A Review of
Earth, Our Original Monastery: Cultivating Wonder and Gratitude through Intimacy with Nature
Christine Valters Paintner
Reviewed by June Mears Driedger
The concept of “earth as the original monastery” was first expressed by the ninth century Irish theologian John Scotus Eruigena, who believed in the immanence of God. This is the image Christine Valters Paintner uses throughout her latest book, Earth, Our Original Monastery: Cultivating Wonder and Gratitude Through Intimacy with Nature. Valters Paintner draws from the stories of the desert ammas and abbas and the early Celtic saints and monastics who moved to the “wilderness” to be in place beyond oneself, to be beyond one’s comforts, beyond the idea of dominating the earth and making the earth humanity’s subject. “Often, when we refer to nature, we are pointing to something beyond ourselves rather than acknowledging something we are a part of, woven into—the more-than-human world.” (xiii) Valters Paintner invites the reader to explore their own places of wilderness to deepen their relationship with the Divine and themselves.
Valters Paintner defines herself as a contemplative and it is out of this self-understanding which undergirds her writing. In the introduction, she cites a letter from the Canadian Catholic Bishops focusing on the relationship and responsibility of humanity with the earth. In this letter the Bishops described three primary paths of responsibility: prophetic, ascetic, and contemplative.
The prophetic path asks us to work for justice, to change our ways of living that contribute to Earth’s destruction, and to see the connection between poverty and pollution. The ascetic path asks us to discern how to live more simply and lightly on the planet, to reduce our use of plastics, pesticides, and fossil fuels. The contemplative path … [asks us] to cultivate intimacy with Earth and her creatures, and we allow ourselves to fall in love with nature. It is one of my deepest beliefs that we will not be able to address the environmental crises …without this intimacy, without learning how to cherish nature, without love. ( xvii)
The purpose of this book is to learn how to love the earth with a deep, passionate love just as a contemplative passionately loves God. Valters Paintner describes this contemplative approach as “a revolution of love.”
She distinguishes between panentheism and pantheism. Valters Paintner notes that the word panentheism comes from the Greek word, pan meaning “everything”, en, “in”, and theos, “God.” Therefore, “God in all things, pervading everything we see” which is distinct from pantheism which means “all things are God.” She believes that “While God is in all things, God is also wholly other; God is both immanent and transcendent.” Loving God means loving the earth.
The book is broken into seven chapters, “Earth as the original cathedral, original scriptures, original saints, original scriptures, original spiritual directors, original icons, original sacraments, and original liturgy.” Each chapter includes a reflection on the chapter theme, a story of a Christian saint which illustrates their relationship with creation, followed by a biblical reflection from John Paintner, then concludes with experiential explorations, particularly daily nature walks, to deepen one’s understanding to the chapter theme. Faithful readers of Valters Paintner will recognize her approach of leading the reader from head-knowledge to heart-wisdom to a deeper love with the earth.
Valters Paintner refers to The Karamazov Brothers, by Fyoder Dostevsky, to encourage readers to love the earth:
Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf. Every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things…When you are left alone, pray. Love to throw yourself on the earth and kiss it. Kiss the earth and love it with an unceasing, consuming love. (125)
She asks, “What would it be like to love so generously without holding back? … What would it be like to throw yourself on the earth and kiss it?” (126) For Valters Paintner, this prayerful approach to the earth, and to climate change, is to love the earth so much that one will kiss the earth, will cherish the earth as one cherishes a beloved person, and will do all that one can to honor the earth. And in that love and honor, we all can save the earth from the current climate emergency.
Valters Paintner concludes her book with a call to love and radical service to the earth, one another, and God. She writes, “My deepest prayer is that each of us goes forth with a heart kindled by love to deepen our intimacy with Earth and to recognize the profound ways she teaches us about God’s desire for us.” (130)