A Brief Review of
Water, Wind, Earth and Fire:
The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements.
Christine Valters Paintner.
Paperback: Sorin Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Reviewed by Angela Adams.
First, a confession. I did not read this book as Christine Valters Paintner intended. In the midst of two extremely difficult and hurried weeks, I read it when I could – flying to a business meeting, sitting in an airport, using the elliptical machine. Paintner had something else entirely in mind: “this book is designed to be an accompaniment and guide for ongoing prayer and times of retreat” (7). Insert audible sigh here. Knowing Paintner’s intent, reading the book in my way I felt, well, like I was eavesdropping on a conversation that I wasn’t meant to hear – at least not yet, not in this way.
I expected Water, Wind, Earth And Fire to include scientific data about the elements and a broad historical survey of the elements in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Frankly, I fully expected a defense for making room for nature and the elements in Christian practices at all. Coming from a conservative background, part of me just assumed Paintner would find a defense of such ideas necessary. And while her introduction includes some of this, Paintner doesn’t waste much time. She quickly establishes praying the elements as a worthwhile Christian practice through Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures,” a quote from Merton declaring the elements to be “our spiritual directors” (2), and her own bold declarations that “Christian tradition tells us that we have received two books of divine revelation: the book of scripture and the book of nature. Creation itself is a sacred text. . .” (2).
Paintner then transitions into the guided retreat part of her book. Author Carl McColman refers to Water, Wind, Earth And Fire as a “workbook . . . for prayer.” I believe this is an accurate portrayal. Water, Wind, Earth And Fire is brimming with encouragement to spend time in prayer and worship, practical suggestions for enhancing personal devotional times, and compelling “reflection” questions.
Paintner introduces specific practices and concepts which some folks – like myself – may not be familiar with including Lectio Divina, St. Ignatius’ Exercises and Examen, the “Jesus Prayer” or “Prayer of the Heart,” and centering prayer. Paintner also presents passage meditation, yoga, and “body prayer” as helpful exercises for spiritual growth. Remarkably, Paintner doesn’t get too bogged down with the details of these practices, just offers them as potential resources and keeps moving right along. I believe this approach enhanced the book’s accessibility and will permit appreciation from a wide audience.
The structure of Water, Wind, Earth And Fire is tight and consistent; it allows the reader to relax into the material and focus on the elements, prayer, and reflection. Paintner begins each chapter with an excerpt from the “Canticle of the Creatures” and a Celtic Prayer. She then introduces an element, shares quotes from Scripture and saints, and identifies the chapter’s themes. For instance, “Brother Wind” isn’t just a chapter about the vague characteristics of wind, but about wind “as life-breath, as inspiration, as directional force by allowing yourself to be carried where the wind blows, as powerful sacred presence in the midst of the whirlwind and storms of life, and as the current that lifts your wings in flight” (18).
Paintner’s own reflections – which are just personal enough without too much self-disclosure – are bolstered by Scripture and quotes from poets, contemplatives and saints. Paintner then offers reflection questions and practical ways to incorporate awareness of the element into prayer and devotional life. Every chapter ends with guidelines for Lectio Divina and a prayer, both of which felt like gifts to me. Even if I couldn’t go for a walk in the woods or light a candle at my altar, I could allow the prayer to wash over me and bring me rest right in that moment.
I believe this book provides a good introduction to contemplative spiritual exercises and may very well be a catalyst for readers to dive deeper into Scripture, the full works of the writers Paintner highlights, and the sacred book of nature itself. That’s my plan at least. Well, that and reading the book again in small portions . . . when I have time to take it in slowly, like enjoying a cup of hot tea.