Dearest monks and artists,
Our upcoming online retreat for women Coming Home to Your Body starts on Monday, September 21st. I have been offering you very brief excerpts to ponder your own ways of contemplative embodiment. Here is the last installment:
Only by welcoming uncertainty from the get-go can we acclimate ourselves to the shattering wonder that enfolds us. This animal body, for all its susceptibility and vertigo, remains the primary instrument of all our knowing, as the capricious earth remains our primary cosmos.
—David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology
One of my favorite poets is Rainer Maria Rilke. A central motivation of his poetry is to explore what it means to live this human life we are given, to discover the inner nature of my particular experience, knowing that this familiar life and body will not ever come again.
This life and body with which I wrestle, but have also grown so fond and familiar are not permanent. I had an encounter with the stark reality of my own mortality five years ago when I was hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism while traveling alone in Vienna, and that experience thrust me into a far more intense appreciation for everything in my life.
As I ponder this reality, a phrase begins to form: “savor this life and this body." Then a question began to shimmer: What if the meaning of my life is to experience my particular life, my unique body, my lens on the world, my encounters with grief and loss, delight and joy, but all as my unique story never to be repeated again? What might I discover by remembering this daily? How might my relationship to my own experience and to this wondrous vessel that carries me through it all be transformed if I not just offer gratitude for my life, but savor it with relish, knowing that this moment will never again happen. What if I were to honor my senses as the sacred thresholds that bring me into communion with the gift that I am in the world? And to trust that this moment carries profound wisdom I need to transform my service to the world.
In the winter days following my hospitalization, with my beloved husband who rushed from the States to be by my side, were incredibly sweet and rich. We walked hand in hand through parks with bare trees, so grateful to be together and be alive and again I found myself deeply in love with this man, in this moment, and I savored the feel of his rough skin against mine. I savored his gaze over at me, so full of love and familiarity. I savored the way his breath made a faint cloud with each exhale on that chilly evening. Food tasted all the more incredible and music so full of sweetness and longing.
Out of this near encounter with death arose a sense of urgency for me in my life. The things I have wanted to do someday, like live overseas, suddenly became much more important to pay attention to now (and was certainly part of the impetus to finally move to Europe a couple of years later as we had longed to do).
The root of the word savor comes from the Latin word saporem which means to taste and is also the root of sapient which is the word for wisdom. Another definition I love is "to give oneself over to the enjoyment of something." When I give myself over to the experience of savoring, wisdom emerges. Savoring calls for a kind of surrender. We have all kinds of stories in our minds about why we perhaps shouldn’t give ourselves over to enjoyment, whether out of guilt or shame or a sense of fear out of what might happen. Yet I would suggest that the monk is called to yield to the goodness of life, to bask in it. It is an affirmation and celebration of God’s creation and an echo of “that’s good” from Genesis.
Savoring calls me to slowness: I can't savor quickly.
Savoring calls me to spaciousness: I can't savor everything at once.
Savoring calls me to mindfulness: I can't savor without being fully present.
It also calls for a fierce and wise discernment about how I spend my time and energy. Now that I know deep in my bones the limits of my life breaths, how do I choose to spend those dazzling hours? What are the experiences ripening within me that long for exploration? Do I want to waste my time skating on the surface of things, in a breathless rush to get everything done when all I need is here in this moment?
There is also a seasonal quality to savoring – this season, what is right before me, right now, is to be savored. It will rise and fall, come into fullness and then slip away. When I savor I pay attention to all the moments of that experience without trying to change it.
And finally, there is a tremendous sweetness to this open-hearted way of being in the world. Everything becomes grace because I recognize it could all be different, it could all be gone. Rather than grasp at how I think this moment should be, I savor the way things are.
Would you like to savor life more deeply in a community of kindred souls? Join me this fall for the journey home again: Coming Home to Your Body: A Woman’s Contemplative Journey to Wholeness. The retreat starts tomorrow! My apologies to the amazing men monks in our community. You will be warmly invited to join us for the Advent online retreat.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE