by Christine Valters Paintner, PhD
(published by Ave Maria Press, March 2010)
Organized around "The Canticle of the Creatures" by St. Francis of Assisi, Water, Wind, Earth, and Fire is the first book to consider the ways in which praying with the natural elements can enliven Christian spiritual life. Teacher, artist, and Benedictine oblate Christine Valters Paintner offers concrete suggestions and guided contemplative exercises; for instance, she suggests that readers take time to "watch the sunrise or sunset and breathe in the beauty of the fiery sky. Contemplate what those beginnings and endings have to say in your own life." Readers benefit from Paintner's extensive training in theology and Benedictine spirituality, as well as her unique work in bringing the expressive arts to spiritual direction.
For too many centuries, too many Christians have been taught that a deep reverence for the beauty of nature is incompatible with sincere faith. Christine Valters Paintner’s Water, Wind, Earth, and Fire thus comes as both a blessing and a gift. Not only is her writing as beautiful as the symbolism she describes, but her wide knowledge of scripture, patristic writing, the mystical life of the saints, and contemporary spiritual poetry makes the reading of this book an inspiring and rejuvenating adventure.
–Paula Huston, author of The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life
Christine Valters Paintner invites us—with inspiring words and examples—to dive deep into the elemental universe, and encounter there the Mystery that hides in all things. She writes out of the Christian tradition, but her message is as universal as the elements themselves.
–Chet Raymo, author of When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist
Amid the current profusion of spirituality-and-nature books, Water, Wind, Earth, and Fire is a rare treasure: a deeply Christian book that also draws us more deeply into contemplation of and relationship with nature. This fine work of spiritual wisdom and guidance offers to both individuals and groups a companion for all seasons. It can soothe at night, enliven in the morning, kindle the human spirit during the day, and at all times serve as a reminder of the abiding presence of the Creator Spirit, which is the spirit of Christ on earth and among us.
–Jane Redmont, author of When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life
Paintner (Awakening the Creative Spirit), a Benedictine oblate, here gives us a fresh and original treatment of Christian spirituality. The elements she speaks of—water, wind, earth, and fire—are of course not elements as contemporary science understand them, but Paintner’s work is closer to poetry than science, as she reflects on the metaphorical powers of these old-style elements and selects poetry and prayers that engage them. Her chapters include ideas for reflection and prayer, as well as guides for lectio divina with each of the elements.
VERDICT: A lovely, brief book reconnecting Christian spirituality with the natural world.
In a warm, personable manner, Paintner, a Benedictine oblate and spiritual director, invites the reader to engage creation as a sacred text by prayerfully exploring theological dimensions of the elements. Drawing on Celtic tradition, Paintner explores religious and cultural symbolism; for example, water’s associations with the direction west, the season autumn, and its physical forms and spiritual dimensions, such as tides, thirst, tears, baptism. Suggestions for reflection and action include the application of lectio divina, a practice of “sacred reading” typically used with scripture, to nature, encouraging the reader “to listen deeply for the stirring of the holy in sacred texts around us.” In each chapter, Paintner offers reflections on her prayer life during the book’s composition, demonstrating how she applied the spiritual practices she suggests (such as lighting a candle when contemplating “Fire”). Quotes from scripture, poets, essayists, and Christian mystics encourage the reader to seek divine revelation and comprehension of God’s love for all creation by “cultivating a contemplative relationship to nature.” Simple and powerful, this book will be a welcome new resource for individuals and groups seeking spiritual connection to creation.
–Publishers Weekly, March 2010
As a journalist, I see thousands of new books on religion and spirituality flowing from publishers every year and a huge portion of those books relate to prayer, which is the most widespread religious expression in the world. Prayer is a practice, or rather a wide array of practices, extending to us from the roots of human civilization thousands of years ago.
Often, we forget the richness of our own traditions, even the specific Christian tradition that most Americans share. Often, helpful guides can emerge to reconnect us with themes and creative ideas that can wake up our prayer life–and can connect us with parts of the world we often overlook. Right now, millions of Americans are waking up to their deep connection with the natural world. For a long time, American evangelical movements were so focused on the “next” world that this one was almost an afterthought.
Where does our faith connect with “Creation care”? That’s a two-word phrase now popular among religious environmental activists. For thousands of years, this wasn’t even a question. Religion and environment always intertwined. Remember that the roots of our spiritual traditions lie in ancient lands where life depended on the weather, the fertility of fields–and the overall balance of non-human life on Earth. In the past 500 years, in particular, the Western Christian world seems to have lost track of this connection.
That’s why this book is so fresh and so important. Just like me, you can find hundreds of books on prayer. Why choose this slim paperback volume? Because, in 150 pages, Christine Valters Paintner helps to reconnect Christians with our own centuries-old traditions of praying with “the elements”–the connective tissue between our faith and true Creation care.
-David Crumm at Read the Spirit
This well-done and quote-filled paperback forges deep and rich connections between the Christian faith and the natural world.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures” (also known as the “Canticle of the Sun”) is a powerful and poetic evocation of God’s presence in the elements of nature. But few Christians, in my experience, seem to draw the connection that if the elements are indeed agents of God’s blessings and means by which we can offer blessing and worship back to God, then it might make sense to think in terms of “air prayer,” “water prayer,” and so forth. This is the simple yet powerful premise of this lovely new book from Christine Valter Paintner, a Benedictine Oblate and the founder of the Abbey of the Arts website which explores the connection between spirituality and creativity.
Some of my readers may wonder if this is a crypto-Wiccan book, and indeed anyone interested in creative cross-fertilization between Neopaganism and Christian spirituality will find much to explore in this book. But let’s be clear: the four elements (air, fire, water and earth) are universal energies, since they are grounded not only in the nature of the earth, but indeed in our very bodies (think of it: your skeleton and flesh are earth, your blood is water, your lungs and breath bring you air, and the very heat your body generates is the fire within you). Historically speaking, knowledge of the four elements and exploration of their spiritual meaning can be traced back to Greece, where Plato speaks of the elements, following the earlier Sicilian philosopher Empedocles. In other words, our earliest knowledge of the elements is not occult or magical, but rather philosophical and scientific, in scope. For Christians today, befriending the four elements is a way to honor the incarnational dimension of our faith, seeing God’s presence in nature just as we believe the Holy Spirit and the Mind of Christ is present among those who are knit into the community of faith.
Water, Wind, Earth & Fire is essentially a workbook (“playbook”?) for prayer, divided into sections where Valters Paintner explores each element through poetry, stories, blessings, quotations, lectio divina, and suggestions for prayer and reflection. Most of the connections she highlights are obvious enough: water is linked to baptism, air to centering prayer, earth to feasting. This is not a book of secrets revealed so much as earthy common sense: water goes with the flow, fire brings passion and creativity, earth stabilizes and grounds us. Weave all four elements together and we find balance, perspective, and a sense of being at home in the good universe God has given us.
Obviously, this book should appeal to anyone with a love for Franciscan or Celtic expressions of Christian spirituality. But I think the author was wise not to limit her exploration of the elements to those particular strands of wisdom. Water, Wind, Earth & Fire feels universal in its tone and its application — it is a book for all Christians, and indeed, for all people, anyone who might be interested in finding out what mystics like Hildegard of Bingen or John of the Cross or Thomas Merton might have to say to the question of bringing prayer and nature together.
-Carl McColman at the The Website of Unknowing
First, a confession. I did not read this book as Christine Valters Paintner intended. In the midst of two extremely difficult and hurried weeks, I read it when I could – flying to a business meeting, sitting in an airport, using the elliptical machine. Paintner had something else entirely in mind: “this book is designed to be an accompaniment and guide for ongoing prayer and times of retreat” (7). Insert audible sigh here. Knowing Paintner’s intent, reading the book in my way I felt, well, like I was eavesdropping on a conversation that I wasn’t meant to hear – at least not yet, not in this way.
I expected Water, Wind, Earth And Fire to include scientific data about the elements and a broad historical survey of the elements in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Frankly, I fully expected a defense for making room for nature and the elements in Christian practices at all. Coming from a conservative background, part of me just assumed Paintner would find a defense of such ideas necessary. And while her introduction includes some of this, Paintner doesn’t waste much time. She quickly establishes praying the elements as a worthwhile Christian practice through Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures,” a quote from Merton declaring the elements to be “our spiritual directors” (2), and her own bold declarations that “Christian tradition tells us that we have received two books of divine revelation: the book of scripture and the book of nature. Creation itself is a sacred text. . .” (2).
Paintner then transitions into the guided retreat part of her book. Author Carl McColman refers to Water, Wind, Earth And Fire as a “workbook . . . for prayer.” I believe this is an accurate portrayal. Water, Wind, Earth And Fire is brimming with encouragement to spend time in prayer and worship, practical suggestions for enhancing personal devotional times, and compelling “reflection” questions.
Paintner introduces specific practices and concepts which some folks – like myself – may not be familiar with including Lectio Divina, St. Ignatius’ Exercises and Examen, the “Jesus Prayer” or “Prayer of the Heart,” and centering prayer. Paintner also presents passage meditation, yoga, and “body prayer” as helpful exercises for spiritual growth. Remarkably, Paintner doesn’t get too bogged down with the details of these practices, just offers them as potential resources and keeps moving right along. I believe this approach enhanced the book’s accessibility and will permit appreciation from a wide audience.
The structure of Water, Wind, Earth And Fire is tight and consistent; it allows the reader to relax into the material and focus on the elements, prayer, and reflection. Paintner begins each chapter with an excerpt from the “Canticle of the Creatures” and a Celtic Prayer. She then introduces an element, shares quotes from Scripture and saints, and identifies the chapter’s themes. For instance, “Brother Wind” isn’t just a chapter about the vague characteristics of wind, but about wind “as life-breath, as inspiration, as directional force by allowing yourself to be carried where the wind blows, as powerful sacred presence in the midst of the whirlwind and storms of life, and as the current that lifts your wings in flight” (18).
Paintner’s own reflections – which are just personal enough without too much self-disclosure – are bolstered by Scripture and quotes from poets, contemplatives and saints. Paintner then offers reflection questions and practical ways to incorporate awareness of the element into prayer and devotional life. Every chapter ends with guidelines for Lectio Divina and a prayer, both of which felt like gifts to me. Even if I couldn’t go for a walk in the woods or light a candle at my altar, I could allow the prayer to wash over me and bring me rest right in that moment.
I believe this book provides a good introduction to contemplative spiritual exercises and may very well be a catalyst for readers to dive deeper into Scripture, the full works of the writers Paintner highlights, and the sacred book of nature itself. That’s my plan at least. Well, that and reading the book again in small portions . . . when I have time to take it in slowly, like enjoying a cup of hot tea.
-Angela Adams, Englewood Review of Books
Spiritual director Christine Valters Paintner describes sitting on an Oregon coastal shore piled with sand and stones, watching the setting sun while gulls glide on a Pacific Ocean breeze. She writes, “Here in this place, wind, water, earth, and fire all meet in a glorious window onto the Divine extravagance” (138). Encountering the four elements in one place is exactly what Water, Wind, Earth, and Fire does, inviting the reader to become a pray-er who enjoys Paintner’s collection of scripture, poetry, wisdom, and prayer. This is a book to take outdoors, where the reader can become fully embodied while planting one’s feet firmly on the earth. The invitation is to taste water and to immerse oneself in it, to feel caressed by the wind, to lift one’s face to the sun’s warmth and light. Paintner teaches people to discover God’s glory and to experience Sabbath rest while praising the Creator for the wonderful gifts God offers again and again.
Paintner connects the elements of fire, earth, water, and wind to an annual season. The cyclical transformation of the earth becomes an invitation for the soul’s conversion. Paintner calls attention to new sensory perception through the words of both contemporary mystics and those of long ago whose truth seems eternal and can only be expressed through metaphor. Contemplating the universe brings new awareness, deeper consciousness, and a greater respect for what God gives us to tend and care for. As Saint Francis would have us discover, the world becomes brother and sister to us.
Water, Wind, Earth, and Fire: The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements is not a book to move through quickly but instead is one to savor, much like a person who seeks spiritual development grows closer to God by reading the universe and praying with it. The text calls forth a desire to linger with the “earth community” and its “mystery” (7), to learn from them what God would speak to the individual. With each of the elements, Paintner provides a lectio divina, suggesting a way to read, reflect, respond, and rest with God’s word spoken in creation. Though Paintner’s perspective is primarily Christian, she honors the Hebrew Scriptures along with other spiritual traditions when she unfolds the story of each element. Reflection questions are provided to deepen conceptual understanding and suggest creative prayer practices to open the heart to possibility. She says, “This book is designed to be an accompaniment and guide for ongoing prayer and times of retreat” (7).
Spiritual directors or spiritual directees who either love creation or are challenged by it can use this book to allow God to open a heart space in them. And for those times when God may seem to be distant, Water, Wind, Earth, and Fire offers a way to find God in the pregnant, tangible realities that surround us.
-Reviewed by Bobbie Bonk at Spiritual Directors International
In view of the recent oil disaster in the Gulf, this book has a particular timeliness. Beautifully and simply written, it celebrates the significance of the four natural elements in our spiritual life. The author draws inspiration from a wide variety of sources – ancient and modern, scriptural, theological and mystical. Her reflections and simple rituals incorporating the elements are those of a pilgrim, not a tourist, in the natural world. She helps us to “see” with more than our eyes, to “sense with more than merely our natural senses. The discipline of spiritual practice helps us to cultivate our ability to see below the surface of things, to have a transfigured vision of the world.” This book is filled with skillfully chosen quotes and practical suggestions to help the world around us come alive in a profoundly Christian and personal experience. It needs to be read by inches, not pages.
-Reviewed by Sr. Lenora Black, OSB at Spirit & Life magazine