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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. My Cannon Power Shot SD 750 dig. is a part of my body! When it is not I think in pictures. I live alone on 90 stunning acres of Mother Earth’s treasures. I live with trees wild flowers fungi wild critters of all shapes butterflies insects beetles snakes spiders scorpins…the list of marvels goes on… and I spend most of my days outside…in silence…listening. watching enjoying. I blow all photos up to 8.5 x 11 on Cannon PIXMA iP666OOD After an embrace with death I know how to live my life…SUN

  2. This is a lovely post with lovely photographs . I read Painter of Blue’s post too and both of them are inspirational. Best of luck with your photography class.

  3. Oh, how could I forget, thank you so much for mentioning my posts re the Interview Meme – I’ve now met e.o.w.’s site as I received a very nice note from her on my post. xoxo

  4. Christine,

    What a wonderful post here re “photography as a sacred practice”…..I’ve told you before – you are much too young to display the gift of wisdom that you do. Your words leave me in a sacred place even while reading them, remembering that all the moments we have are truly holy moments and that we must slow down in order to perceive that notion.

    I believe your idea of photography and poetry combined will be a tremendously powerful experience for those gifted with the call of photography transformed easily into the reality of what you call “sacred seeing.” I highly encourage your efforts in development of that retreat.

    Beautiful words – thank you!!


  5. I wish I lived closer and could attend your photography seminar. It was a camera that first opened my eyes to the world as an artist after many years of dormancy.

    I clearly remember when I purchased that first digital camera with a zoom and began to go out into the world with it to capture images. Suddenly I saw the world around me as if with new eyes, things I had not previously noticed, that wonder and beauty you talked about. In fact it was as if the world opened up before me. I was more at ease stepping outside of my comfort zone – like the time I walked over to take pictures of cows in a field (I love cows) to have the owners (who raised them as pets) invite me in to take closups – I entered into a conversation that I would have totally missed – and captured some great cow faces.

    I can’t say I don’t pick up my camera as much, maybe not quite as often, but not with the same intensity. When did I lose that? I have a new digital Nikon D90 that I have yet to learn about and use. I’ve set the intention to begin learning with it and have yet to open the manual.

    You have reminded me what I fell in love with…what emerged…and it is time to recapture that magic.

  6. christine,

    to mine all that you have written here would tax the comment box. i will respond to the multitude of truths you’ve written here (for me) by saying yes, yes, yes!!!!

    the quote you share from, “Waking Life” …

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

    i would rewrite to say …

    Poetry is a record of the ever-changing face of God.

    you have spoken well of the ‘moment’ and its need of attention within the eternal.

    you have been blessed with a keen eye … natural and spiritual. we need to be awakened to the beauty others see and i am profoundly thankful not only for what you see and how you see it but for inviting my gaze.

  7. Thanks Christine for sharing more of your sacred-art journey in photography. Your exploration of moment=space here is highly photographic in form and content. Very beautiful. It reminds me that all liturgical actions, and the sacred quality of the space-time in which those moments occur are so essential to what we call ritual!

  8. Here is Laure’s wonderful interview:

    1. When did you first fall in love with the hours? What were the circumstances that led you into this awareness?

    About twelve years ago, I was gifted with a volume of poetry whose offerings where beautifully placed within the eight hours of the liturgical day: matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, and compline. I think it’s important to mention that this gift found its way into my hands and heart on the cusp of my asking Jesus to be my Lord and Savior. I was hungering so at that time … for truth, for authenticity of being and my self expression and for a context which could not only weave but hold the fabric of my love for words, poetry, my interiority and it’s relationship to my exterior living, creation, and my reverence for the sacred.

    The hours, then, became the tent … the prayer shawl …. beneath which I began synchronizing my own breathing to that of the natural and spiritual … to the Creator and His creation. The hours were easy to fall in love with … they showed themselves to be all at once the sanctuary, the Eucharist table, and the elements themselves …. the place where I was called to partake of my Lord’s presence and receive nourishment. The hours were and continue to be His tongue … His own unique whisperings to me. They are the loom of my living.

    2. What have the frail and fragile moments of your life taught you about strength and courage?

    The frail and fragile moments of my life have been some of the most important instructors I’ve had because they have been so faithful in bringing me to and through strength and courage in order to move closer to God and my most authentic self. They have taught me that to be broken … to endure breaking …. is to be strong and courageous. The frail and fragile moments in my life are my kinfolk who lead and guide and encourage me to continue on to the high places much like Sorrow and Suffering did with Much Afraid in “Hinds Feet on High Places.”

    3. What are some of the recent “hidden things” you have been awakening to?

    The unspoken yet clear messages of people. The weight and fragrance of prayers. Waiting. The operation of words of knowledge, Bridges … between being and doing, departures and arrivals, endings and beginnings, words and images, conception and birthing.

    4. If your poems became embodied and took human form, what would they have to say about you?

    They would say that I am like a ram’s horn, brought to God’s lips … filled with His breath. That I was made to discover and notice and declare the beauty of heaven on earth. That I bear witness to the sacred ordinary. That I am a lover and an exhorter. That I respect and revere the charge given me to name things. That I am a faithful steward of words. That I am tender and sensitive and truthful. That I am unafraid of the frailty and fragility of life and living. That I was made to touch tender places. That my living is prayer. That I am a teacher in the ways of unguardedness. That I am a listening worshipper. That I belong to God. That thanksgiving is my artistic expression.

    5. Who has been your greatest teacher in life? The person who has shown you how to look at the world and how to relish it?

    God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.