Book Review: Illuminating the Way: Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics

If you’re at all interested in taking a spiritual retreat but for one reason or another don’t have the time and resources, Illuminating the Way by Christine Valters-Paintner could be just the thing! The book traces the Jungian idea of the archetype as manifested in different Christian saints and mystics over the centuries with exercises for personal reflection and transformation. Each chapter provides a brief overview of the particular figure and archetype, such as Catholic social worker and activist Dorothy Day as The Orphan, Mary as The Mother, and St. Francis as The Fool.

After a brief overview of the historical figure, the archetype, and its shadow tendencies, Valters-Paintner provides an associated reflection from the gospels connecting the archetype to the person of Jesus, an invitation to practice a virtue corresponding to the archetype, a practice to connect with this archetype internally, an expressive art or mandala exercise, reflective questions, and a closing blessing.

For all the different sections, each chapter is concise and accessible, and the movements are fluid, intuitive, and engaging.

I found the chapter on David as the Sovereign especially engaging, given that figures like a Francis or Hildegard are more common figures in contemplative literature, and it was helpful to have a guide like Christine Valters-Paintner cast David in a fresh light with reflective exercises.

But here we also have an eclectic group of figures like Amma Synclectica and Brendan the Navigator

Given her experience in guiding retreats and workshops, there’s a welcome practicality to this book that casts familiar practices in a new light. Valters-Paintner’s experience with practices like Lectio Divina practically drips through the pages. In the appendix, there is a fresh framing and an invitation to practice Lectio Divina that is very useful and goes beyond most instructions to the practice. Elsewhere, she describes the practice of Lectio Continua, or the practice of reading through a couple verses a day until an entire book of the Bible is finished, a practice I have taken up myself.

To read this book is to spend a little time in the presence of a warm spiritual guide full of wisdom both in reframing the ongoing journey and for practical tools for everyday use!

Much like Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way, this book would be a great resource for small group reflection to foster greater community, openness, and intimacy. It provides fresh insights into known figures and reflective exercises with a contemplative foundation. The expressive exercises provide a way to connect and share in a community, and the contemplative exercises could foster spiritual depth in that space.

I’ve been on silent retreat days, Centering Prayer retreats, online retreats, and so on. Once I was drawn in, this book had a very similar feel, which is no accident, given that Christine Valters-Paintner founded Abbey of the Arts, an online monastery with all manner of practice-centered resources for contemplatives and spiritual formation. If you’re new to her work, along with this book, I might recommend The Soul of a Pilgrim.

If I had one quibble with the book, it would have nothing to do with the content, which was engaging, enriching, and spiritually aligning. Some books have the effect of bringing us into attunement because they manifest and connect us with a deep wisdom through the act of reading it. This is one of these books.

But as an avid reader, something about the header typeface and body text font size, as trivial as this sounds, became an occasional obstacle to reading and something I had to intentionally overcome.

In my former work as a Dissertation Editor at Fuller Theological Seminary, we required the academic standard 12pt. Times New Roman font, and dissertations were bound in a hardcover and put in the library after editing. At first glance looked like a published dissertation and my mind resisted the expected lengthy summaries of speculative theology.

It was actually helpful to approach this book as a reviewer at first to get as much out of it as I could. By that I mean, first I got a feel for the book and took in the big picture. What are the different parts? What’s the pattern? What kind of exercises will I be doing? What’s in the appendix? I liberally flipped back and forth and read sections before starting on a linear read through.

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