Christine Valters Paintner: Silence, Art, and Contemplation (Episode 40)

Christine Valters Paintner — an American expatriate living in the west of Ireland — joins us on Encoutering Silence to explore the intersections of silence, spirituality, contemplation, creativity, and living as a monk in the real world.

Author, poet, spiritual director, and Benedictine Oblate Christine Valters Paintner serves as the online Abbess at www.AbbeyoftheArts.com, a virtual monastery without walls. She is the author of twelve books on spirituality, contemplative practice, and creative expression, including: The Artist’s RuleThe Eyes of the HeartThe Wisdom of the Bodyand The Soul’s Slow Ripening. Next year Paraclete Press will publish her collection of poetry, Dreaming of Stones.

I started to realize how photography has a lot of violence in its language — so there’s capturing, shooting, taking… the way that we interact with photography is very much about seizing the movement in this kind of violent way. What if when we were with our camera, we looked at it as receiving a gift, rather than taking something? — Christine Valters Paintner

Drawing connections between her life experience as an introvert and her early spiritual formation shaped by Jesuit education and the wisdom of St. Benedict and St. Hildegard of Bingen, Christine shares how a silent retreat inspired her to find the silent, contemplative dimension of artistry, poetry, movement — as well as winter time as a powerful season for contemplative rest and unknowing which is its own contribution to the creative process.

I find that creative work is a lot about just giving ourselves permission to make mistakes, and to have fun, and to do things that we maybe haven’t done since we were a child, and there is a lot of freedom that comes with that. — Christine Valters Paintner

She reflects on how the experience of grieving, living with an autoimmune illness, and embracing our embodied selves, are some of the many portals through which the mystery of contemplative silence has invited her — and can invite all of us — into stillness and unknowing, and into finding ourselves in the present moment.

Christine offers a special treat at the end of our conversation — she reads a never-before-published poem of hers, “Saint Francis and the Grasshopper.”

I believe in the revolutionary power of stillness and spaciousness, and of practicing presence to life’s unfolding. I believe this commitment can change the world. — Christine Valters Paintner

Some of the authors and resources mentioned in this episode:

When I do spend that time in silence and solitude, I am so nourished by this sense of something so much more expansive and deep and generous, that that naturally spills over into how I want to live my life. — Christine Valters Paintner

Episode 40: Silence, Art, and Contemplation: A Conversation with Christine Valters Paintner
Hosted by: Carl McColman
With: Kevin Johnson, Cassidy Hall
Guest: Christine Valters Paintner
Date Recorded: October 29, 2018

Judith Valente: Silence, St. Benedict, and Writing (Episode 39)

Judith Valente is a poet, a journalist, a Benedictine oblate, and the author of books including Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, a Spiritual Home, and a Living Faith and How to Live: What the Rule of Saint Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning and Community. Her books of poetry include Discovering Moons and The Art of Pausing: Meditations for the Overworked and Overwhelmed which she co-authored with Br. Paul Quenon OCSO and Michael Bever.

Silence has two sides to it… silence could be very burdensome… so silence also has to be balanced with community. Too much silence can be deafening, it can be stifling to a soul. — Judith Valente

Judith shares how a poetry workshop at a monastery led her to a meaningful encounter with silence at midlife — how a room “saturated with silence” introduced her to a maxim from St. Benedict: “At all times, cultivate silence” — thus inviting her to seek rest in solitude and stillness as a response to her busy (and exhausting) life.

All poems begin in silence, and the poems themselves are a part of the overall silence that we experience. — Judith Valente

She talks about her ancestral ties to Monte Cassino (where St. Benedict founded his last monastery), and how Benedictine spirituality helped to inspire her and her husband to become involved in organic farming. She goes on to reflect how nature, beauty, and poetry are all linked to her spiritual life. She tells some chaarming stories about her fellow poet, the Trappist monk Br. Paul Quenon (who Cassidy Hall interviewed for our episode 32), and about the bullfrogs and cicadas who “sing” to her in the silence of a cabin on her farm, where she often goes to write.

Our conversation meanders over the problems associated with social media, poets that Judith loves and a special reading of her poems, “Discovering Moons” and “Lunar Eclipse.”

Contemplation is a big fat word for gratitude. — Br. Paul Quenon, OCSO

Some of the authors and resources mentioned in this episode:

Poetry is for everyone… Poetry is truly a ‘soul friend.’ Poems will come back to us when we need to hear their message. They will come back to us at different points in our lives, poems that we’ve read, poems that we’ve heard; they are our soul friends.  — Judith Valente

Episode 39: Silence, St. Benedict and Writing: A Conversation with Judith Valente
Hosted by: Kevin Johnson
With: Cassidy Hall, Carl McColman
Guest: Judith Valente
Date Recorded: October 15, 2018

Helen Lees: Silence, Politics, and Education (Episode 38)

British writer and educator Dr. Helen E. Lees is an independent scholar, journalist and artist whose work explores topics such as alternative education, silence and sexuality. She is an associate research fellow at York St John University in England. Her books include Education Without Schools: Discovering Alternatives and Silence in Schools. Dr. Lees appears in the movie In Pursuit of Silence and a transcript of her interview appears in the book Notes on Silence.

Dr. Helen Lees. Screenshot from the film “In Pursuit of Silence.” Used by permission.

I’m not the first person and I won’t be the last person that comes to the conclusion that silence is equated with God, there is no difference. But the wonderful thing, the best thing of all about silence in this regard is it’s secular. We don’t need to call it this name or that name or locate it in a particular tradition or a particular culture. It doesn’t make you have to join something. — Dr. Helen E. Lees

Dr. Lees speaks of discovering silence as a child, and particularly as a young adult when first exploring the spiritual practice of meditation. In this interview she explores the intersection between silence, authenticity, grace, and creative expression. From learning to cherish silence as a young artist, to exploring the tension between the hunger for silence and the demands of a busy career, to musing on how silence comes to us in graced and graceful ways, to how silence continues to shape her work as a writer and an artist, Dr. Lees invites us into a profoundly meaningful exploration of how beautiful and necessary silence is for us all.

I’m not interested in silence being affiliated with any particular religious path, because for me it’s totally devoid of any need of characterization like that. — Dr. Helen E. Lees

Silence returns us to what is real. — Dr. Helen E. Lees

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

Episode 38: Silence, Politics and Education: A Conversation with Helen E. Lees
Hosted by: Carl McColman
With: Cassidy Hall, Kevin Johnson
Guest: Dr. Helen E. Lees
Date Recorded: October 1, 2018

Allison M. Sullivan: Silence, Yoga, and Faith (Episode 37)

Allison M. Sullivan is a mom, wife, yoga teacher, author, podcaster, and spiritual companion. She is the author of Rock Paper Scissors: God’s Mighty Power, Jesus’s Covering Forgiveness, and the Snipping Refinement of the Holy Spirit. She is the host of the Sinner Saint Sister podcast. She and her family reside in Bryan, Texas, where she engages in ministry with college women.

We first connected with Allison through the Sick Pilgrim writers’ collective online, where we all grew admire her honesty, vulnerability, and faith. Allison and Cassidy made a pact to interview each other on their respective podcasts — so here the conversation begins!

I have this evolving definition of what silence is… before, all silence meant to me was just an absence of noise, you know, just kind of this literal silence — but now, as I seek it out as a discipline, whether it’s in an effort to know myself, or create, or get needed time as an introvert — it’s more about a search — and that can happen within noise, of course, but it’s a searching posture of my heart, that asks the question, “What do you have for me here?” so there’s an asking and receiving, or a searching and a finding, of silence. — Allison M. Sullivan

Allison shares her first discovery of silence (in the context of growing up with two “boisterous” parents) while encountering solitude in a swimming pool. She muses on the challenge of cultivating silence in the midst of a large family (routine and a prayer closet have been lifesavers), and silence has been integral to her experience as a Christian yoga instructor.

Allison shares how she has experienced silence both as a safe space and as a shield for avoidance, and shares how a bizarre moment while getting a root canal inspired her to self-care — and to explore her vocation as a writer. She approaches silence in terms like lingering and sabbath — and laments how such ways of being in time are so absent in so much of our culture.

I think it’s important to distinguish when silence can become avoidance — whether that’s avoiding a certain type of person, or that’s avoiding a certain type of emotion, silence can be avoidance. — Allison M. Sullivan

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

At the end of the podcast Carl speaks briefly about the trailer for Cassidy’s forthcoming movie, Day of a Stranger. Here it is:

I think about the word “linger” — our culture doesn’t allow for that, does it? We are constantly trying to achieve more, process more information, cross more things off the to-do list; but I think that linger is so connected to love. We cannot linger over that which we do not love, we cannot love that which we do not linger over. And when it comes to our bodies and maybe this is sensitive with women in particular, but I don’t know that we love our bodies and so there’s that desire to dissasociate. My desire with yoga and this full-bodied experience of life is to bring it all back into one being in a loving way, in a way that lingers and loves. — Allison M. Sullivan

Episode 37: Silence, Yoga and Faith: A Conversation with Allison M. Sullivan
Hosted by: Carl McColman
With: Cassidy Hall, Kevin Johnson
Guest: Allison M. Sullivan
Date Recorded: September 24, 2018

Kathleen Norris, Part Two: SIlence, Poetry, and Acedia (Episode 36)

In this episode we conclude our interview with poet and essayist Kathleen Norris. In part one of the interview, Kathleen and Cassidy explored topics such as poetry, creativity, silence (of course) and acedia — a spiritual malady that she wrote about movingly in her memoir Acedia and Me

This is part two of a two part interview. Click here to listen to part one.

Katherine Norris on Skype with Kevin Johnson and Carl McColman.

This week the conversation continues with reflection on the value of monastic spirituality, the question of whether religion can be a force for good in today’s world, how even monks can experience an overload of regulation, how toxic silence and self-censorship is a problem particularly for many women, and how a good writer moves beyond simple expression to caring for the reader.

Structuring a life around writing is as crazy as structuring a life around prayer. — Kathleen Norris

By drawing connections between poetry and prayer, or between liturgy and poetry, Kathleen Norris explores how a contemplative heart beats at the center of creativity as well as spirituality. She goes on to discuss the difficulties inherent in recording an audiobook, gives some pointers about reading her work, and offers a few thoughts on the challenge of using poetry while preaching.

At the end of the interview Carl and Kevin join Cassidy and Kathleen (via Skype), to ask a few final questions. She offers a particularly spiritual perspective on who her “silence heroes” are, and reflects on how one of the most important qualities for her as writer has been simple candor.

Liturgy itself is a poem — the daily liturgy of the monastery plus the eucharist, the mass, it really functions like a poem during the day — you know you’re going to be entering this realm again of the mystery and the poetry and all of that, and then you’re going to go and do your chores and do whatever else you’re doing, but there is a certain poetic quality to it, that is really refreshing, and I think that’s one of the big appeals to me — it was the poetry that drew me in. — Kathleen Norris

Katherine Norris and Cassidy Hall

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

Episode 36: Silence, Poetry and Acedia: A Conversation with Kathleen Norris (Part Two)
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
With: Kevin Johnson, Carl McColman
Guest: Kathleen Norris
Date Recorded: September 17, 2018

Kathleen Norris, Part One: Silence, Poetry, and Acedia (Episode 35)

Kathleen Norris and Cassidy Hall

A self-described “evangelist for poetry,” Kathleen Norris explores the spiritual life in both intimate and historical ways, through her award-winning poetry and luminous works of literary nonfiction, including Dakota: A Spiritual GeographyThe Cloister Walk, and Acedia and Me. In addition to her distinguished literary career, she is a Presbyterian layperson and a Benedictine Oblate.

“There’s natural noise, like wind, that contributes to silence. It may be loud, in fact, but it’s not mechanical noise, it’s not human generated noise. It actually feels more like silence than not — like rain, or ocean waves, or wind in grass and trees. That has a silent quality to it.” — Kathleen Norris

This is part one of a two-part interview. Click here to listen to part two.

Norris launches into her interview by recounting stories of introducing children to silence, moving on to muse about “the terror of the blank page” and how silence is not always a comfortable presence. She muses on how the structured life of a monastery has been a blessing to her both as a contemplative and as a writer; how her earliest encounters with silence were bound up with family dynamics; and how silence became her ally as a young poet in college.

“Silence sometimes shows you what you’re really suffering from… just to sit there and let the silence sink in, and often that’s when you discover what it is you’re really worried about, what you’re really suffering from, what your real concerns are, because when you’re busy in the world either with activity or a lot of verbal stuff going on, you’re ignoring some of those deeper things, and sitting in silence for a while, it will start to surface.” — Kathleen Norris

Her conversation with Cassidy (Carl and Kevin join in later in the conversation, and will appear in part two of this interview) covers a wide range, from musing on the relationship between silence and the sounds of nature, to the ways in which silence can touch on situations like depression, vulnerability, and acedia. She muses on how noisy cities are (she spends some of her time in Honolulu) and reflects on how people in our culture have created a “coccoon of noise” that seems to  arise out of an existential fear of silence.

“Acedia basically means not being able to care, even to the extent that you no longer care that you can’t care. It’s this really weird mixture of restlessness, boredom, despair… I agree with the desert monks that it is a major human emotion, the same as anger or greed or envy; it’s just been ignored.” — Kathleen Norris

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

Kathleen Norris on Skype with Carl McColman and Kevin Johnson. Listen to part 2 of this interview to hear their conversation.

Episode 35: Silence, Poetry and Acedia: A Conversation with Kathleen Norris (Part One)
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
Guest: Kathleen Norris
Date Recorded: September 17, 2018

Parker J. Palmer, Part 2: On the Brink of Silence (Episode 34)

This week our conversation with Quaker activist, author, and educator Parker J. Palmer continues. Please listen to Part One (Episode 33) if you haven’t already done so.

In this week’s episode, we explore the question of how sometimes silence can be toxic (a “silencing” rather than the silence that frees), and how Quaker spirituality has informed Palmer’s relationship with silence.  He examines the difference between “adversarial listening” and “consensual decision-making” which embraces silence as a way to foster community and healthy relationships. Perhaps most moving of all is Palmer’s heartfelt story about who is “silence hero” is.

One of the great things about poetry, the reason it’s so appealing to people who are on a spiritual quest, is that there’s a lot of space and a lot of silence between the lines, and between the words… poetry and silence have a great relationship to each other. — Parker J. Palmer

Palmer’s deeply contemplative approach to silence, to education, to politics, and to vocation make his voice more important than ever as we seek to navigate the challenging issues of our time.

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

Episode 34: On the Brink of Silence: A Conversation with Parker J. Palmer (Part Two)
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
With: Kevin Johnson, Carl McColman
Guest: Parker J. Palmer
Date Recorded: July 13, 2018

Parker J. Palmer, Part 1: On the Brink of Silence (Episode 33)

Parker J. Palmer is a world-renowned writer, speaker, educator, and activist whose work explores issues and concerns related to spirituality, education, community, leadership, and social change. He is the author of many books, including Let Your Life Speak,A Hidden Wholeness,The Promise of Paradoxand The Active Life.

He is a member of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers.

“The impact of silence is not only solace, but disturbance. Silence forces you to look at your life in some very challenging ways. I think in our culture that’s once of the reasons silence is not popular. It’s one of the reasons we fill the air with noise, and
we fill our minds with noise, because we avoid having to take that deep dive into ourselves.” — Parker J. Palmer

Parker joined us in July for a splendid conversation including insight into his latest book,On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old — and so much more. He proved to be so generous with his time that our conversation extended well over an hour — and so we are pleased to present our first “two-part” Encountering Silence interview! Episode 33 begins the conversation, and the conclusion of the interview is found in Episode 34.

“First the silence broke me down, and then it gave me a context, once I understood what was happening, a context in which to rebuild a faith that was rooted in experience. That’s an incredible gift.” — Parker J. Palmer

He shares early memories of silence — from solitary hours in childhood spent reading and building model airplanes — and then muses on how silence accompanied his adult life as a social activist, community organizer, and Quaker educator. After a serendipitous encounter with the writings of Thomas Merton, Palmer discovered that silence was essential not only to his spiritual practice, but to discovering both the riches — and to the shadow — of his own soul.

“I began to recognize that the burnout that I was beginning to feel was about six months away as a terminal burnout, if I didn’t start practicing some things that would help me avoid it, and silence was one of those things.” — Parker J. Palmer

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

“Truth isn’t in the conclusions, because the conclusions keep changing — in every field I know anything about. It’s in the conversation. If you want to live in the truth, you have to know how to live in the conversation.” — Parker J. Palmer

Episode 33: On the Brink of Silence: A Conversation with Parker J. Palmer (Part One)
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
With: Kevin Johnson, Carl McColman
Guest: Parker J. Palmer
Date Recorded: July 13, 2018

Paul Quenon, OCSO: Silence and Poetry at Gethsemani Abbey (Episode 32)

Poet, photographer, and memoirist Br. Paul Quenon, OCSO sat down to chat with Cassidy Hall this past July when she was visiting Gethsemani Abbey.

Author of several volumes of poetry including Unquiet Vigil: New and Selected Poems, Br. Paul is also the author of a newly published autobiography, In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir. His memoir is a delightful and charming story of monastic life not only as a forum for deep spiritual exploration, but also as the foundation for a life devoted to music, art, and especially poetry.

Cassidy and Brother Paul

Brother Paul entered monastic life in 1958, when he was only 17 years old — back before the reforms of the Second Vatical Council, when the life of a Trappist was even more austere than it is today. His novice master turned out to be Thomas Merton, who eventually became an inspiration to Brother Paul not only as a monk, but as a writer.

In their conversation, Cassidy and Brother Paul discuss his life story, his experience as a monk, as a writer, and as a lover of nature. He enthuses on his special love for the poet Emily Dickinson, and shares the poem of hers which convinced him that she was a mystic (#315). He also offers a ‘sneak peek’ of his current writing, sharing some poems he is currently writing. Through it all, in the heart of his rich and cultured life, silence has been his constant companion.

There is a kind of silence which comes from stilling the mind, and you can develop that capacity, how to not fight thoughts so much as set them aside… if you want to be free, free your mind… instead of fighting the thoughts you just stand above them like on a bridge and watch the water flow by… but then there is a kind of silence that descends upon you, and it’s like the presence… it happens on its own, and that’s really special. You may get that, or you may not get it… it’s not a matter of looking for it, because if you’re looking for it, than you’re thinking of something, you have an expectation and you’re dealing with your expectation. — Brother Paul Quenon, OCSO

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

The opposite of faith is indifference. — Br. Paul Quenon, OCSO

Filmmaker Patrick Shen, Brother Paul, and Cassidy Hall on the porch of Thomas Merton’s hermitage, on the grounds of Gethsemani Abbey.

Episode 32: Silence and Poetry at Gethsemani Abbey: A Conversation with Paul Quenon, OCSO
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
Introduced by: Kevin Johnson
Guest: Paul Quenon, OCSO
Date Recorded: July 4, 2018

Silence in the Summertime (Episode 31)

It’s summertime! How do you find silence amidst the droning of cicadas or locusts? What does it mean to be silent during the electric crackle of a late afternoon thunderstorm? How do we maintain our commitment to silence when we’re juggling family vacations, back to school to-do lists, or even more lasting and significant life transitions? We have this myth that summer is a laid-back time, but often we find it carries its own intensity. Where do we find silence then?

In the middle of this change… the silence really stirs up a lot. So it helps me to find a balance, a rhythm, but it also doesn’t allow me to run away from the fear, or the joy, or anything else. It’s right there in my face. — Kevin Johnson

Cassidy shares a provocative quote from an essay by Mary Oliver in which she talks about how poetry needs to “rest in intensity,” and uses this as her metaphor for navigating a very busy summer — a summer which she describes as being like a poem.

Kevin finds his summer to be both joyful and yet poignant, as one of his daughters prepares to go away to college for the first time. And yet this has been a time for him to find a new connection to his own practice of silence, and how an embodied sense of silence has felt like a friend reassuring him that everything is okay.

Carl, meanwhile explores how his relationship with silence this summer has been supported by two endeavors beyond his daily meditation practice: taking yoga classes with his wife, and writing poetry… just for joy.

I’m trying to look at my summer as a poem… just keep moving forward, just keep plugging away, but finding those pauses that often become shorter in times like this, that often become just the gaze out the window, or just the long stare into the coffee cup. — Cassidy Hall

We finish this episode with each member of the team briefly recounting the books we’ve been reading — and even share some insight into the t-shirts we were wearing the day we recorded this episode!

 

 

The silence is always there. And the question is, to what extent are we listening to it, or are we listening to whatever else is going on? — Carl McColman

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

Cassidy talks about fundraising for research to help fight the degenerative disease Friedreich’s Ataxia. To learn more about this disease and to contribute to the fight against it, visit the Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance website, www.curefa.org.

And finally, here is a glimpse of some of the handpainted silk scarves created by Fran McColman. These aren’t for sale (yet) — but stay tuned!

Episode 31: Silence in the Summertime
Hosted by: Carl McColman
With: Cassidy Hall, Kevin Johnson
Date Recorded: August 9, 2018

A Podcast