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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

An Interview With Christine Valters Paintner

I know an important book has found me when I find myself wondering, “Where was this book when ... ?”  That thought circled through my soul yet again as I read through The Soul of a Pilgrim.  I have been a fan of Christine’s heart and thoughts since the earliest days of Abbey of the Arts and was eager to sit with her experience of pilgrimage, having traveled that adventure-filled road a few times in my life.

As I reflect on the past eight years of my life, I am aware of the immensity of the journey traveled during that time.  Throughout those years, I often found myself in the place of  “Pilgrim.”  Yes, I would have appreciated having Christine’s gentle guidance during that time while also recognizing that the Holy One always journeys with us as we make our way one step at a time.  To read her words at this time in my life is to be affirmed that I am not alone in the path I have traveled, and that I am well-equipped for the next invitation to pilgrimage.  What a blessing it is when someone dares to focus on a topic so full and multi-layered, and brings some simplicity to the situation so that one is not overwhelmed in the unknowing.

Always We Begin Again was created to journey alongside those on the path  of learning to live anew when impacted by a chronic diagnosis.  As we have continued to develop and grow within this vision, we are learning that pilgrim wisdom applies to those in a time of transition regardless of the circumstance(s) that has brought them to a place of beginning again.  In light of that discovery, AWBA is currently developing a January-September 2016 offering of pilgrimage (via Internet and in-person gatherings) for those in a time of transition from “what used to be”  to “what will be” whether brought about by a chronic diagnosis, loss of a loved one, divorce or struggle in a marriage as well as the joyful transitions of a new baby, new home, welcome job change, etc.  Many of us are in transition of some sort leading us to wonder about the next step.  

We have asked Christine to expand on a couple of her pieces of pilgrim wisdom for the benefit of our readers and thank her for including AWBA on her book tour.

1) You encourage the use of creative expression as a support on the journey within.  What is your response when one’s inner critic claims, “I am not an artist”, and we quickly disconnect from this avenue that could help deepen insights about the path?

The artist label really doesn’t mean anything. This journey is about embarking on the creative process as an act of meditation and openness to discovery. No artistic talent is required, and often those who consider themselves “artists” get most in their own way. There is such a gift in offering yourself the grace and freedom purely for the joy of it. 

2) Can you talk about the connection between physical and interior "walking"?  How do we develop a sense of mindful walking in conjunction with interior slowing?

I love this question. Walking is how we physically move through the world. The gift of walking, as opposed to driving or cycling, is we do it through our own initiative without the need for a vehicle. So when we walk mindfully we propel ourselves forward with the purpose of paying attention. We journey through our landscape with eyes open to discovery. This is our call to slow down interiorly as well, to listen, to await with open hands, while walking forward ready to meet what comes.

3) In Chapter 1, you write about those times when we know “we can’t return to life as usual.  That way is now closed.”  Many of those served by AWBA are living with a chronic diagnosis or are in a caregiving role for someone with a diagnosis.  In those times, it is very clear that the alternative to go back to the way things used to be is not an option.  How might one “pack lightly” when the pilgrimage is thrust upon you, sometimes with very little warning that a new journey is about to begin?  The lack of time to prepare catches people off guard.

I advise people to be gentle with themselves. Letting go is a process, it takes time to release what is not needed. Continue to ask yourself: do I really need this? It might be a physical object or a relationship which is no longer working, eventually you will start to notice stories you tell yourself or fears you carry. Keep asking if you can set those aside as well. And if you aren’t ready, or find yourself returning to those old patterns, be ever so gentle with yourself. 

4) On page 65, you write about a holy pause and offer the invitation to “notice where we are ‘forcing things’ and then we can let them go.  It is about smiling gently at all the inner desires that attempt to grasp control of our lives.”  When one is in transition, “fixing and forcing” often seems, at first glance, the appropriate response to gain some slight control over the unknown.  What are a few practices we might try to invite a “holy pause” so that we may experience its benefit as motivation to continue the journey in a less-grasping manner?

The most foundational practice for me is allowing even a couple of minutes between activities where I take five deep and slow breaths. As much as possible I bring myself present to the moment. Breathing in this way can create such a sense of both physical and emotional spaciousness. My next practice is to try not to fill my life so full with commitments. I have a tendency to schedule things back to back, but even having a half hour between where I can pause, reflect, and rest helps to nurture a sense of life as having more fullness, rather than depleting me.

5)  AWBA has received much interest in its yet-to-be-titled “Camino Project.”  We are hearing from many that they have a desire to walk the Camino, the Appalachian Trail, and other journeys that take them into a new land where they have time and space to wonder anew.  At the same time, due to health and other circumstances, they do not believe this a reality and welcome AWBA’s alternative option of pilgrimage.  What words of encouragement would you offer to those brave souls who, even in the midst of uncertain circumstances in their daily lives, are drawn to an  experience of living on the edge as a pilgrim “AWBA Style” (online and some in person gatherings)?

I would offer every encouragement to see life as the pilgrimage itself. Chronic illness offers more than enough opportunities to travel to foreign landscapes and to encounter the stranger both within and without. Placing unrealistic expectations for long-distance travel on ourselves is not the journey of pilgrimage. The journey is to discover the invitations to new understandings of home right in the midst of our lives. So much the better when we can do this with companions. 

6)  Physical pilgrimages typically have a final destination to be reached where the pilgrim can celebrate and honor having completed the journey.  When one is on an inner journey, how might he or she know that a destination has been reached and what are some ways in which that could be honored?

It may take a long time of wandering before we feel like we have arrived. In the Celtic tradition this was called peregrinatio, and years of wandering for the love of God was encouraged until they reached the “place of their resurrection.” I love this image and we might have it affirmed in our dream life, in our conversations with a spiritual director or soul friend, or in a sudden awareness that we ourselves have broken open and changed. Perhaps an old pattern or story has been keeping us rigid, and suddenly we find ourselves softening in new ways and discover a sense of being “at home” that we hadn’t experienced before. However that knowledge emerges, I always encourage celebrating every step of the way. Invite friends over to share a meal, go to a beautiful place in nature for a simple ritual perhaps engaging the four elements of water, wind, earth, and fire. Ritual, community, and the witness of the earth feel essential to me. 

7)  Would you share with us a moment in your own life where the journey may have seemed simply too difficult and how you moved through that challenge?

In the spring of 2000 I was in the middle of graduate studies and I started having a serious flare of my rheumatoid arthritis. At the same time our rent on our apartment was being doubled and my husband’s job at a church was being terminated. It was an exquisitely painful time. I made it through my staying faithful to myself, showing up each day to be present to the profound grief and discomfort arising. I reached out to friends and family members for support. I breathed a lot and I continued practicing not grasping at what I thought the outcome should be. 

We extend our deepest gratitude to Christine for sharing her insights with the AWBA community.  If this resonates with you, consider joining AWBA for its 2016 pilgrimage.  Follow this blog and/or register for our monthly newsletter at www.myawba.org to keep in touch with AWBA's Camino Project.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Guest Post - Christine Valters Paintner

As AWBA continues to develop the curriculum for its upcoming pilgrimage as an inner journey currently titled "Camino Project", we  begin by introducing you to author and online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts, Christine Valters Paintner.  Christine's newly-released book, The Soul of a Pilgrim, will provide our container for the nine-month pilgrimage to begin January 2016 and conclude nine months later, September 2016.  AWBA's version of the Camino de Santiago will take place virtually as well as through optional in-person gatherings.  We are finalizing details for a variety of subscription packages so you may choose how much you would like to participate.  This experience will be open to those impacted by chronic diagnosis as well as others who find themselves in a season of transition, regardless of the circumstances.  If you do not already receive our monthly newsletter, register your name and email address on our home page at www.myawba.org to stay in the loop about registration for this event.

We invite you to read Christine's own story about  pilgrimage through her experience with a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.  Be sure to visit the links in her bio shared at the end of her story.  Watch for an upcoming book review and interview with Christine to follow in a few days on our blog.

Chronic Illness as a Pilgrimage - Christine Valters Paintner

I was first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when I was 21 years old. The only other person I knew at the time with this disease was my mother and her body had been ravaged by the effects of deterioration, with multiple joint replacements and eventually use of an electric wheelchair for mobility. 

I first dealt with my diagnosis through denial. I had just graduated from college and traveled across the country to begin a year of volunteer work. I managed to push my way through fatigue and pain for about six years before I was forced to stop. I was teaching high school at the time and my wrists were growing ever more painful. An xray revealed severe damage to the joints despite the aggressive medication I had been taking. 

My doctor urged me to stop teaching, it was too much for my body. Thankfully I had private disability insurance through the school where I worked that helped sustain me financially first through a year of rest and healing and later through five years of graduate work to earn a PhD. I lived much of that time with the fear I would never be able to support myself financially. I was profoundly grateful for my loving husband who worked to provide for our needs.

During that first year of disability, without any work to claim when people asked me “what do you do?”, I was often in emotional pain as well over the loss of an identity. I didn’t look sick and often came judgment from others, or inner judgment about why I wasn’t trying harder. Many were supportive, but others offered unwelcome advice or explanations about how I wasn’t thinking the right thoughts. Dr. Joan Borsyenko describes this as “new age fundamentalism.” 

A great gift arrived to me one day at church, when a woman asked me that dreaded question. I responded about taking time for healing and she said, “oh, you’re on a sabbatical.” And with that phrase came a wave of relief, a connection to ancient wisdom about our need at times for deep restoration. 

Language has a way of breaking us through to new understandings, to shift us out of old stories which bind us. I feel similarly about “pilgrimage.” When I first encountered this concept I felt enlivened by the idea of meaningful and sacred travel. My father had worked for the United Nations and exploring other cultures was always highly valued in our home.

But the more I explored the root of the meaning of pilgrimage, the more I discovered it as an empowering way to frame much of our life experience, especially those times we are thrust onto a journey not of our own choosing. 

I often define a pilgrim as one who embarks on an intentional journey to court holy disruption. Disruption is a welcoming in of being uncomfortable, of being called to our own edges. The root of the word pilgrim is peregrini, which means “stranger.” To become a pilgrim means to embrace our own strangeness, the strangeness of the journey we are on, as a way of breaking open all of our assumptions and expectations about how the world should work.Certainly illness moves us into a landscape where we feel keenly this sense of being a stranger – whether to our own bodies, or in navigating health care systems and doctors to find relief and support. 

Understanding my life as a pilgrimage, and especially my experience with chronic illness as a kind of sacred journey, doesn’t require that I dismiss the profound pain and uncertainty this brings. Instead it asks me to embrace mystery and unknowing, to seek fellow companions along the way, to understand that the profound discomfort of having so much stripped away can reveal my own gifts in service of healing others. 

The year I turned forty I flew to Vienna, Austria by myself for a time of retreat. During the flight I developed a pulmonary embolism which took me several days to get treated. It was terrifying to realize I could have easily died walking alone on those city streets. In allowing myself to be fully present to the fear, to witness my experience with profound compassion, I found myself moving away from the victim’s cry of “why me?” We will never know the answers to those questions. 

There is powerful Greek myth about the young maiden Persephone who is abducted into the Underworld by Hades. It is a story of innocence lost. Many of us diagnosed with serious illness feel in some ways “abducted” by forces more powerful than ourselves. Persephone was told that if she ate anything while there she would need to stay, and while some versions say she was tricked into eating the pomegranate seeds, I prefer the versions where she makes this choice herself. As a result she is required to stay there part of each year and becomes the Queen of the Underworld. 
She moves from victim to sovereignty. She steps into her role as guide and companion to others who find themselves in that Underworld territory. She becomes the wounded healer. 
Pilgrimage is a complex journey. It does not mean being a tourist and visiting a foreign land to bring back photos, souvenirs, and another thing to cross off the “bucket list.”

Instead it means being willing to court holy disruption, to become profoundly aware of our inner movements, to claim responsibility for our choices about how to respond to this place we find ourselves in, and welcome in discomfort and strangeness as carrying the possibility of new revelation. 

Christine Valters Paintner, PhD is the online Abbess of AbbeyoftheArts.com, a global virtual monastery offering resources for contemplative practice and creative expression. She is the author of 8 books including her most recent The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Inner Journey which evolved out of her and her husband’s own midlife pilgrimage experience of leaving everything behind to move to Ireland where they now live and lead pilgrimages to sacred sites.