Welcome to AWBA

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Gift of Contemplative Photography

I am so excited to have Christine Valters Painter with us today as a guest blogger.  I “met” Christine virtually about three or four years ago when I found her wonderful website Abbey of the Arts through which I have benefitted from many of her online offerings.  Christine weaves faith and creative expression together in a relevant and profound way.  Her wisdom and support have played a huge role in the development of AWBA.  I was graced to meet her in person when I attended a week-long retreat for spiritual directors, “Awakening the Creative Spirit.”  She and dancer/author, Betsey Beckman gifted myself and about 10 other men and women with an intense and delightful week of creative and spiritual exploration on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Creative spirits were definitely unleashed!  In fact, this is where board member, Michael Landon, and I met.  Boundaries were stretched, transformed life was offered, and a new vision appeared for me.  When I attended this retreat, I was grieving the losses necessary to make space to commit to the development of AWBA.  I  was in serious need of grace-filled encouragement from kindred spirits also seeking to become more than they ever thought possible.  My cup overflowed that week.

So, I was grateful for the opportunity for AWBA to be a stop on Christine’s Virtual Tour for her new book, Eyes of the Heart - Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice.   We have a free copy of Christine's book to give away so check at the bottom of this post to learn how to register for this drawing.

Michael Landon offered to do a virtual interview with Christine, whose life adventure has her currently living in Galway, Ireland.  Carve out a few minutes in your day, take a deep and restful breath, and listen in on their conversation ...

Some of our readers may not be familiar with your work as an author, spiritual director, retreat leader and online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts; could you share a little about yourself and the many aspects of your ministry?
Abbey of the Arts is a virtual monastery dedicated to integrating contemplative practice and creative expression.  It has become a global community of monks and artists.  My work includes offering both live and online retreats, writing books and articles, as well as regular love notes through my newsletter to the community, and through these various avenues I offer spiritual guidance for those who come to be nourished. 

What led you to first begin offering online retreats using photography which has culminated in your most recent book, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice?
I had been writing for my blog for several years already, exploring the creative and contemplative paths through reflections and photography, in addition to offering live retreats in various locations.  The internet was becoming, more and more, a place for connecting with others across space and the availability of educational resources was growing.  I offered my first course as an experiment and was blown away by the response.  The class filled quickly and I had to add a second and then a third session.  It was so exciting to both make the class more affordable for people in this format, and accessible to people all over the world, so that we had participants from North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand gathering together.

Photography had been a contemplative practice of mine for a long time, as a way of slowing down and seeing the world on another level.  Online seemed to be a great vehicle for sharing photos with one another, from wherever participants were located.  I also love the asynchronous nature of online courses.  I set up discussions so that people can log on and participate at any time, which offers a more organic experience and people can follow their own rhythms for engagement, when it works for their own schedules.

How do you see photography and other expressive arts connecting with the spiritual journey?
The arts are a form of meditation.  When we engage in art-making with this intention, we bring our awareness present to the thoughts that stream through our minds as we create.  We might become aware of a continual voice of criticism or judgment, or a voice that undermines the value of what we are doing.  We each have our own version of this barrage of thoughts, but we don’t often make time to notice them.  This is the first step.  

The second step is to breathe deeply, to return again and again to what we are engaged with.  The art materials – whether the camera, paint, clay, or fabric – become a kind of anchor for our minds.  We start to discover our capacity to lose ourselves in the moment, times when those continual commentaries in our minds lift briefly and offer us a respite and experience of true peace and stillness. 

Many of our readers may have some experience with Lectio Divina (holy reading), but in your book you introduce a unique adaptation that you name Visio Divina; could you share some of the similarities and differences between the two?
Lectio divina is an ancient contemplative practice and way of reading sacred texts slowly and spaciously, so that the gift of a word might be received in prayer.  This word is something that is calling to you in this particular moment of your life right now.  

Visio divina functions very similarly; it invites us to see images as sacred texts which also offer the gift of a word.  For those who are more visual, visio divina may feel like more of a natural fit. For those who aren’t visually inclined, it may feel more challenging.  But there is value in developing all of our senses in this way.

As you know, AWBA’s ministry has at its primary focus to give support and encouragement to those who live with chronic disease and their caregivers; what messages of hope, strength and new life might this special population glean from Eyes of the Heart?
The beauty of photography is that anyone can receive photos.  All it takes is the simplest of cameras and a commitment to practice in this contemplative way, so that the ordinary becomes luminous.  The central principle of this way of seeing the world is to discover the holy amidst daily life.  For those for whom travel may not be possible, photography can open up a window to the revelations being offered in each moment.

In what ways do you experience the presence of God in illness, suffering, pain and grief?  What becomes life-giving to you in the midst of such challenges and heartache?
I have a chronic illness myself and experienced great loss through deaths of loved ones.  I have found profound comfort in the wisdom of the desert monks and the way of unknowing during these times.  To come to recognize that sometimes God is present precisely in the experience of absence, and that this experience has a way of forcing me to release my idols and expectations about how God works, is profoundly freeing. 

This is never to imply that God causes the suffering to teach us something.  Instead, I believe it is the condition of human life that we will suffer, and this process of stripping away can have an incredible grace to it when we stay with our experience and stop trying to run away from the pain.  We have to learn to stay with ourselves and welcome in the grief rather than resist it, embrace the anger we may feel, rather than reject it.  It is in the resistance that we often create more suffering for ourselves. We must breathe in the full spectrum of our human experience. 

What final thoughts or bits of wisdom would you like to share with our readers?
Meditation is a vital way to notice the stories I start to tell myself when I am experiencing pain which only serve to create more suffering.  Cultivating the ability to become fully present to the moment helps to lift us from what feels stuck and hard. We can learn to notice the very ordinary ways that grace breaks through in a given day and feel a sense of gratitude for these moments. 

Photography is a tool to help us practice this.  Through the lens we can learn to receive the gift of a moment when the light is shimmering in a particular way, or the beauty of steam rising from our morning cup of coffee.  Or we might express a difficult aspect of our lives through image and this gives us a way to express the pain, to witness to it, and offer ourselves a little more freedom.


Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, is the online Abbess at Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery and community for contemplative practice and creative expression.  She is the author of 7 books on art and monasticism, including her latest, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (Ave Maria Press). Christine currently lives out her commitment as a monk in the world with her husband in Galway, Ireland.


A heart-felt thanks to Christine for her time and her invitation to visit with AWBA’s readers.  We are also grateful to you, our readers, who let us know you are out there and supporting us in so many ways.  We have a copy of Christine’s book to raffle and invite you to email us at director@myawba.org by June 14 to be included in a drawing for her book.  Simply include your full name and indicate you would like to participate in the book drawing.

What do we mean by "spiritual care"?

AWBA exists to provide spiritual care to those living with a chronic diagnosis and the people who support them.   I am often asked what we mean by “spiritual care.”  The thought of trying to respond in writing rather than in face-to-face dialogue is a bit daunting.  However, I suspect some of you wonder and don’t ask the question, so I hope to clear up assumptions or misunderstanding while not creating new questions.  Let’s see how I do ...

AWBA respects those impacted by a chronic diagnosis

~ who are seekers either unsure of what they believe and open to dialogue, or certain of what they believe and open to expanding their existing beliefs;
~ who thought they knew what they believed until their worst nightmare became reality and find themselves questioning what they used to hold as truth;
~ who know what they believe and have had their beliefs strengthened through the struggle; and
~ who are too weary to even ask the questions, and seek a place to be still until the time comes to know the questions to be asked.

We are each a physical and spiritual being.  Our physical selves are the piece diagnosed with all sorts of medical scenarios, and it is our physical self that carries the full reality of living with that diagnosis.   If you are the one diagnosed, you are poked, prodded, scanned, biopsied, and monitored by medical professionals.  You have your health insurance company and a long list of specialists on speed dial.  You do all of this while trying to maintain some semblance of daily life routine in the midst of shifting sands.  If you are a spouse, family member or friend providing support, you witness all of this for a loved one.  You do what you can to relieve a bit of the load (sometimes living far away) while often feeling  inadequate, exhausted from the effort, and guilty asking for help for yourself.  If you are a professional caregiver, you intersect these stories at a place where you have been trained and equipped.  Since you are being paid for that effort, shouldn’t you keep your weariness to yourself and push through?  Sometimes you can do that without losing the compassion that brought you to the field in the first place.  And sometimes, regretfully, you make a career change not knowing what else to do at the end of caregiving career burn out.

Our spiritual selves are the other piece of the life picture.  It is the piece that tries to make sense of the struggle, wonder about the unanswerable “why", find a life balance and support system to help all the moving parts remain in sync, and identify someone or something beyond your human self to provide comfort, support and wisdom when the darkness threatens to overwhelm during the more difficult times.  Internationally known psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl endured three years of horror in Nazi death camps and survived to share his wisdom in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  He writes, 

The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.

How we respond to what life does to us seems to be an attitude of spirit rather than a physical choice.  This is the place AWBA desires to touch within the small and large challenges of those impacted by a chronic diagnosis.   We seek to provide a safe and supportive community that invites your spirit to grow beyond the seeming limitations of a particular diagnosis, whatever your role may be in that journey.  AWBA’s online retreats and in-person workshops are offered as places of hope, authenticity, and confidential support.  Although some programs focus on the specific challenges of living with a chronic condition, many do not dwell in that place.  It is our intent to provide experiences that leave ample room for joy, community, and a strong sense of tomorrow.

Spiritual care provided through AWBA does not include advice on prayer forms from any one belief system nor do we judge any doctrine or spiritual practice as “right” or “wrong.”    We leave the “how” to your discernment in conversation with those you trust.   AWBA seeks to simply provide a sanctuary where a weary spirit may come for rest and renewal alongside others of a like heart, body, mind and spirit.

We are grateful for the lessons we learn every day from those walking this journey.  You are our teachers.