Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,
We have a new featured book for September in our Lift Every Voice Book Club – Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church by Dr. Barbara Holmes. You can listen to the conversation Claudia Love Mair and I had about the book at this link. (And you can join us for a community conversation on September 24th).
This quote on page 111 of Joy Unspeakable especially touched me:
“Today’s wilderness can be found in bustling suburban and urban centers, on death row, in homeless shelters in the middle of the night, in the eyes of a hospice patient, and in the desperation of AIDS orphans in Africa and around the world. Perhaps these are the postmodern desert mothers and fathers. Perhaps contemplative spaces can be found wherever people skirt the margins of inclusion. Perhaps those whom we value least have the most to teach.”
Many years ago I read The Solace of Fierce Landscapes by Belden Lane, easily one of my favorite theological books ever written. In it Dr. Lane describes desert and wilderness spirituality and weaves in the story of his own mother dying. There at the bedside of a loved one slowly deteriorating and journeying to the final breath of this life, he encountered the way wilderness breaks us open.
I love the desert tradition, where those ancient monks sought out edge places to have a radical encounter with the God who was beyond their categories and understanding. They opened themselves to radical humility because they knew that the divine was not contained in their images. These desert monks were a significant inspiration to the Celtic monks who then followed in their footsteps, seeking out wild edge places to connect with the sacred in the midst of the beauty of creation.
We live in a time when the news reveals to us many things and people we’d rather not see – refugees fleeing from Afghanistan, people digging out from the rubble of another earthquake in Haiti, the face of another Black man or woman shot senselessly by the police, and of course our continual companion over the last 18+ months, the images of people in hospital beds dying from Covid-19.
We may prefer to avert our eyes and cast our gaze on things we find more inspiring or comforting. Sometimes we need to immerse ourselves in beauty to nourish ourselves and remind us that the world is more than suffering.
But those other, more difficult images are holy icons as well. They are invitations to cultivate compassion and expand our hearts. We can often feel helpless in these moments as the need is so great and our impact so small.
Dr. Holmes continues:
“The world is the cloister of the contemplative. There is no escape. Always the quest for justice draws one deeply into the heart of God. In this sacred interiority, contemplation becomes the language of prayer and the impetus for prophetic proclamation and action.”
We are called to make regular time to turn inward to this “sacred interiority” – the cave of the heart the desert mystics described or the poustinia as the orthodox tradition describes. In this place of refuge and sanctuary – the place where we are reminded that the foundation of everything is Love – we can be and listen and attune to our heart’s longings. Instead of rushing to do and exhausting ourselves, we can choose another path that often feels more difficult because it demands letting go of our agendas and abiding in the space of darkness and mystery.
What I am learning again and again is that while my actions are so small, we each have a seed planted within us that when allowed to unfold in a holy direction, we live into what we are most called to be. When many of us do this, the garden of sacred delight blooms and grows in our midst.
The only choice I can make right now that makes any sense is to seek the wilderness like the ancient monks did, even if that place is somewhere difficult and challenging. There in the wilderness, I turn inward, I allow time and space to release my need to do and I listen. I wait. I allow myself to be met by the infinite divine and be held in that interior space. In that nourishment I can then hear the seed breaking open in me and choose the next right step for me, in this season of my life, on behalf of Love. And I trust that this is my offering to the world. I ask that this situation I hold in prayer change me, transform my heart, so that it impacts how I act in the world.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
PS – My book Eyes of the Heart was featured in one of the daily emails for the Center for Action and Contemplation and my book Sacred Time was reviewed in Presence, the journal of Spiritual Directors International. Also save the date for the virtual launch of my forthcoming book Breath Prayer (details at the link) on October 25th!
Photo © Christine Valters Paintner