There is a concept in Heidegger’s writing called Sein zum Tode, roughly translated as Being Unto Death; it’s more an orientation than a concept.
From that philosophical vantage point, life is given sweetness and poignancy, given meaning in ever-present awareness of its transience.
Since relocating to the West Coast of Ireland from the U.S., abbess, author, and poet Christine Valters Paintner has been immersed in Celtic spirituality, and her new collection of poems Dreaming of Stones, is an opportunity to follow her into that space of Being Unto Death as a kind of guide, but with the sensibility of a mystic rather than a philosopher.
In this space, Paintner is after direct experience, not the philosopher’s “tyranny of answers.”
The through-line of Valters Paintner’s writing is the process of spiritual transformation through the study of the mystics and monastic spirituality.
One of Valters Paintner’s unique gifts is the ability to bring the more obscure saints and mystics to the fore and explore their relevance to contemporary spirituality.
The title of this collection gets its name from a poem of Paintner’s inspired by St. Ita, who is said to have received three stones in a dream. This sacred number three becomes a symbol of transcending the dualism of our calculating mind and into an integrated way of being; at its best, this is what poetry helps facilitate.
To begin with, the cover design of the collection is stunning: a simple green water color droplet against the white background of the page. The famous line from Hildegard of Bingen comes to mind: “The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity.”
This collection participates in, and embodies that kind of creative “verdant greening.” This is the work of a soul in wonder on the emerald isle.
Here we get a taste of that experience through the concentrated energy of poetic language.
The work itself recalls the sense of specificity and wonder in the natural world of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with the casual awareness of the self at play in that space of a Billy Collins. But the poet whose work it echoes most clearly is that of Mary Oliver, whose poems like those in Dream Work resonate strikingly with Paintner’s.
Paintner’s delight in this collection, and the counterbalancing levity to its themes of the body’s transience, is texture – the textures of things, the textures of names, specifically the sensuality of herbs and flowers:
“This is time for boiling water poured into the chipped cup/holding elderflower, hawthorn, mugwort.” And later, “This is my face buried in May’s first peony, petals now parting, eyes closed, inhaling.”
There is a sense in these poems of the momentary breaking through, a flash of insight, a moment of kairos. Call it liminal space or call it grace, there is a sense in these poems of those moments breaking through to us, even though “everything I love will end.”
It’s the sun that “slides down…toward me.” It’s the silence “broken by cries of gulls.” Valters Paintner’s sensibility is one in which a doorway offers itself through which we can step “into silence and dream time,/shake off the hard light of illumination/where the tyranny of answers slips away.” There is an explicit invitation, a voice from that final stage of the contemplative path of divine union, calling to us here and now.
It invites us to a fresh awareness of the 10,000 things, of creation itself partaking in spirit.
In a sense these are poems that give account of an ordinary transcendence, to be freshly lifted daily by the coffee cup, the bowl, the basin, and bath, and the recognition that “our lives are filled with vessels that save us each day.”
There are moments in the collection that feel like a poet still finding their voice, like in the poem Wings: “I wake from a dream,/reach toward the day as it hatches,/its tiny beak/pressed against/the delicate shell of sky./Today I might learn to fly.”
But where Paintner reveals her flashes of insight, of the contrast between the ticking clock with its whisper of death and the delightful textures of Queen Anne’s lace, bluebells, and dandelion seed, of “the ecstasy of wisteria and a soft persimmon sun,” in those airy threads of thing and sound and soul, the collection soars, and we too, are borne aloft.
Dreaming of Stones by Christine Valters Paintner