[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”1932057102″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/51kCwj1UAZL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”222″]Into Thin Places
A review of
The Soul’s Slow Ripening:
12 Celtic Practices
for Seeking the Sacred
Christine Valters Paintner
Paperback: Sorin Books, 2018
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Reviewed by Sam Edgin
Spirituality is a buzzword. It’s a bonus dimension to our personal brands; a step on the journey of total heath, tracked by our Apple Watches and dribbled out on our Instagram Stories between pictures of dogs and gym routines. It comes in an endless number of traditions and practices and we mash them together and throw them out like play-doh in the hands of so many two year-olds. It is a new-health commodity, to be traded and marketed, and dealt to the cash-waving masses. We love it, and we preach it, and we sell it to our friends. Pick and pay for the ones that are right for you, oh seeker, enlightenment awaits!
And spirituality is that dark spark in the blood pumping right beneath our skin, enticing us towards meaning: thump-thump, thump-thump. It is the particular way wind blows through summer leaves on the eve of a thunderstorm; and the gentle, absent tap of your partner’s finger on your wrist. It is the pure din of laughter shared by a living room full of people and the deep, deep silence of meditation. It is the mountaintop sunrise, the evening prayer. It is the mystery of communion and the deep bow of salat. Go slow, my love, and see if you can glimpse what lays at the heart of things.
How do we discern the line between the spirituality of commodity and the spirituality of the still, quiet moments? It so often gets blurred, or mistaken, or forgotten. And yet if there is anything that is easy to see, to discern, it is the individuals who can reach out, so easily, and define that line with a gentle touch. Christine Valters Paintner is one. She appears to live in the mist of still spirituality, making a life out of guiding others along that path. In The Souls Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred she offers glimpses of and guidance towards what it looks like to walk that path.
Perhaps this is not a book for everyone, as it functions more as a educational or devotional guide for spiritual practice. For each chapter she offers a practice based in the history of the Church in Ireland, a Celtic saint who embodied that practice, and a photography and writing exercise. Her husband, John Valters Paintner, adds a scriptural perspective. And yet even if a reader doesn’t feel drawn to a book of directed devotionals, the bones and skin Paintner dresses her spirituality with are worth the time, especially in this cultural moment.
Because we are here in the midst of the age of the Nones, where “spiritual but not religious” has graduated from the circles of hip youth groups to its own latent beast of belief. More and more of us say we are deeply irreligous, but we are meanwhile dipping our cold feet into an churning ocean of spirituality. Our trust in institutions may be crumbling, but we have always seen worth in experience. With purpose in such short supply, and our inadequacies highlighted daily on Instagram, where better to find our experience than the myriad spiritualities that all promise meaning? Without institutional guides, we wander and seek; and in order to find our perfect experience we lean on the methods we know never fail us: those of capitalism and consumption.
It is irresistable of course. We know our spiritual nature only within its capitalistic home. Why would we not, especially with the bottom dropping from the organizations that taught us there was such a thing as the spiritual, use the tools most comfortable to us to find new centers of meaning? Of course we would. Unfortunately, these tools are inadequate. Capitalism can only offer competition, scarcity of demand, and consumption for consumption’s sake. We’re shopping around for meaning, picking and choosing what we think meets our needs, and walking away with a bag of hazily disconnected forays into a life larger than our own.
And this is why I think Christine Valters Paintner is offering something remarkable. Not necessarily because the Celtic practices themselves are more unique or more worthy than some other practice, or that her exercises are universally appealing, but because the Celtic Christian practice that she offers emerges from wisdom, from tradition, and from the earth.
Each practice pulls some of its purpose from the Celtic connection to the earth in a spiritualized twist on Calvin’s Natural Revelation (or, as Paintner points out, Irish theologian John Scotus Eriugena’s “second book of revelation”). You “walk the rounds” clockwise, or sunwise, to be in “harmony with cosmic forces” (pg. 81), and you practice thresholds because the “thin” places, the in-betweens, are where we find closer communion with God – like at the solstices and equinoxes. You practice landscape as theophany because sometimes the beauty of a place creates a “thinness” in that place, drawing you closer to God, and the world-as-it-should-be.
She takes these practices and ties them up into the lives of those who have come before. We are all people at the apex of a past filled with wisdom, mistakes, and triumphs. Those who led the way before us are done disservice if we think plowing ahead with only what is new or better is the best path to a new life. When Paintner presents the life of a Saint for each practice, she if connecting he reader more deeply to the history of the land, and to the people who once walked upon it and made their own impressions. Even though the lives of the Saints are fantastical, often unbelievable, those people who came before make their imprints on the world. We are wise to take note of them.
Spirituality can be so shiny. It’s often a chaotic swirling dance of promises and health and emotion. The challenge is not to get caught up blindly in the dance. Since we are so inevitably affected by the capitalism that we live in the midst of, an unexamined spirituality is often one in the throes of consumerism. Christine Valters Paintner gives us ways to know that our spirituality is examined, tested, and true. Perhaps the devotion-like stylings of the book are for everyone, but we should apply the lessons of connection to land and tradition.
From buzzwords to laughter, from Instagram to meditation, from consumerism to connection: we become how we choose to spend our time. Spiritual creatures can only choose their methods and means. At least let us be sure to choose well. Move farther friends! Carry yourselves into new lives with hearts full and eyes wide.