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Photography as a Sacred Practice

A week and a half ago I participated in a Blog Meme Interview and I asked if readers had any other questions for me.  kigen asked me:  “Is it, and if so, what makes the doing of photography a sacred or religious practice for you?”

The answer is, of course, an unqualified YES! :-)

Mythologist and storyteller Michael Meade says the word “moment” comes from the Latin root momentus, which means to move.  We are moved when we touch the eternal and timeless.  There is a sense of spaciousness in moments.  Art and spiritual practice are how we find this moment of eternity, or even better, how we allow the moment to find us.  There are many moments waiting for us each day, prodding at our consciousness, inviting us to abandon our carefully constructed plans and defenses. 

The task of the artist is to cultivate the ability to see these eternal moments again and again.  In this way, we are all invited to become artists.

For me, both art and spirituality are truly about tending to the moments of life.  Listening deeply, holding space, encountering the sacred, touching eternity. For a few seconds we touch time beyond time and in that spacious presence my heart grows wider, my imagination frees, my breath catches, and I am held in awe and wonder. 

We know we have touched this moment when we are moved by something beyond us yet also rising from deep within.  We may be moved to tears or to laughter, or maybe both.  In these moments the particulars of the world open us up to a great expanse.  We suddenly see the other world hidden in the heart of this one.  We may not know exactly why or how, but we know we have been touched and transformed, invited into greater compassion for ourselves and the world.  In these moments words fail me and I want to sing and dance and cry poems from the center of my being.  I try to capture them in images as a doorway to the next moment.

Photography is for me a deeply contemplative practice. I take my camera out into the world and it invites me to slow down and linger over moments of beauty. It opens me to wonder and delight. I cultivate sacred seeing, my ability to see the world beneath the surface appearance of things.

Photography is essentially about the play of light and dark, illumination and shadow, much as the spiritual journey is a practice of paying attention to these elements of our lives and how the holy is revealed in each.

Photography is also about the choices we make in the visual framing of elements, what to include and what to exclude, whether to zoom or pull back. This is a practice of visual discernment: a way of choosing what is important and what needs to be let go of.

There is a quote I love from the film Waking Life about movies, but applies to photography as well:

“Film is a record of the ever-changing face of God.”

“This moment is holy, but we walk around like it’s not holy.  We walk around like there are some holy moments and there are all the other moments that are not holy.  [But they are] and film can let us see that. Film can frame it so we can see that, Ah! This moment. Holy.”


For me, that is one of the wonders of photography – to be able to frame a moment in time and within my gaze and absolute presence in that particular moment, I discover holiness. 

I am currently in the process of designing a new retreat called Deep Seeing: Photography & Poetry as Contemplative Practices (stay tuned for dates and location). I use the expressive arts extensively in my teaching and retreat work, but for some reason I have not yet used photography as a medium of discovery in working with others so I am delighted to be reflecting on the ways I can invite groups into this sacred seeing. And because I love the way word and image work together, poetry-writing will be used as a complementary way of developing contemplative vision.

For the last couple of years now I have been purchasing more sophisticated camera equipment.  My favorite combination is my Canon 30D and my Image Stabilizer 70-300 mm Macro Lens.  I love that zoom capacity for getting in close to things, both in being able to capture things from a distance like an eagle taking flight, but also for magnifying the small beauty in life and framing things in ways that help me to see them differently.

The funny thing is that while I love this expensive equipment it is also large and heavy with the lens attached. It is wonderful when I am focusing on the artfulness of a photo.  But I found that there were lots of times I was just walking to work or in my neighborhood and I wanted to have a camera handy to capture a particular moment or image.  So I ended up recently buying a Canon Powershot which I can fit easily in my pocket and now goes along with me in my backpack so it is always available for a holy moment.

Because of my practice of photography I see the world in new ways, and so the images are gifts, but the vision is a treasure.


Speaking of the Blog Meme Interview, five people took me up on my offer to write interview questions including Rebecca at The Difference a Year Makes who writes a wonderful poem about the foreign lands she visits in her imagination, Sunrise Sister at Mind Sieve (Part One here and Part Two here) who shares secrets of making a marriage last and thrive and the gifts Thomas Merton have offered to her, and Laure at Weaving the Hours who reflects on what her poems would say about her if they could talk (read the rest of Laure’s interview in the comment section below and then go visit her blog for a relishing of the hours of the day).

Go pop over for a visit to see how their thoughtful and thought-provoking responses.


Come back Monday for our next Poetry Party in preparation for Lent!

Photos are a variety of images I have taken and am especially fond of.

(c) Christine Valters Paintner at Abbey of the Arts:
Transformative Living through Contemplative & Expressive Arts

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12 Responses

  1. Christine,

    Your writing is beautiful. I have always thanked God for the gift of photography. How wonderful to see it as a sacred practice!
    Thank you.

  2. Sunday morning and I am moved by the interview Laure to Christime but I cannot tell whose words I am reading! …”that I am a teacher of unguardedness, that I am a listening worshipper, etc.” So beautiful and I want to pass them to my writing group in Sedona. Thanks for clarifying.