Guest Post: The Journey of Grief As Pilgrimage

Christine-Valters-Paintner-I’m honored to be hosting my friend and fellow author, Christine Valters Paintner of Abbey of the Arts here today on the Anam Cara blog. This is part of Christine’s virtual book tour for her latest offering, The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within. To win a copy of her book, just comment on this post, and a winner will be drawn by Friday, July 24.


My heart sank when I stepped tentatively into my mother’s room. She lay there connected to a complex web of tubes and wires, eyes shut. The thin skin on her face was sunken and bruised, her lips were raw. She had a serious pneumonia that had entered her bloodstream causing septicemia and leading to unconsciousness, kidney failure, inability to breathe without a respirator, and dangerously low blood pressure. The previous evening she had gone into cardiac arrest twice but they had resuscitated her.

I took a deep breath and I began to pray those feverish prayers of desperation as death whispered in my ear. When you suddenly hope the way you have lived your life somehow earns the right to a miracle even though you no longer even believe in miracles and deep down you know that’s not how the world works. I prayed that she would be able to go home. But as day gave way to night, I realized that the meaning of that prayer had shifted. Going home would mean something entirely different.

I spent the hours perched on the edge of my mother’s bed, rubbing hospital lotion on her arms and legs as a private act of anointing. Each stroke became its own kind of blessing.

“She can hear you,” the nurses kept assuring me, despite her not being conscious, and so I sang simple chants to her choked by tears. Words of longing would rise up in me and I would bathe her in song. I told her again and again that I loved her and that she was beautiful and I wanted more than anything for her to open her eyes again and gaze on me.

Five days after I arrived to that hospital room, my husband John and I were there alone with her, her blood pressure and heartbeat began to drop and I knew my mother and I were both at a threshold in our lives. The slowing beep of the heart monitor sounded as though it marched her toward death rather than merely recording the journey. And when the beeping became one long sound, I began to wail.


We returned to Seattle and in those November days I found more solace among trees than people with well-meaning, but often trite, advice about grief.

First, came the brilliant gold leaves of the bigleaf maple, then the orange Pacific dogwood, and finally the reds of the vine maple. Then the slow process of letting go and watching the leaves fall from the trees became a daily meditation.

Once the last leaf had surrendered its futile grip and drifted gently to the ground, I was propelled into winter. Bare branches. Days that grew shorter. The sun, when it was visible, dipped low along the horizon so even in daytime there was a darkness that lingered and pressed upon my imagination.

My mother’s death was a threshold and grief became its own kind of pilgrimage through my life. The seasons became witness to the slow unfolding of loss from the release of autumn, to the ache of winter, to spring’s renewal of possibility, and the fruitfulness of summer.

We live in a culture that worships spring and summer. In my own pilgrimage of healing I discovered the wisdom and depth of winter. I have learned to love it on its own terms – not just as a preparation and precursor for spring’s blooming – but for all the ways it calls me deeper into unknowing. Being fully awake and conscious in the dark days of winter can be challenging.

But pilgrimage thrusts us into these spaces of unknowing and mystery, that are so often uncomfortable experiences. We have all had winter seasons in our lives when what was familiar is stripped away and we have to hold grief and open ourselves to the grace of being rather than doing. Winter calls us to trust that fallowness and hibernation are essential to our own wholeness.

For me, making a pilgrimage is not about growing more certain about the world, but embracing more and more the mystery at the heart of everything. In a world where so many people are so very certain about the nature of things, especially in religious circles about who God includes and excludes, I believe unknowing calls us to a radical humility.

As we mature, we must engage with what our own mortality means for us, knowing that we one day enter what I call the Great Unknowing. The season of winter helps us to practice for this and naming these experiences as times of pilgrimage helps us to understand them as ancient journeys.

This is the gift that pilgrimage can offer, a way of connecting our experience to thousands of journeys that have been traveled before. Some for very long distances, and some just along the tender borders of the heart.

Connect with Christine further at Abbey of the Arts, and follow more of her thoughts inspired by The Soul of a Pilgrim. Don’t forget to comment below to enter to win a copy!


We Awaken In Christ’s Body

We awaken in Christ’s body
As Christ awakens our bodies,
And my poor hand is Christ, He enters
My foot, and is infinitely me.
I move my hand, and wonderfully
My hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(For God is indivisibly
Whole, seamless in His Godhood).
I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous?—Then
Open your heart to Him
And let yourself receive the one
Who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
We wake up inside Christ’s body
Where all our body, all over,
Every most hidden part of it,
Is realized in joy as Him,
As He makes us, utterly, real,
And everything that is hurt, everything
That seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
Maimed, ugly, irreparably
Damaged, is in Him transformed
And recognized as whole, as lovely,
And radiant in His life
We awaken as the Beloved
In every last part of our body.

St. Symeon the New Theologian

The Body As Sign

The following is an excerpt from Embracing the Body: Finding God In Our Flesh and Bone, and kicks off the virtual blog tour this week. I offer you this part of the book as a look into why I believe our bodies are so important, and so deeply necessary to life with God—not only for ourselves, but for bringing of the Kingdom of God here and now.

If you’d like to get a copy of Embracing the Body, you can buy it here.




In his pioneering teachings titled The Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II wrote that “he body, in fact, and only the body is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.”It is only in our bodies that we experience God at all, without them, we cease to exist. When we focus only on our “spiritual lives”—the interior realm of thought and feeling—we lack a foundational understanding and attentiveness to that which is at the center of our very lives, the only vehicle through which God reaches us and we reach others: our incarnate, bound in time, utterly beloved bodies.

When we try to split ourselves in two, to separate our bodies from our souls, we do violence and make difficult the healing of our bodies. This is something that modern medicine is only recently beginning to realize, as more and more hospitals encourage practices of prayer, meditations and silence as ways of facilitating physical healing. Hospitals have historically been places where worship or faith have no place, especially in the lives of the doctors bringing the healing work, and the split between body and soul is rigid, painful. So often, doctors and nurses burn out because they are not allowed to experience themselves as fully human—body and soul—even as they try to bring holistic healing to those they tend.

So, too, do we feel this fissure in the Church. This time from the other side, the Church insists through silence that we focus on the soul instead of the body, as if the two could be fully separated. In the Church, we insist that the body is somehow separate, not something to be brought into the life of the community, and in so doing we watch clergy and those in ministry run ragged with fatigue, living unhealthy lifestyles that lead to the slew of moral and ethical failures that grab headlines today. Whether it’s the body without soul (hospital) or soul without body (the modern Church), we’re living in part, not in full, and at the depths of us, we know it.

Sadly, we have lived with this schizophrenia of self for a long time. Bound by our bodies but told to ignore or castigate them, the lives of the faithful—mine included—have been marked by a set of false dichotomies that categorize actions into “sacred” or “secular”, “spiritual” or “physical”, as if the two are not ineluctably intertwined. We live our bodily lives—eating, sleeping, touching, weeping—with a whispering sense that we are experiencing the sacred in these mundane moments, in the way the soup tastes on our tongue or the tender touch of a friend to comfort. We intuitively feel that the aches in our joints are communicating something larger of God’s presence to us, but we are told (explicitly and implicitly) to ignore these murmurs in favor of something more spiritual, more holy.

In the midst of this brokenness, the exile from our bodies in which we find ourselves, Isaiah stands in bold proclamation:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations. (Isaiah 61:1-4, NRSV)

God is about the work of redemption, he proclaims. He is about binding up the broken pieces of ourselves. Every piece reclaimed from our hearts and souls and minds all the way through our maligned and misappropriated bodies. God is about the work of liberation from the yokes of oppression, and it is in our very bodies that we are to be free, whole, restored. These bodies of ours have been treated as ruined, lost, devastated and unable to be redeemed. And yet the Lord of all creation is coming for them, indeed, has given to each of us the work of rebuilding these ancient ruins, reclaiming the very fortress of our selves, our blood and bones and skin and muscle, from the devastations of the fall and of our mishandled attempts at holiness. God is about this work, and we are called to see it and to receive it.