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In Praise of Circles (a love note from your online Abbess)


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In Praise of Circles

“I live my life in growing orbits which move out over this wondrous world.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Friends around the dinner table
their mouths making “o”s of delight and laughter,
plates piled with new potatoes, pearl onions, and pork loin.

Time softens the edges of river stones,
the arc of waves reach for shore,
celestial orbiting spheres keep cosmic time.

There is the saffron yolk, blood oranges and blueberries,
the coins in my purse that let me buy fresh meat and vegetables,
a steaming bowl of bone broth.

St. Hildegard of Bingen saw the universe as a cosmic egg,
and St. Francis of Assisi displayed those wounds in his palms,
icons halo their heads with gold.

The mossy green iris of my lover’s eyes, lost together
in a circle of mingled limbs, breasts and bellies, imperfect,
soft, and round. The ring he slid on my finger years ago.

The curve of the old woman’s back bent over from
a thousand griefs. The pregnant belly ripening.
Blood ebbing and flowing through our bodies.

Monks arising for prayers, entering
the great cycle of rising and falling,
Sufi dervishes whirling, always left around the heart.

We say “going in circles” when we mean nowhere.
Why do we worship the straight lines,
the most direct route, nonstop, leaving the past far behind?

A circle is both diameter and circumference,
compass and horizon, holding center and edge together,
calling us to the heart and the wild borders.

Winter’s fierce stripping away will always come again,
but so will dahlias and desire. Memories unbidden, circle
around like birds returning from migration.

The journey isn’t just the steep ascent up the holy mountain,
but the descent back to the daily, those friends still
lingering by the fire, the bottle of wine now lying empty.

—Christine Valters Paintner

Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,

Circles have been calling to me lately as symbol of wholeness and the rhythm of returning again and again to ancient cycles. This week we arrive at the threshold of Lent on Ash Wednesday as we circle around in the liturgical year. For two thousand years, this has been a time of deepened prayer, of renewal, of responding to the call of the prophet Joel in the first reading for that day to return.

Return is about coming full circle, about finding yourself back home again with new insight. It means to turn again, re-turn, providing an eternal invitation to us.

I spent three days last week on retreat at the monastic site of Glendalough, south of Dublin. I wandered for hours and hours on forested trails, trees encircling me with their holy presence, reminding me of what I most love. I sat in the old stone ruins of St. Kevin’s monastic city, imagining myself in a circle of ancestors, ancient men and women who came to this place hundreds of years before because of their own holy longing, their desire to return to the heart of God.

I felt held in a wider circle of prayer by dear friends, and you, my beloved community. And by the end of the week, when I headed to Dublin for a conference, I found that I had remembered myself again. All those parts that had felt a bit scattered, a bit anxious, had returned once again to center.

My time in Dublin was blessed with both old and new connections and a growing sense of the monastic circle being re-created in Ireland, so many people doing this vibrant work of reclaiming this ancient wisdom for meaningful ways of living in the world. And this deepening network made me feel even more deeply connected to the global community of the Abbey, a vast circle of dancing monks, stretched out across this beautiful globe.

What are the sacred circles of your own life, calling you to return to what is most true?

If you are looking for a meaningful way to journey through Lent this year, please consider joining us for The Soul’s Journey: A Creative Pilgrimage through Lent. Pilgrimage is a profoundly soulful journey of intention and seeking what is most essential to your life. Even though we might imagine it as a linear progression, it is essentially a circle we make, into the unknown and strange territories of our inner landscapes, and eventually back home again, returning renewed, with new vision. We are not seeking some other, better version of ourselves out there, but clearing away the inner obstacles to our own holy selves.

For the retreat, we will draw on several archetypal stories of journey in scripture to invite you into practices which help to open you to your own deepest desires. We will write midrash (creative encounters with the stories) and receive photographs as ways of paying attention to the movements of our own spirits. If this invitation shimmers for you, know how very welcome you are. We do have a limited number of partial scholarships we can also offer to those who are really struggling financially but for whom this journey calls strongly. Registration will stay open through this week so there is time to join the caravan of monks and pilgrims.

Do check out our Community Lectio Divina for this month where we are praying with Ash Wednesdays call to return to God with your whole heart. We also have another fabulous Monk in the World guest post by fellow monk Rachel Regenold.

With great and growing love,


Photo by Christine of a church in Paris

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One Response

  1. Christine, the photo is beautiful thank you for sharing it.
    I love the poem. I am going to think more on circles, cycles, and things coming ’round again.