The Abbey of the Arts is an online global monastery without walls and seeks to be a place of ‘transformative living through contemplative & expressive arts’ (www.AbbeyoftheArts.com).
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan, says
“This is what we need! Christine is offering us a “moving monastery” yet with solid grounding in Scripture, Nature, Art, the Tradition, and the Saints! Abbey of the Arts is spirituality for our time and every time.”
I heard about the Abbey through being a member of LivingSpirituality and resonated closely with the ‘Monk in the World’ video presentation on the website to such an extent that I signed the Monk Manifesto and receive regular letters via email. I would encourage readers to look at these for yourselves because I don’t think they will be what you imagine.
Christine Valters Paintner created the Abbey and was joined recently by John Valters Paintner, her husband. Christine follows the path of a Benedictine as an oblate of the order. The Abbey is gifted in many ways that include opening life’s questions in a gentle and creative way that is liberating.
I registered for the retreat wondering how it would be to join an online community. Towards the end of the retreat I was using the word ‘generosity’ to summarise the whole experience.
As part of her introduction to the retreat, Christine wrote:
“The soul’s journey through Lent is like a pilgrimage exploring inner desert places, landscapes, thresholds, and the experience of exile. Ultimately, pilgrimage always leads us back home again with renewed vision. Resurrection is about discovering the home within each one of us, remembering that we are called to be at home in the world, even as we experience ourselves exiled again and again.”
We explored each of these themes and more over an eight week period, but prior to that, time was given to the registration process to make sure everyone was familiar with how the community would work. People from all over the world were on the retreat. Each of us could upload an image or a picture of ourselves with a few words of introduction during the registration process – and we had to choose which timeline we lived on so that each day’s materials became available at the correct time.
Once into the body of the retreat I enjoyed the pace and space allowed for personal reflection, and then time to read and respond to the reflections of others on what I can only describe as the retreat’s own secure web site that is made by Ruzuku for those who understand these things.
Each week ended with a day of rest, which I needed to sit with my thoughts, or rest and orientate myself to the following week. And each week had a similar rhythm which seemed to me to be slow in week one. Soon I saw the wisdom of the repetitive pattern and depth of reflection that each day offered. By the end of the retreat I realised how un-important it was to ‘keep up’. I harvested the real blessings of lagging behind and having more time to read what others had discovered when I did the whole retreat again! Such was the generosity embedded in the whole process that all the materials were accessible for a good while after the end of the retreat, and all the materials were downloadable for private use at another time.
The title of each week gave a real flavour of how journeying feels. Hearing the call and responding; packing lightly; crossing the threshold; making the way by walking; being uncomfortable; beginning again; embracing the unknown; coming home.
And each week was sprinkled with encouraging insights, poetry, stories, artwork, joys and sadness as the community developed. For example, Christine gave us these words from others:
Week one – The practice of packing lightly
When we feel more secure, powerful, confident, and self-sufficient, we are nothing. We are most abjectly not. But when we’re stripped naked by desert despair, helplessly and hopelessly decreated by all of our facades and deceptions, we are most real, most substantial. We are. Our being is in proportion to the destitution forced on us by the wilderness. —Kerry Walters, Soul Wilderness
Week two – The practice of crossing the threshold
At any time you can ask yourself: At which threshold am I now standing? At this time in my life, what am I leaving? Where am I about to enter? What is preventing me from crossing my next threshold? What gift would enable me to do it? A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms, and atmospheres. —John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us
Week 7 – The practice of coming home
My final question, ‘How will I know when I have reached the destination?’ brings me full circle, and I face the Mystery again. Perhaps the truth is that we never arrive, not because the journey is too long and too difficult but because we have been there all along. I am coming to believe that there is no final destination except to continue to be on the journey and to know that every place along the way is a holy place because God is present. I believe that God is calling us to stand on our own ground and know that it is holy and let our roots grow deep. And yet at the same time, the journey goes on. It is a paradox, I know, but perhaps we are traveling most faithfully when we know ourselves to be most at home. —Judith E. Smith, from “This Ground is Holy Ground” in Weavings Journal
I would encourage others to look into the Abbey and perhaps choose something for yourselves. There are some free retreats, and I find the newsletters really helpful. For anyone thinking that they need to be a traditional artist to benefit from the Abbey I promise you that you don’t. The image at the top of the page was one I posted a few times – each time the flowers changed, and it was my image of coming home. Many people took photographs with their phones; I used a more traditional camera.
Another refreshing thing about the retreat was that people expressed their faith, or lack of it, in different ways. Some told us they did not belong to any formal religion, others were deeply committed, and others seemed to be at many points in-between. It really did not matter. The materials and language used were inclusive and did not need any of us to believe or not in a particular way.
Some people responded to posts each day, and others followed the whole retreat without being ‘visible’ – again it did not matter – all were welcome.
Perhaps more importantly than these things, for myself I discovered things that I did not know about myself. At one point we were asked to think deeply about what our deepest desire was. I simply did not know, but in the process it was as if it was revealed to me in a most tangential way. I also discovered that it is possible to become part of an online community during a retreat in a very real sense. A few months later I am registering for another.
Abbey of the Arts: www.abbeyofthearts.com
LivingSpirituality Art and Spirituality Group: www.livingspirit.org.uk/special-interest-groups/art-sig
Linda Courage is Coordinator of the LivingSpirituality Art and Spirituality Group, regional contact for the North East, and LS Steering Group member. She is an Associate member of the Centre for Spirituality Studies at Hull University, and is an experienced nurse and lecturer on nursing matters.