Dreaming of Stones
In the world before waking
I meet a winged one,
who presses in my palm
three precious stones,
like St. Ita in her dream,
but similarities end there,
her with saintliness and certainty,
me asking questions in the dark.
All I know is
I am not crafted from
patience of rock or gravity of earth,
nor flow of river,
I am not otter with
her hours devoted to play.
I am none of these.
At least not yet.
The stones will still be singing
centuries from now,
made smooth by
all kinds of weather.
If I strike them together,
they spark and kindle.
Do I store them as treasures
to secretly admire
on storm-soaked days?
Or wear them as an amulet
around my neck?
When the angel returns to me
in the harsh truth of last morning,
will she ask
what have I endured,
treasured, and sparked?
Will she ask what have I hidden away
and what made visible?
—Christine Valters Paintner (first published in Spiritus journal)
Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,
Each year, John and I lead a weeklong writing retreat on the sacred and magical island of Inismor, off the coast of Connemara in the west of Ireland. We have led this retreat several times and there is something so special about extended time on this small limestone outcropping in the Atlantic Ocean that has been a place for pilgrimage for hundreds of years. We gather together in the mornings for shared ritual and song, lectio divina, and writing practice. We write for the love of it, we write to generate new ideas, we write to discover what we know, and we experiment with some different forms to see what happens when we stretch out of old patterns.
I have always considered myself a writer, first and foremost, since I was a fairly young girl. Perhaps being an only child and an introvert who loved books, drew me into the dance of words and the space between them, and how they can dazzle me into new knowing. I was fortunate to take on a journaling practice in my twenties, inspired by Julia Cameron’s lovely book The Artist’s Way. I was deeply inspired by the illuminated manuscripts and the monks who lovingly and painstakingly copied those words with their beautiful embellishments. I wanted so much to live a creative life in the midst of the work I was called to do in teaching, retreat facilitation, and spiritual direction.
The balance hasn’t always been easy. I went on to graduate school, mostly because I wanted to immerse myself in words and writing, and my hope was that the PhD program would somehow cultivate my writing skills. It did shape me into an academic writer for a long time, and it did give me important tools of scholarship and research which I still draw on far outside the walls of academia.
After finishing my doctoral studies, I was drawn to start writing a blog. Blogging was fairly new then, this was twelve years ago. It forced me to write more succinctly and for a much wider audience than my academic training had encouraged. And of course, that blog became Abbey of the Arts, which in turn became a global community. I am still in awe of how things unfold.
It is a tremendous privilege that I am able to write and publish books that feel meaningful to me and others. I still struggle at times with the “balance” between my own creative work and my time spent teaching and facilitating others, another passion of mine. I stay open to the Spirit at work in these different activities.
When we first moved to Ireland six years ago I started taking poetry classes again to hone my own craft. That has been an exhilarating journey of deepening into my own poetic voice and finding a wonderful community here in Galway of support.
The poem above is inspired by St. Ita. She was one of the women saints and mystics of Ireland and she was a teacher and mentor to St. Brendan, one of the very well known monks of this land. Her feast day is January 15th. Ita had a dream about receiving three stones as a promise to her of what was to come. I loved entering into this moment as the inspiration for the poem that eventually emerged. While I write poems on a number of subjects, the poems I write inspired by particular monks and mystics feel like a doorway of connection to these saints beyond the veil. In writing them I want to connect ordinary people to the lives of these remarkable people and to make them somehow more accessible, to see how their lives and witness might offer guidance for our own.
So I encourage you to sit with the poem above. On our writing retreat we practice lectio divina with poetry, reading a particular poem out loud several times and listening for the word or phrase that shimmers, then letting that unfold in the imagination until we hear an invitation, and then rest into silence. I invite you to consider a version of this process and to see what a poem calls you to see and hear in new ways.
For me, the divine voice speaks so often through the gift of poetry. Poems slow us down, invite us to pause and linger, to repeat words so we can savor them and let them infuse into our very being. They offer the world back to us in a new form, in a new way.
You can pre-order my first full collection of poems titled Dreaming of Stones being published by Paraclete Press and available in March!
If you want to cultivate your own poetry writing, please join me June 10-14, 2019 in Chartres, France for a time of retreat and pilgrimage, journeying the labyrinth, and exploring the sacred gifts of poetry in your own life.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Dancing Monk icon of St Ita © Marcy Hall at Rabbit Room Arts (prints are available in her Etsy shop)