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Altar for an Unknown God

I am in the midst of the Novena of Grace, a powerful Lenten retreat in everyday life which I coordinate for the Ignatian Spirituality Center.  Along with teaching my Lenten E-Course on Benedictine Spiritual Practices and Eyes of the Heart: Photography as Contemplative Practice courses, my days are full of rich reflection.  I offer here another slightly revised reflection written last year. Reading my words again I am moved to find they still ring very true in my heart.


Let mystery have its place in you; do not be always turning up your whole soil with the plowshare of self-examination, but leave a little fallow corner in your heart ready for any seed the winds may bring, and reserve a nook of shadow for the passing bird; keep a place in your heart for the unexpected guests, an altar for an unknown God.
-from Amiel’s Journal, translated by Mrs. Humphrey Ward

At the end of each Novena of Grace liturgy we give people an opportunity to come up and say an individual prayer while holding one of the relics of the Saints I wrote about last week.  I have the opportunity to be a relic minister several times over this retreat.  Slowly people come forward one by one and stand before me.   I place the relic in their hand and place my hands around theirs. There is great intimacy in this act, the warmth of skin touching as they lean toward me and whisper the prayer that is on their hearts. Many pray for family members and friends struggling with illness, some pray for their own clarity and discernment.  One young man looks directly into my eyes and says he wants to be healed of his addiction. I look back at him, I hold his hands tightly, and I offer my prayer in return.  Many close their eyes to receive this prayer, but he holds my gaze intently. I say that with the whole communion of Saints who stand right there with us, I ask blessings upon him for healing and wholeness in body and spirit. I pray that he be freed from the prison of addiction and experience the promise of life that God desires so deeply for him. I say these words and I mean them as deeply as anything I have ever said. A tear rolls down his cheek. I squeeze his hand, “Amen” we both say and he walks away. His longing has been imprinted on my heart.

Last year one of my readers offered this beautiful poetic image about the relics: “I felt their existence as stones that have fallen into the pond of eternity, the ripples of their falling reaching forward to stroke my soul with their own. I am blessed and able to join in the blessing of others.” Rippling out from the eternal moment, soul encountering soul, blessing upon blessing.

Sometimes I wonder what we are doing when we pray. I question how it all works, we have created such an intricate system for explaining how God responds. But even in the midst of those uncertainties, of this I am sure. The power of being present to another person in the midst of their struggles is of such magnitude, such grace. To extend my reach, to hold the hands of a stranger, to listen intently to the deepest desires of their heart, to offer my own prayers in union with theirs, to create such solidarity in the context of great kindness. I don’t have to know how it all works, except that it matters that I show up and be there along with the great gathering of ancestors who join us in this prayer.

When we arrive in church, we lay everything we bring on the altar — our joys, our griefs, our frustrations, our fears, our celebration. And when we share in the ritual meal, these become mingled. To enter into communion with another means that we each share the burden of what the other carries as well as the lightness of joy. To gather with these fellow pilgrims, means that I must risk a radical vulnerability. I am asked to help carry your sorrow and offer you my gladness and you are asked to do the same for me. I am asked to not try and diminish your sorrow through my gladness, but to allow them all to dwell in that space together, to risk being fully human together.

One of the things I have been reminded of in these days is that the liturgy is a template for our daily living. We gather in community to speak our struggles, to listen to the archetypal stories of our tradition, to share a meal, to reconcile with one another and with ourselves. We lay ourselves at the altar and in the process we are invited to leave room for the unknown God, the God who is far beyond our understanding and who also dwells in the midst of our tears. In Benedictine tradition, one of the vows is conversion, which I take to mean that I have committed myself to a lifelong journey of growing and allowing myself to be surprised by God.

Here on this nine-day pilgrimage, the God of my understanding has shown up again and again with abundance. But also here is the God who breaks through the confines of my imagination – an Unknown God – who shows me that what I believe and don’t believe are of little consequence. What does matter is my capacity for love, and welcoming in the grace offered to me in each moment.



Beth Patterson at the Virtual Tea House is falling into the heart of God

Kory Wells writes about the grace of gradual change

Claire Bangasser at A Seat at the Table reflects on sumptuous dining

Cloaked Monk and It’s a Matter of Thyme are both posting daily during Lent and are worth a regular visit.


* EARLY REGISTRATION for SUMMER ONLINE CLASSES ends on Wednesday and both courses are nearly full. *


© Christine Valters Paintner at Abbey of the Arts:
Transformative Living through Contemplative & Expressive Arts

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5 Responses

  1. I so very much wish I could join you for this novena. I can only do it virtually. This, already, is good. A pilgrimage, within a pilgrimage.
    A post to which I like to return to stand there a witness to those who pray and those who accompany.
    Thank you.

  2. Thank you for your honest paragraph that starts “Sometimes I wonder. . .” as I have had similar thoughts. Ah, the freedom not to “have to know”. . . and yet I love the ending of your post, “What does matter is my capacity for love.” Yes. Reminds me of one of my favorite songs that says, “There is only love, love that heals, love that sets us free. There is only love.”

  3. Lovely. Being a theology student and seemingly daily pummelled with systematic ways of thinking about God, I often rebel at the idea of an apologetic for everything. Ultimately, the argument I make pro and con are of little consequence. What matters is love. Love expanding in me. Love expanding in the cosmos. Love expanding. For that, God will say, “I am well pleased.”

  4. ‘But also here is the God who breaks through the confines of my imagination – an Unknown God – who shows me that what I believe and don’t believe are of little consequence. What does matter is my capacity for love, and welcoming in the grace offered to me in each moment.’
    what a blessing you are, christine! this is just what i needed to hear… i’m at such a crossroads, a threshold, almost daring to believe again (i left the anglican church 5 years ago after 20 years’ lay service)… daring to pray again… but i don’t know who or what god is, any more… yet i know deep, deep down in my soul ‘what i believe and don’t believe are of little consequence. What does matter is my capacity for love’… and my soul soooo wants to expand her capacity to love :)
    thank you so much xx

  5. “but leave a little fallow corner in your heart ready for any seed the winds may bring….” I love these words because my days are filled with little opportunities that I couldn’t have planned that show me God’s love or a place that I can give someone else a bit of God’s love. I’m huffing and puffing a little in my lenten practice but am trying to proceed at the appropriate speed that’s right for me. I am reading fewer blog posts this season but I’m not sorry I dropped by here this evening to read this lovely post. Thank you.