When I first began my doctoral studies in Christian spirituality I had no real fondness for monasticism, I didn’t really get it at the time. Despite having always had a very contemplative nature, I did not understand how monastics make a difference in the world.
It was while studying for my history exam that I started to think otherwise. I first fell in love with Hildegard of Bingen. How could I resist falling for a woman who was abbess, artist, musician, writer, poet, theologian, mystic, preacher, spiritual director, healer, and visionary (not necessarily in that order)? Oh, and she challenged the male church leaders (redundant, I realize) of her time with great confidence. She knew how to play to them: how is it that things have gotten so bad that God has to send me, a woman, to shake things up a bit, she would ask (I don’t believe for a second that Hildegard really thought less of herself because of her gender).
As I studied more about her, as a good little academic, I of course had to learn more about the Benedictine values that formed the very matrix of her thinking and being. I also read Kathleen Norris’ Cloister Walk for a more contemporary and poetic exploration. What I discovered was a whole system of spirituality that reflected how I already was trying to pray and be in the world – an emphasis on balance and moderation, finding God in all people and things, reverence for silence and solitude as well as community, and an amazing history of artists, artisans, and scribes. I fell in love very quickly and when I moved to Seattle three years ago I sought out St. Placid Priory, a Benedictine women's communtiy in Lacey, as a place where I could finally become an Oblate, meaning that as a lay person I was making a commitment to living this way in my everyday life.
The life and spirituality of Benedictines is based on The Rule of Benedict, written in the 5th century, “a little rule for beginners” as Benedict describes it. There has been much enthusiasm lately in reclaiming this practice of living by a rule for lay people. One of my favorite books on the subject is Debra Farrington’s Living Faith Day by Day. I also just read Margaret Guenther’s At Home in the World: A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us. I don’t think her book is quite as good as Farrington’s, but she does develop the helpful metaphor of a rule of life as a trellis. A trellis helps provide the structure that vines need to grow in healthy ways. Too much structure and the vines will fail. The trellis provides just the right amount of support.
And so it is with a rule of life. As human beings seeking ways to live meaningful lives, we hunger for some kind of structure, a set of practices that challenge us and help us to grow. Yet, if the rule is too rigorous we can become suffocated by rules and legalism. The paradox of the spiritual life is that it needs a healthy balance of structure and freedom to thrive. This is one of the paradoxes of the creative process as well. When I teach workshops on using the arts as a spiritual practice, I begin with more structured exercises to help guide participants into the experience gently. Then we can move to less and less structure, and more improvised expression. Sometimes the blank canvas or page can be terrifying because of the complete freedom. Writing prompts or suggestions for visual expression or movement can give us a foundation and help us to connect with our creative energy while we move into greater and greater freedom. Commitment to regular writing or creative time is a discipline or practice that also helps to nurture creativity.
Even more than just the creative act itself, I find that there are certain rhythms to my life that are essential for my creative energy. These include disciplines like showing up to write each morning, taking time for walks to care for my body and let my energy shift out of my head for a while, knowing when to let go and let something incubate, getting adequate rest and play. For me, the balance of the Benedictine life is the one that is most conducive to my creative life. Of course, there are many other systems or traditions one could follow and the purpose of the Rule is to grow in our awareness of the holy presence in our life. If creativity is one of the ways in which we reflect the Creator, then a rule of life that nurtures our creativity is one that can also help us to grow spiritually.
What would your Rule of Life for creative expression look like?
~Christine Valters Paintner