Water, Wind, Earth and Fire
by Christine Valters Paintner

Sorin Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-933-49522-4.
Reviewed by Edith O'Nuallain
Posted on 03/03/2011
Review of the Month, April 2011

Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration

In her book Water, Wind, Earth and Fire, author and contemplative artist Christine Valters Paintner explores the four natural elements named in the title and traditionally associated with ancient philosophies and nature-based religions. Paintner examines each element in turn as a metaphor for the myriad ways spiritual seekers can learn to connect with the divine matrix and unfathomable mysteries which fill the earth we walk upon.

Hence, this book is primarily about learning to see. Within its pages we are offered new ways of looking at the world. Instead of seeing only the superficial and obvious, Paintner teaches us to look lovingly into the depths of a shimmering world which is constantly shifting and changing. The rhythms and cycles of nature are a recurring theme throughout this book. Indeed, a major component of the contemplative work in which Paintner engages incorporates a deep resonance and response to these ever-changing rhythms—the cycles of our days and nights, weeks and months, seasons, and even our very breaths. In this way, the author shares her understanding of a world filled with the rising and falling of a never-ending, eternal dance of love and loss, pain and pleasure, desire and absence—both poles pointing to the dynamic tensions which underlie our daily existence, including that between our inner spiritual journey and the outer landscapes we inhabit.

She teaches us to read the natural world as a sacred text which, if we learn to discern its subtle movements, may reveal itself to us as the source of Divine Mystery. While her interpretive lens is primarily Christian based, its roots lie deeper than any single tradition. In her opening chapter the author refers to the many allusions of the elements evident in numerous ancient and tribal cultures, and other sacred texts. She goes on to link each element with traditional Native American practices based upon the four directions, connecting air with the east, water with the west, fire with the south, and earth with the north, noting that directional awareness is present in ancient Christian practices also.

Paintner cites a multitude of mystical writers, such as Hildegard of Bingen and St. Francis of Assisi, alongside contemporary poets and spiritual authors such as David Whyte, Denise Levertov, Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, and many others; and, in the process introduces her readers to a wealth of inspirational nature writers, many of whom this reader had not heard of before. Through her own words, and those from which she quotes, the author encourages us to slow down, to stop and take the time to notice what lies before us, always, everywhere, suffusing all our senses, in our every waking moment.

If we can live in an open-hearted state of awareness to the elemental nature of our world, then we will learn to become fully present, not just to the world, but to ourselves also, and to the part that each one of us plays in this magical, mysterious universe; then we will be transformed into the contemplative beings we truly are. But first we need to listen with the ear of our hearts, so that we can open ourselves to the bright, shining ever-new world which is rolling out at our feet, even now, calling to us to play with its shimmering, pulsing, elemental nature, in wonder, awe and delight. In her book, Paintner, abbess of a virtual monastery, teaches us how.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Christine Valters Paintner is a writer, artist, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, and teacher. She earned her PhD in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and her professional status as Registered Expressive Arts Consultant and Educator (REACE) from the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA.org). She runs Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery, existing as an online community through classes, reflections, and resources which integrate contemplative practice and creative expression. Visit her website.

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