Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,
For the last 14 years we have hosted our annual Give Me a Word mini-retreat and invitation for you to share your word for the year with our community. You can find out more about it at this post.
Some years my word comes quickly and some years it demands a lot more listening and waiting until I receive it. Sometimes I feel certain the word is shimmering and other times I am uncertain and so hold whatever seems to come lightly and with openness.
As many of you know the first half of last year was a challenge for my health. I started with Covid in January 2022, then my very dear aunt died suddenly, and I was unable to be with her at her passing, and in March 2022 I travelled to Vienna, Austria to have major surgery. Thankfully I healed well from that. On my return I was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea which was a huge relief to get at the root of some of my fatigue.
I had a quiet summer, resting and recovering slowly. I travelled in September to Slovenia, a trip that was postponed originally due to the pandemic and a place where one of my ancestral lines came from. It was my first time there and, in many ways, a most magical trip. I spent two days with a wonderful researcher who showed me various towns my ancestors lived in, and I got to visit the grave of Theresia Zohrer, my great great great grandmother. There were many other delightful discoveries and synchronicities along the way. I loved Ljubljana, the charming capital, and the rest of Slovenia, a beautiful country with a big commitment to ecology and earth-renewing practices.
When I returned from that trip however, I got quite sick with a bronchial virus for two weeks. Following that some other medical issues emerged and flared. Nothing life-threatening, thankfully, but things that are a bit challenging.
Please be assured that I am getting the medical care I need and exploring various options with my doctors. Also know that I have cleared a lot of space for myself. I am resting a great deal and really allowing myself to be with all that my body is saying to me. It has been sweet as well to open even more to the grief over losing my aunt and feeling her and my mother keenly present with me in this challenging season.
I share this whole litany of ailments not for sympathy, my spirits are doing well in the midst of all of this. More so I want you to know that we all have our vulnerable seasons, and our contemplative practice is not a shield against struggle. It can certainly help in coping and enduring and discovering the grace at the heart of it all, but it will never exempt us from our humanity.
This whole year I have been meditating a lot with the Black Madonna in the form of Our Lady of the Underworld and with Sister Death (named so affectionately by St. Francis). Both for my aunt who crossed that threshold, and for myself who certainly has a lot of living I still want to do but feels drawn like those ancient monks to remember my fragility and to let that bring a luminosity to my days. Benedict instructs us to “keep death daily before your eyes.” The icon above was commissioned from Marcy Hall after I woke from a dream last spring where I knew she had to become part of our dancing monk series.
The Black Madonna song in the video above was commissioned by Abbey of the Arts from Soyinka Rahim, a long-time friend and powerful singer. She also created the dance you see in the video, and she and Betsey (who produces our albums and dance videos) worked with a community in Uganda they are connected with to teach them the dance as well. The result is the interweaving of this footage through this beautiful and potent video.
The Underworld journey – sometimes called the Dark Night of the soul – comes for each of us and is ultimately in service of stripping away our old attachments and coming to greater clarity about what is ours to do in this world and how we are to be. The Black Madonna is a guide and companion during that disorienting time.
Each morning I wake so grateful for the gift of another day of loving, of watching the light change through the hours, of pondering the big questions of life. Even those days when I have to spend much of it horizontal, I open my heart to dreamtime and trust that in this fallowness a newness will eventually emerge.
I think part of this is certainly being in that menopausal season and passing 50 a couple of years ago. Both my parents died in their early 60s so there is an intensifying desire in me to live fully even when that sometimes means just taking one breath at a time.
One of the greatest gifts of this season is this sense of harvesting and distilling the abundance of my life. My years of study and practice, the struggles and times of wrestling. As we get older, if we are paying attention, that which we no longer need is stripped away. Sometimes this happens in a slow willing release on our part and sometimes there is a sudden stripping. This is part of death and the underworld’s gift to us, plunging into the essence of what feels most vital in our lives. When we come to realize how time is fleeting, we can let go of that which no longer brings us alive. Time is also slow and spacious, and we can nurture that expansiveness by slowing down and bringing full attention to it all.
I was listening to a talk online and one of the women speaking used the word distillation and when I heard it, it shimmered for me. It made something flutter inside me, a certain sense of rightness, a yes to this holy direction. That is sometimes how the word arrives. You pray and you open and you discern, and then suddenly you hear someone say something that may have nothing to do with your prayers, but a single word shines in the midst of it all.
Distillation for me means continuing to lavish my body with care, nourishing my friendships and support system with time and care, and also tending to this beautiful community, the work of my heart and you, my fellow pilgrims, monks, and artists. I am grateful for it all.
Death and life are intimately intertwined. The old and the new braided together. We live in what feel like end times but emerging all around us is a new vision as well. May this year ahead bring you clarity around your part in bringing that to birth.
Please note: Our monthly contemplative prayer service is being postponed until January 9th due to Simon and me both being under the weather this week! If you have already registered for the original date (Jan 2nd) your registration automatically transfers forward and the event will be recorded.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Sister Death dancing monk icon from Marcy Hall (available for purchase on Etsy)