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April 26, 2013

An Interview with Christine of Abbey of the Arts

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I’ve been hosting Christine of Abbey of the Arts on the Anam Cara blog this week, and thought I’d round out the week by asking her a few questions. Feel free to listen in. (And don’t forget to enter the book giveaway to win a copy of Christine’s new book, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice.)

Christine, thank you so much for all that you do. Your resources and writings have consistently brought healing, life, resurrection and more of God into my life. My first question is this: Can you share with us a time that having “eyes of the heart” helped you to see something (a situation, a place, a person) in a different way, just as the disciples recognized Jesus in the Emmaus story?

For many years now, part of my spiritual practice is to work with family systems and the healing of ancestral wounds, especially those of my father.  He died seventeen years ago, but his death in many ways only amplified my grief over his emotional absence.  About five years ago my husband and I traveled to Riga, Latvia, the city where my father was born.  He later had to flee to Vienna, where his mother’s family lived, because the Russians invaded.  I knew this experience of being a refugee shaped the adult he became.  I walked along the shores of the Baltic Sea, the same beach my father played on as a child and I had a powerful experience of seeing him there in his innocence.  Years of contemplative practice, and learning to soften my vision, broke me open to a whole new layer in my father revealed by being in that landscape.  I came to see him differently and myself, bringing compassion.

You mention in your post that “receiving” pictures is different than “taking” pictures. Can you explain the difference?

We move through so much of life just trying to get by, to “take” what we need from our various encounters.  Perhaps our weekends are filled with purpose-filled activities, like cleaning the house, paying the bills, stopping by the bank.  Maybe we even set aside time to be with our children, but are always thinking about what else needs to get done, or the work waiting for us.  None of these things are bad in themselves.  We do need to navigate, as best we can, a world of demands.

The problem becomes when this perspective infuses everything we do.  We go to the grocery store and feel impatient with the checkout person moving slowly because our time is being wasted.  Even spiritual experiences can become about consuming as much as possible, rather than transformation.

So this becomes translated into our photography.  Taking photos, we often have the urge to grasp at our experience, to record it and mark it.  With digital photography we can take hundreds of photos without thinking twice.  But we sometimes miss the experience itself in our urge to seize it through the lens.

In photography as a contemplative practice, we approach things differently.  We slow ourselves down.  We soften into the moment.  We trust that there is more than enough.  We do not need to rush, or grasp, or seize anything.  We wait and see in a new way, so that we begin to attend to what shimmers in the world around us.  Contemplative photography honors that this practice is about receiving the gift of the moment, not something we are entitled to receive, but sheer grace.

I love the quote you share about the Transfiguration really being about the disciples being transfigured, rather than Jesus. How does living as a contemplative, as a monk in the world, help us to be open to those moments when God invades to help us to see differently?

Those moments are happening all the time, we just aren’t attuned to them.  I believe in a God who is generous and abundant, who cannot help but overflow grace into the world.  So my call as a monk in the world, is to open myself to this possibility: right here, right now, in the most ordinary moment of my life, grace might break in.  Grace is already available, but I might make myself receptive to it.  I might soften the defenses of my heart which say that there is “nothing new under the sun.”

We have a lot of artists and creatives in this community who are also contemplatives. Would you share with us a little about the process of writing this book for you? What was it like? What surprised you?

The writing journey for me is always a process of discovery.  I begin with an outline of ideas I want to explore, but in the searching, I stumble upon new connections and insights.  What I especially loved about writing this book in particular, is that I had taught the material in an online class format for several years.  When I began to work on the book, I was given the opportunity to go into even more depth with the themes and to find new themes.  For example, color wasn’t part of the original class, and yet such a rich avenue of visual exploration.  Then to begin to investigate all the ways color has been symbolically significant in writings of mystics, like Hildegard of Bingen, or in the liturgical calendar.  In my chapter on mirrors and reflections I stumbled on all of these wonderful readings from medieval mystics about the mirror as symbol of the soul.  Writing a book feels like a delicious excuse to lose myself in my subject and follow the threads to see where they lead.  They don’t always lead somewhere, but it is the journey itself that brings so much delight.

Thanks for being with us this week. Join us here to win a copy of Christine’s new book. And now it’s your turn…

Do you have an Emmaus story that caused you to see things differently?

Have you practiced “receiving” pictures rather than “taking” them? What was it like for you?