How do we live out of our most authentic selves? The self that Thomas Merton described as the True Self, the one that was created by God and dwells in God. He said it is like a wave in the ocean of God, or a flame in God’s fire. We are distinct from God, but also a part of the sacred presence in the world.
We live in challenging times. Of course, I often think that life itself is challenging whenever you live it. But these times we live with so many choices and possibilities it can be paralyzing. At some point we need enough silence and stillness to really know who and whose we are so that we can also know where we stand in the world. What are the things that matter most in the world to me? When everything else is stripped away, what is the essence of who I am? Can I even recognize the voice of my own truest and deepest self as distinct from the cacophony of voices demanding that I buy more and do more?
For the photography class I took this spring, one of our assignments was a self-portrait. One was to be with us in it, the other without us but still expressing something of who we are. I found this assignment challenging. I do have a strong sense of who I am in the world, but how to express that in an image?
The image without me in it was a bit easier to create:
This is my prayer corner in our living room. The desk to the right is an antique that has been in my father’s family for probably two hundred years. It has journeyed from Latvia to Vienna to New York City to Sacramento to Woodland to San Francisco to Berkeley and finally rests here in Seattle. As long as I have had it it has functioned as an altar space for me, the top portion of the desk is a long space where I keep photos, images, symbols that are meaningful for me in a given time. The photo of my mother and I has been sitting there for nearly four years since she died. Photos of Duke and the urn with his ashes have dwelled there since last August when he died suddenly. The other symbols shift depending on what is happening within me.
Inside the desk I keep my journal and any books I am currently reading. The drawers hold old journals and pieces of art I don’t have room to display.
The chair is fairly new and reclines back. When I am sitting there Tune likes to jump up onto my lap and lay across me as I sit in prayer. Sometimes my prayer is simply beholding her as a creation of God and great gift in my life. When I am not sitting there it is still one of her favorite places. The windows look out onto our neighborhood, we have lovely cherry trees surrounding our building and in April they form a pink spectacle.
I have spent many hours in this space and for me it represents my commitment to silence and solitude and a life grounded in prayer. The time here helps me to see holiness in the whole of my life.
The self-portrait with me in it was harder to create. I like being behind the camera rather than in front of it. My teacher remarked on my photos that I capure a sense of intimacy with my subjects, I liked that evaluation of my style. I think there is an intimacy to a person’s eyes. How often do we linger in a gaze, meeting the other person’s eyes with our own? It takes time to gaze at someone with love, it is not something we can rush through in the busyness of our day.
A couple of weeks ago I had another dream about finding a hidden room. In it I open a door and discover a large room with a big walnut dining table and chairs around it set for a meal I am going to serve to friends. The friends gather around, we drink red wine and everyone has brought a quote from one of the mystics to share.
I love dreams like this one. I have had dreams of hidden rooms before and for me they signal an internal spaciousness and being on the verge of new discoveries. This dream speaks to me on many levels, one of which is about the way I experience a true sense of Communion when breaking bread with others.
Since January I have been experimenting with an even more contemplative and creative way of life, one which has a lot more space for writing and art, the work I love most in the world. After a few months of some internal wrestling with my own demons around money and what a successful life looks like, I find myself in a place of great inner peace and joyfulness. I recognize that these last few months I have felt closer to who I really am than ever before. I feel as though I have just arrived at a great banquet and there is a feast being prepared. This is where I stand.
-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts