, a classic divide-and-conquer strategy.  I knew the context.  But the context was missing in the song!  Betsey suggested an alternative:

And so, we must fight and cry out for the rights

and the dignity of workers we employ.

Even in the studio, we tinkered.  A phrase that looked great on paper turned out to be too tricky to sing.  Oops, what are we doing for an introduction here?  Maybe a little faster would be better.  Our recording engineer, Jakael Tristam, did a masterful job of keeping us on schedule while making suggestions for improvement.

Even after these songs are printed and recorded, change will happen, just as it happens in hymns and pop songs.  What that will be, I cannot guess.  But if these songs become part of you, you will be part of the change.

David Ash Press PhotoDavid Ash received an AB in English Literature from Georgetown University and a MA in Liturgical Music with an emphasis in Music Composition from Santa Clara University.

David was a Music and/or Liturgy Director for several parishes in the Seattle Archdiocese over a span of 17 years before serving Grace Lutheran for three years, first as an accompanist and now as Music Director.  He has composed, along with his wife Laura, three albums of liturgical music, a Laura Ash Press Photoseries of music for Advent Lessons and Carols, and many other liturgical songs and psalms.  They also have composed songs published with Oregon Catholic Press and music for many dances of Betsey Beckman’s, including her The Dancing Word series.

Haiku for Catholics is one of a dozen gift books of humorous gift books that David has published.

Monk in the World guest post: Sam Troxal

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Sam Troxal's wisdom on marrying Haiku with other contemplative practices:

I searched for a lake
or some other sacred place
my own front porch

I live as a monk in the world by listening—learning to listen. Maybe I really should say I want to learn to listen, hugging the words of Thomas Merton’s prayer that even when I am off course, “the desire to please the Holy does in fact please the Holy.”

For the longest time I didn’t know that the Spirit was speaking. That’s the beauty of the Spirit: it’s always speaking, even when I’m not listening. I caught a sound here and there, not sure where it was coming from, or maybe it was my imagination. More often than not, I forgot all about it. But the Spirit keeps speaking—calling. That’s the word: calling. I think the Holy is calling me—to do, to be.

So, there I was in my usual distracted state a few years ago when I was invited to a leadership role in my congregation. Having spent most of my life as a Pentecostal until coming out of the closet, I felt unprepared for leadership in a mainline congregation where I now was. So I read. Church growth seemed the obvious place to start, but books on spirituality started falling across my path—or, as a friend asked, were they being laid there for me?!

As for the books being laid in my path, they weren’t on mainline spirituality for others, rather they were books on spirituality for me. Eventually the message got through to me, I can best serve my faith community from my own spiritual center.

rain splatters outside
grandpa watching from the door

Some people seem able to hear the Spirit speaking through all the chatter of life, but listening comes harder for me. For me, that means starting and ending each day with morning and evening prayer. Much of my life I felt like I was rushing through life… but to nowhere in particular. I rushed out the door in the morning with breakfast or grabbing it on the way. I skimmed through the news, listened to NPR, as I settled into my workday. Evenings were just as hectic so I rushed from morning to night, day after day. There were weeks where I felt more machine than human.

Prayer helps me slow that down; I don’t seem capable of doing it on my own. At first I even tried to race through that, keeping to a one-month cycle of Psalms. When the Spirit pointed out that I wasn’t really savoring them I heard the call to slow down. Then slow down some more. And then just simply open my prayer with psalms—no schedule, no cycle, just begin prayer here with the psalms and move the bookmark at whatever pace the Spirit leads, but savor the words.

sitting on the porch
haiku roll across the grass
morning prayer

In the morning I need lectio divina. It’s a way of looking out at my day, what is the Spirit calling me to be aware of today? Can I listen to the Spirit’s guidance in the day ahead? I need to start here. And just maybe carry the listening into my day.

Inspired by Christine Valters Painter’s Lectio Divina – The Sacred Art: Transforming Words & Images into Heart-Centered Prayer, I started dabbling in haiku. Honestly, at least some of my interest was to find a quicker route through lectio before work. But, as I discovered—and the Spirit chuckled at my naïveté— haiku was going to be anything but quick.

Many mornings—now noon and evenings, on drives and walks, at work and throughout my day—I pore over haiku. Sometimes, all I hear is a phrase. They may linger there for the day—or days, or weeks. I’m learning to listen. I don’t get to wrap them all up neatly. Sometimes the Spirit just wants a phrase to linger in my soul.

not every haiku
gets finished or right away
to carry around

In the evening I need examen. Here, it is about looking back over my day. Where did I see—or miss—the Holy in my day? The more I do it, the more practiced and familiar I get, I start recognizing the Holy more in the moment.

One examen brought to my attention a coworker whose appearance always brought out a groan within me. If I had to talk, I talked past her. Over time—and this will clue you as to how embarrassingly far off I have been—I discovered three coworkers who caused me to groan. But I prayed them in examen: how did I see them in myself. I began to understand them and found more patience for someone I had something in common with, not to mention toning down some of my own arrogance. I started talking to them—enjoying them, even.

I’m starting to get this listening thing. The more I listen, the more I hear the Holy speaking—calling— from the moments and people in my life.

to see Christ in all
the nice and the downright rude

Sam TroxalSam Troxal lives in Bloomington, IN where he works as a healthcare enrollment counselor assisting the least of those among us with insurance. He is a member of First United Church where his favorite role is Sunday morning doorkeeper. He is an oblate of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in their oblate intensive which meets for one week each year. You can read his blog here.

Click here to read all the guest posts in the Monk in the World series>>

Welcoming Your Multitude + St Brendan Poem (a love note from your online Abbess)

dancing Brendan the NavigatorSt. Brendan and the Songbirds

Imagine the hubris, searching for the Saint-promised island,
the stubbornness to continue for seven journeys around the sun.
Each day on the rolling sea, his fellow monks
jostled and tossed by waves.

Brendan asks late one evening:
How will I know when I find what I seek?
Easter Sunday brings liturgy on the back of a whale,
but as if that weren’t miracle enough, they travel onward.

The ship is tossed onto sand and stone.
they look up to behold a broad and magnificent
oak frosted with white birds hiding the branches entirely,
downy tree limbs reaching upward.

The monks stand huddled under a blue stone sky
relieved to be on stable earth for now.
The sun descends, Vespers, rose to lavender to violet,
heralding the great night’s arrival.

They release a collective sigh of contentment, the air expands
around them as a thousand snowy birds ascend into that
newly hollowed space, and throats open together,
a human-avian chorus of shared devotion to the ancient songs and ways.

Ever eager to journey forward, Brendan still lingers for fifty days
sitting in that oak cathedral, feathers scribing their own sacred texts.
In those moments, did the relentless seeking fall away,
sliding off like the veil hiding a bride’s expectant face?

—Christine Valters Paintner

Dearest monks and artists,

I share another new poem in our dancing monk series. I love the story of St. Brendan and his long voyage. In these poems I have been seeking a moment from the stories which shimmer for me and touch my heart. Brendan and his monks land on an island where the birds sing the psalms and I love this image of them as the original monks singing the divine liturgy.

Brendan at heart is the archetype of the pilgrim, or great voyager. He calls forth our own adventuring spirit. But I was touched by this image of him pausing, resting, lingering on his way toward his goal.

On a personal note, I am basking in the tremendous love I experienced this past Sunday, as John and I went out to the island of Inismor, accompanied by a number of friends both old and new, from near and afar. We were celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary with a Celtic ritual at an ancient monastic site. Led by the wonderful Dara Malloy with song from Deirdre Ni Chinneide and Aisling Richmond, dance by Betsey Beckman, poems read by Susan Millar DuMars, Kevin Higgins, and Kayce Hughlett, anointing oil created by Tonja Reichley, our pilgrim staffs made by Laura Simmons with dozens of multi-colored blessing ribbons streaming out into the wind (many sent by you, our global community!). Then of course, just as important, the rest of the community gathered to witness our love. The evening brought live music in our living room from one of our favorite Galway bands.

It was truly more than I could have imagined. I spent most of yesterday just basking in the love I felt, in the sense of bliss and contentment over how life unfolds. This past spring and summer I had some struggles with my health, I was unsure what the autumn would bring. And it has been an utterly magical fall, from our amazing trip to the States with two fabulous retreats with even more fabulous dancing monks in attendance.

But this is the truth of our human existence – life ebbs and flows like the tide, rises and falls like the waves. In my moments of clarity, when in the midst of struggle, the greatest gift I can offer to myself are lots of deep breaths, not holding on too tightly, and welcoming in all of the tender and vulnerable parts of myself.

Likewise in these joyous seasons where I feel full and alive and connected, I breathe so as to be fully present to all the grace, I don't hold on too tightly to any one moment but savor it for the jewel it is, and I welcome in the sweet, giddy, and joyful parts of myself.

We each contain a multitude and this is at the heart of monastic hospitality – welcoming in all of the parts and recognizing that no single one defines who we are. Putting these parts into conversation with one another can bring healing and greater ease in life. These inner archetypes or energies offer us resources for embracing the full spectrum of human living.

I am reflecting more about archetypes in my latest article at Patheos:

Welcoming Your Multitude: The Monastic Way and Inner Hospitality

My husband and I have been praying lectio divina every morning together for the last several months. We also pray what is known as lectio continua, or the ancient practice of choosing a book of the scriptures and then praying through a couple of verses each day until we reach the end. It is a version of monastic stability, of staying with something through all of its ups and downs. We pray texts we might otherwise avoid. Earlier this year we worked through the Song of Songs in this way, and now we are praying the Psalms one by one.

We find ourselves in the midst of Psalm 10 currently, a difficult psalm of lament. Instead of reading all the way through to the end and finding immediate resolution in the psalmist's cry of hope to God, we have been sitting each day with two verses at a time, with haunting questions about God's presence echoing through. Even more disturbing are the images of the "enemies," the ones whose "mouths are filled with cursing, deceit, and opposition." Or those who "murder the innocent" and "stealthily watch for the helpless." The psalmist later calls out to God to "break the arm of the wicked." As I sit with these images I want to turn away and say these have nothing to do with me and my peaceful life.

Click here to continue reading>>

If you would like to explore the gift of archetypes for your own journey more deeply, consider joining us for our Advent & Christmas online retreat where we will focus on a different mystic/saint each week and the archetype they invite us to embrace.

If you will be shopping for the holidays with Amazon.com at all, we would be very grateful if you would use this link. When you shop through that link we receive a very small percentage of your purchase price and no extra cost to you. These funds help support our scholarships to those who can't afford to join our programs otherwise.

See just below for my gift to you as we enter this season of new beginnings and the remembrance of ancestors.

With great and growing love,


Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE

Photo right: St. Brendan Dancing Monk Icon by Marcy Hall

Invitation to Dance: Letting Go

We continue our theme this month of "Letting Go" which arose from our Community Lectio Divina practice with the story from the Gospel of Luke and continued with this month's Photo Party and Poetry Party.

I invite you into a movement practice.  Allow yourself just 5 minutes this day to pause and listen and savor what arises.

  • Begin with a full minute of slow and deep breathing.  Let your breath bring your awareness down into your body.  When thoughts come up, just let them go and return to your breath. Hold this image of "Letting Go" as the gentlest of intentions, planting a seed as you prepare to step into the dance.
  • Play the piece of music below ("Prayer for Peace" by John Steiner – Please visit his site to purchase the album.) let your body move in response, without needing to guide the movements. Listen to how your body wants to move through space in response to your breath. Remember that this is a prayer, an act of deep listening. Pause at any time and rest in stillness again.
  • After the music has finished, sit for another minute in silence, connecting again to your breath. Just notice your energy and any images rising up.
  • Is there a word or image that could express what you encountered in this time? (You can share about your experience, or even just a single word in the comments section below or join our Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks Facebook group and post there.)
  • If you have time, spend another five minutes journaling in a free-writing form, just to give some space for what you are discovering.
  • To extend this practice, sit longer in the silence before and after and feel free to play the song through a second time. Often repetition brings a new depth.

Monk in the World guest post: Mary Elyn Bahlert

This week in our Monk in the World guest post series we have a lovely reflection from fellow monk Mary Elyn Bahlert. Read on for her wisdom:

'As if the sorrows of this world could overwhelm me
now that I realize what we are.
I wish everyone could realize this.
But there is no way of telling people
they are all actually walking around shining
like the brightest sun.'

—Thomas Merton

The world was always there for me – gurgling with joy, shining like the brightest sun, fragrant-full, slippery and hard-edged, colorful beyond belief – and there I was, walking around with my head in the clouds, my eyes toward the ground.

I have a good mind, but living from that linear place didn’t work for me forever, thank God.  My best thinking brought me straight into a long and deep depression almost 20 years ago.  Life has not been the same, since.  Today, I am grateful to be alive, and every day offers new delicacies for my delight.  The gift of being a Monk in the World is that I get to enjoy what has been there all along, and I get to enjoy it as if it is new, as if it has never been witnessed before.

Many years ago, I learned to pray after reading The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life,  by Hannah Whitall Smith (of the American Holiness Movement).  That was the beginning of a long, rich, and growing walk as a Monk in the World.  I studied theology and became a preacher, a way to offer to others the gift of knowing we are not separate, we are not alone.  I found strength and power and growing self acceptance through prayer.  After all this time, I still believe we can change the world by praying, by praying for ourselves, which grows us in Love.

I’m as inter-faith as I am Christian, knowing that the Light, the Universe, the Christ, the Mother, the Holy One, El, is in us all.  Or maybe we are swimming in this Holy One.  I struggle to find words for this life, this living.

Mary Elyn Bahlert 1I learned to meditate over 4 years ago, and this practice has deepened me.  My greatest joy in meditation is that I find myself more present in the moment, moment by moment, day by day.  I see things I did not see before.  I delight in the branches of the birch tree outside my city window; I watch the seasons and winds bring change to that tree. I say:  “I love that tree, and that tree loves me.”  It’s true.

When I meditate, I find the boundaries between myself and the world dissolving.  I feel the sound of a neighbor’s voice, the boom of a truck on the street, the harsh call of a jay, the wind in the eucalyptus trees, as much as I hear them.  I suppose this is being one with all of creation.  For me, it is not as clear as that, but I am beginning to understand, to know.

As a preacher, I also served a community of faith.  My work as a Monk in the world was very extraverted for this introvert!  I had the privilege of being called to be with others in their times of deepest need – learning a diagnosis that would take a beloved woman’s life, baptizing an infant who would not go home from the hospital, as she lay in the arms of her teenage mother, rushing into a hospital emergency room only minutes before the death of a vibrant woman in her 50’s, as her partner lay sobbing on top of her; I’ve sat in silence and watched the minutes tick away, waiting for surgery to end, with a frightened wife.  I’ve answered the door to find a man who has not slept in days, smelling of the street, who tells me his long and convoluted story, only to ask me for a few dollars for food.  I’ve heard many of those stories, and even though I do not understand, I have prayed with each one, knowing I have not have ever known that particular desperation.  I’ve witnessed the suffering of the mentally ill who come to Church, hoping for something; I am blessed by my own illness to be able to see the suffering person, trapped by their mind, underneath what we call “stigma.”

After 30 years of serving as “Pastor,” I am only grateful.  For whatever service I have been able to give, I am grateful.  The gift has been mine, truly, truly.

All of this is to say that I am still looking to see the light Thomas Merton, one of my spiritual mentors, must surely have seen.  The light is so ordinary, I’m sure.  I know with a keen knowing that we are all light, that we are swimming in this light.  I’ve felt it for a moment when I meditate, I’ve seen it shimmer – just a glimpse! – in the green, heart-shaped leaves of my beloved birch tree.

I am a mendicant now, begging for alms.  I am a mendicant, raising my eyes to look into the eyes of whoever crosses my path.  I am a mendicant, wanting to trust each day’s needs and gifts to the Holy One.  I am a mendicant, looking for Light.

Mary Elyn BahlertMary Elyn Bahlert is a poet, speaker, retreat leader, writer and lover of beauty in all forms. She has retired from active ministry in the United Methodist Church and has a coaching and spiritual direction practice in Berkeley, CA. Mary Elyn and her husband are trans-planted Midwesterners who live in a 100 year old Craftsman home on a hill in Oakland, CA.

Click here to read all the guest posts in the Monk in the World series>>

Miriam on the Shores (a love note from your online Abbess)

Miriam on the Shores

“All the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing.” –Exodus 15:20

SONY DSCHer skirt hangs heavy with seawater,
staccato breath after running from death.
She can still feel soldiers reaching out
to seize her blouse before the waves caved in.

Collapsing on dry earth for a moment,
the impulse to dance begins in her feet,
spreads slowly upwards like a flock of starlings
rising toward a dawn-lit sky.

So many dances in secret before,
night-stolen movements after exhausting days
heaving stones and harvest.
She finds herself now upright, weeping.

To stand here, face to the sun,
feeling an irrepressible desire to
. . . tumble
. . . turn
. . . twirl

Savoring freedom with her limbs
as if it were a physical presence
like a fierce wind or the breath of labor,
shackles slipping off slowly.

She couldn’t help but dance.
The story says she picked up her tambourine,
which means she had packed it among the essentials.
In fleeing for her life, she knew this would be necessary.

How many of us still live enslaved in Egypt, beholden and weary?
Do you have the courage to run across the sea parted just now for you?
Will you carry your musical instrument and dance right there on the shores?

—Christine Valters Paintner

Dearest monks and artists,

I offer you the newest poem for the dancing monk series, an honoring of the internal movement from slavery to freedom we are each called to make. Joy is the natural response to such a journey.

Life has been full here as John and I prepare for our renewal of vows ceremony this coming Sunday. Our 20th anniversary was officially in early September, but we have this ritual time planned to coincide with the arrival of several friends from the States for our next pilgrimage. A deep bow of gratitude to everyone who sent us ribbons! They are tied to our pilgrim staffs and are like wondrous colorful streamers of celebration from our beloved community. Thank you truly!  Please send some prayers for decent weather as our ritual will be outdoors on the island of Inismor at one of the sacred monastic ruins we love so much. Of course, in the west of Ireland, the weather is always unpredictable, and part of the wildness we have fallen so much in love with here.

Next Tuesday our pilgrimage begins, and as always we are so excited to welcome a new group and share the beauty and power of this place. We feel such an incredible privilege to be entrusted with inviting pilgrims across the threshold into the liminal time of this journey and the thinness of this place. Following the pilgrimage Betsey and I head to England to teach our Awakening the Creative Spirit intensive. Then comes a long period of being at home during the stillness of winter. I have so relished the opportunity to be with dancing monks in so many capacities this fall. My heart continues to be drawn toward ways to support local connections and as space opens up again for me I will continue to ponder how we might do that.

I have been feeling much kinship with Miriam, who is called Prophet in the scriptures. To imagine this arduous journey she made and to enter in viscerally to her embodied overflow of joy at tasting freedom, calls me to my own enslaved and wounded places. This fall has revealed many new layers of patterns I am called to release in service of my own growing freedom and it makes me want to dance with abandon.

How about you, dear dancing monks? What are your own places of confinement from which you might finally break free?

For some additional reflection from me, here is one of my past columns at Patheos onLuminous Wisdom of the Night:

The darkness embraces everything, / It lets me imagine  / a great presence stirring beside me. / I believe in the night.  
—Rainer Maria Rilke in Book of Hours

The Christian feasts of All Saints and All Souls on November 1st and 2nd honor the profound legacy of wisdom our ancestors have left to us and continue to offer. In some denominations, we celebrate and honor the dead for the whole month of November. In the Northern hemisphere the world is entering the dark half of the year. The ancient Celtic people believed this time was a thin space, where heaven and earth whispered to one another across a luminous veil and those who walked before us are especially accessible in these late autumn days. These moments on the great turning of the year’s wheel offer us invitations and gifts for our spiritual journeys.

Click here to continue reading>>

If you want some guidance and reflection through the month of November, the season of remembrance, our Honoring Saints and Ancestors retreat is available online as a self-study program here.

And if you have been considering joining me in the Northwest for our Coming Home to the Body retreat April 17-21, 2015, there are only 4 spaces left in double rooms. I would love to dance with you in person and this is my only planned teaching trip to the U.S. for 2015. Coming together to be with other dancing monks live is always a tremendous gift.

With great and growing love,


Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE

Photo right: Miriam Dancing Monk Icon by Marcy Hall (prints available here)

Invitation to Poetry: Letting Go


Welcome to Poetry Party #80!

I select an image (the photo above is by Alicia Dykstra) and suggest a theme/title and invite you to respond with your own poem. Scroll down and add it in the comments section below or join our Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks Facebook group and post there.

Feel free to take your poem in any direction and then post the image and invitation on your blog (if you have one), Facebook, or Twitter, and encourage others to come join the party!  (If you repost the photo, please make sure to include the credit link below it and link back to this post inviting others to join us).

We began this month with a  Community Lectio Divina practice with a story from the Gospel of Luke and followed up with our Photo Party on the theme of "letting go." (You are most welcome to still participate).  We continue this theme in our Poetry Party this month. What are you continuing to discover about letting go?

You can post your poem either in the comment section below*or you can join our Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks Facebook group (with more than 2400 members!) and post there.

*Note: If this is your first time posting, or includes a link, your comment will need to be moderated before it appears. This is to prevent spam and should be approved within 24 hours.

Monk in the World guest post: Shirley Cunningham

This week in our Monk in the World guest post series we have a beautiful reflection from fellow monk Shirley Cunningham on following the creative spirit. Read on for her wisdom:

My calling in this world these days is to lean into the Creative Spirit and invite others to do the same.

I knew the call long ago but wasn’t able to name it with clarity. It started with writing. Over the years, I’d written daily filling dozens of notebooks, reflecting on my life and the meaning of events, feelings, and relationships, my struggles, joys and confusions. Gradually, my closet shelves were lined with dusty journals and childhood scrapbooks of poems and stories written on yellowing pages. I was always seeking–as Augustine said–my heart restless to discover the Beauty, Ever Ancient and Ever New.

Then when struck with breast cancer, I had a dream. It was brief and to the point. Jesus appeared. He asked only one question: “Who are you besides who you are?”

I answer, “A writer.” I am mildly disappointed. I want the answer to be “An artist,” but I say to myself, You’ve never dreamed of Jesus before. This is important. You have work to do.

I hadn’t planned it but within days, I began writing my entire life story with the urgency of a river torrentially carrying away whatever was loose in its path. This wasn’t like my old journaling! I didn’t understand, but I was resolved to keep going even though I didn’t know where the fast current was taking me.

This mystifying creative burst surprised me again and again. There were more dreams.  The mysterious and beautiful Margolis appeared, tall, dark eyes shining, wearing colorful, exotic clothes. She told me my life was changing, that I was beginning something new. I knew she was talking about my work, the writing and what was emerging — my art. Another mystery.

I’d been splattering the walls of my small, windowless ironing room for the year of my recovery from cancer. All I knew was that I was painting my way through some unknown inner world. Then, the day I learned my only son was ready to move away from home, another turning point. Of the many roles I’d lived, motherhood was especially precious and now, that role was changing.

To forestall my blues, I went into action. I now had the luxury of a spacious room with a window, Kelly’s room. I had my new art studio. I sorted the bottles of paint lined up on my desk…teal, lavender, bright pink, dark pine. I couldn’t wait to start. Hurriedly filling my water jar, I settled myself before a large sheet of watercolor paper ready for the paint to come to life. Then, suddenly, I didn’t feel like painting. Surprised and confused, I sat in my silent art room, gazing at the blank paper before me.

Then something came to me: Portraits. Do pencil portraits.

No,” I argued with the quiet thought. “I know how to do that. I can control the pencil. I want to paint. Paint gets out of control. I want to break out of fetters.”

Never mind,  the urging continued. Just draw. Do Grandma Cunningham.

The only photo I had of Florence Cunningham was Mom and Dad’s wedding picture, both sets of parents flanking the bridal couple. I loved that shot of Grandma wearing the large, lacy hat that matched her dark elegant dress. I knew exactly where to find it.

Shirley Cunningham 1The drawing that emerged amazed me. Although I hadn’t drawn a portrait in years and thought I was rusty, this vibrant drawing was possibly the best of my entire life. It spoke to me of the many drawings I’d proudly offered as a child for her unfailing praise… so long ago.

All these years that little girl who loved to draw had been locked away, neglected and languishing. Why had I allowed work to push her out of my life? As I sat studying the drawing of my dear grandmother, gratitude washed over my heartache. The little girl who loved to draw was still alive, after all. Grandma had set her free.

The dreams, the archetypal Margolis, the powerful presence of a loved ancestor….from my present vantage point, it’s easy to see why my paintings were filled with symbolism, goddesses. Then Spirit spoke to me again, this time through a painting teacher I greatly admired. “You can do anything you want.” When I heard those words, something happened inside of me. A wall fell down I hadn’t known was there. Somehow I knew then that I was free in a new way — to embrace the growing creative mystery in my life.

Shirley Cunningham 2As a working psychotherapist and spiritual director, I have long known the healing power of creativity from my own experience with writing and painting. I began to use them not only as my spiritual practices, but also with my clients. Someone once gave me a gift with the words, “I feel that every gift I have ever received is given to me for someone else.”

Shirley Cunningham 3And so, daily I learn to listen more and more to what stirs inside. At first, I often painted in a style focused on archetypes and symbols. Recently, I have trusted the exploration of abstract forms that seem to arrive of their own volition in colorful alcohol inks.  As my style changes and shifts, I sense is dynamism of the Creative Spirit which is with me at every turn.

What have I learned on this sacred journey? To take a chance. To surrender my own resistance. To trust the intuition that I am being led. To try not to judge myself, my art or my experience, but instead to simply engage in the process. To try to be true to my highest self and the guidance that is available in the silence of my art room. To continue to grow and be open as I respond to the Creative Spirit within and around me, gently releasing the observations of others, without worry. To say what is mine and remember that we all have a calling and a grounding in the Great Spirit. The seeker knows what is hers to do.

Shirley Cunningham headshotShirley Cunningham is a psychotherapist, spiritual director, author and artist living in Phoenix, Az. She is the mother of one adult son and grandmother to two girls and a boy, all under age 12. Her spiritual practices are writing, painting and going on pilgrimages—and has no plans to retire from any of it! www.artfromheartnsoul.net

Click here to read all the guest posts in the Monk in the World series>>

Landscape as Sacred Text (a love note from your online Abbess)

st patrick hike web

Dearest monks and artists,

It was such a joy to return from our trip to the States last week and feel as though we were coming home to Galway. We recently made the decision to have our small storage unit, which has been waiting for us in Seattle ever since we moved two and a half years ago, shipped over to us. It has mostly boxes of family photos and two pieces of furniture from my father's side of the family, as well as an oil painting of my grandmother. I have missed these family connections. Making this decision felt like another stage in our commitment to this place, putting down an anchor so to speak.

John and I have been exploring Connemara and the Burren this week. Connemara is the wild and beautiful landscape just to the west of Galway, with granite and quartz mountains and gorgeous sea coast. The Burren is just south of us and is an ancient limestone landscape full of raw and rugged beauty as well. We keep falling more in love with Ireland and her treasures. The land is saturated with monastic ruins which still hold the wisdom and prayers offered in these places, not just for the hundreds of years of Christianity, but likely thousands of years of spiritual tradition. Many of the monasteries are located in places considered holy for as long as people inhabited this place.

As we hike, ponder, and stay present to the gifts of stone and wind, sea and sunlight, rain and bog, I keep discovering the way landscape itself can become a sacred text. John and I practice lectio divina most mornings. We currently are savoring the Psalms, moving through 2-3 verses at a time on a long slow pilgrimage through those ancient songs sung by monks through the ages. And as I walk over granite and limestone I pay attention to what shimmers around me, what is calling to my heart in this holy place.

Yesterday, as we hiked up to Maumeen Pass in Connemara, where there is a chapel and two holy wells dedicated to St. Patrick, as he was said to have traveled to that place during his life, I kept finding heart-shaped stones along my path. My pockets grew full and heavy as my heart beat loudly from the steep ascent. It was invigorating to feel myself fully alive. The air was cold and the sky blue with large white clouds floating by.

We arrived up at the open altar and I laid my stones there, an offering of gratitude. I felt connected to the thousands of prayers that have been infused into this place. There are three annual pilgrimages there – one on the feast of St Patrick, one on Good Friday, and one on the first Sunday of August – in addition to all of the people who make their way up the side of the mountain on a daily basis to feel a connection with other pilgrims and with the great cloud of witnesses.

I left my stones there, taking only the smallest heart with me as a reminder. There are all kinds of mementos left at the chapel and wells, symbols of longing, talismans of hope.

As I received the shimmering gift of the holy presence of this place, I found myself overwhelmed by gratitude for our life here. My invitation was to continue walking with great reverence in this place, to stay open to all of the surprises Ireland keeps offering, and to continue inviting others to join us here.

We walked back down the mountain mostly in silence. After our hike we drove over to the village of Leenaun, which sits on the Killary Fjord, where we soaked in their seaweed baths, feeling ourselves held and soothed by the gifts of the sea.

Mountains and seawater, the elements are alive here. They call us to be present to nature as sanctuary and place of revelation. The landscape is a holy book.

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Is there a landscape holy to you which might speak as a sacred text to your life right now? What invitation shimmers forth?

With great and growing love,


Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE

Photo: St. Patrick holy site, Maumeen Pass in Connemara, Ireland

Advent Online Retreat and Subscription Series (2014-2015)


Please consider supporting the Abbey by committing to the whole series of online retreats this coming season. We have been hard at work since late spring working on these offerings and are very excited!  The Advent/Christmas and Epiphany/ New Year retreats focus on one of the figures from the dancing monk icon series each week as source of wisdom and as archetype for our inner journey. Included will be reflections from Christine and John Valters Paintner on the theme, we have songs created just for each week by some of our favorite Abbey musicians (including Richard Bruxvoort Colligan, and David and Laura Ash), Betsey Beckman will be inviting you into gesture prayers with these songs, Kayce Hughlett will be offering invitations to the process of SoulCollage, and Tonja Reichley will be approaching our archetypes through the gifts of herbalism.

The total cost for all four retreats if registering separately would be $640, but if you register for the series the cost is $575, a $65 savings overall and you can also choose one of our self-study retreats as a free gift (any from this page except for Women on the Threshold).

Registration is also available for any of the individual online retreats.

Stop by the Advent online retreat to read more and register>>

All 12 Dancing Monk Icons now available as prints! (order by October 31st for Christmas)

Amma Syncletica__1412959237_89.100.5.34I am so delighted to announce that Marcy Hall of Rabbit Room Arts has made all 12 of the dancing monk icons available to order as prints. The prints are 5.5 x 10 inches and the mat is 11×14.

The dancing monk series includes: Benedict of Nursia, Hildegard of Bingen, Brigid of Kildare, Brendan the Navigator, Francis of Assisi, Mary, King David, Prophet Miriam, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Amma Syncletica.

Discounts on multiple prints and part of the proceeds goes to support the Earth Monastery Project.

If you place your order by October 31, 2014, the prints will be made up in November and shipped out before U.S. Thanksgiving in November for delivery by Christmas.

Please be patient after placing your order. Marcy works with a local printer she knows so the process takes time to make sure the prints are looking beautiful for you.

To find out more and see all of the prints click here>>

Invitation to Photography: Letting Go

Welcome to this month's Abbey Photo Party!

button-photographyselect a theme and invite you to respond with images.

We began this month with a Community Lectio Divina practice with our reflection on letting go from the story in the Gospel of Luke.

I invite you for this month's Photo Party to hold these words in your heart as you go out in the world to receive images in response. As you walk be ready to see what is revealed to you as a visual expression of your prayer.

You can share images you already have which illuminate the theme, but I encourage you also to go for a walk with the theme in mind and see what you discover.

You are also welcome to post photos of any other art you create inspired by the theme.  See what stirs your imagination!

How to participate:

You can post your photo either in the comment section below* (there is now an option to upload a file with your comment – your file size must be smaller than 1MB – you canresize your image for free here – choose the "small size" option and a maximum width of 500).

You can also join our Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks Facebook group and post there. Feel free to share a few words about the process of receiving this image and how it speaks of the harvest for you.

*Note: If this is your first time posting, or includes a link, your comment will need to be moderated before it appears. This is to prevent spam and should be approved within 24 hours.