Visual Meditation: A Place of the Heart

I grew up in New York City where my father worked for the United Nations.  He was half Latvian (father’s side) and half Austrian (mother’s side) and at age 12, during World War II, he had to flee Riga where he was raised to go to Vienna and live with his grandparents.  For my entire time growing up he would identify as Austrian (never talking about his Latvian roots) and we traveled regularly to Vienna in the summers where until I was 8 we had an apartment.  The last time I visited was when I was 19 until two summers ago when my husband and I returned together for the first time.  My father is buried in Vienna along with his parents and in returning to this place he loved so much I rediscovered a place of the heart for me.  It is a beautiful city where life feels unhurried.  Where you can’t find coffee “to go” because coffee is meant to be sipped leisurely in a cafe with friends or while reflecting on life.

I was in Vienna again last October, nestled between my trip to Rome for the World Congress of Benedictine Oblates and to Ireland for a pilgrimage of Celtic spirituality.  Benedictine and Celtic monastic traditions are deep roots which shape so much of my work and life.  For the week between in Vienna, my husband came  and met me romantically at the airport, our flights arrived within 15 minutes of each other and there he was waiting for me at the gate.

We spent the week with no agenda other than to visit the cemetery and wander the cobblestone streets of the city center and discover where our hearts would lead us.  When I left for this journey I saw Vienna as more of a side trip from these two other monastic destinations of Rome and Ireland.  What I discovered while there was that this city was an expression of how I am invited to live out my monastic practices in everyday life – being fully present to the gift of each moment, keeping the heart of a pilgrim ready for discovery, lingering and savoring a life well-lived.  I consider myself an urban monk and Vienna makes a marvelous monastic city.

I have a deep longing to return to Vienna now for an extended period of time.  I want to learn German again (I wrote a post for Blisschick on “Unexpected Bliss” back in October about the importance of immersing myself in the language of my ancestors).  Here is an excerpt from my conclusion:

Speaking German again over our month of travel, even with all of my stumbling, touched something in me I still can’t quite fully express. It opened up a longing in me, a riverbed of memories shaped by the words of another language. I suddenly could feel myself connected to generations of ancestors for whom German expressed the ‘curves of their deepest longings.’ I began to discover that the shape and trajectory of those longings threading through the cosmos dwelled inside of me and called me forward. That moment in the train I was overcome by joy in discovering that my ability exceeded my self-perceived limits. I was also moved by grief over the nearing end of our trip and my years of neglecting this language which beats in my blood.

My father used to repeat a Czech proverb: You live a new life for every new language you speak.

I am rediscovering within myself whole worlds I had forgotten were there. I feel as though I have re-opened a locked room, one filled with dust but also radiant with sunlight illuminating old, forgotten photos and letters. As my mouth forms these words, I become aware that these were the very sounds which emerged from the mouths of my ancestors to gently comfort one another, to whisper secrets, to cry out at night after a great heart-rending loss, to utter their most essential truths. The nuances of language express the soul of a people.

My unexpected bliss has emerged from the call to begin once more to inhabit this other life. I step through the door again.

The last time I went to see my spiritual director, he asked me where my daydreams have been taking me lately.  Vienna I replied without hesitation.  I know there is something there for me that I won’t understand unless I commit to spending time there, stretching myself out across its contours, welcoming its words into my soul, dwelling with its invitations.  My husband and I are contemplating how one day we might take a sabbatical for several months in Austria and Ireland (the land of his ancestors) sometime in the future.  It may be several years before we can manage this, although somehow I think it will happen sooner.

Where are your daydreams taking you lately? What are the landscapes that sing in your heart?  Is there a place you long to return to, even if only for a visit in your imagination?

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Photos from top to bottom: Lipizzaner stallion, path in the cemetery where my father is buried, crow flying over my father’s grave, vine climbing the side of a church, side detail from St. Stephen’s Cathedral, inside the globe museum (one of our amazing, serendipitous discoveries), and the pond in the city park where I loved to feed the ducks as a child (and discovered I still love to feed them as an adult), hooded crow.

© Christine Valters Paintner at Abbey of the Arts:
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