The contemplative life, wrote Thomas Merton in a 1947 essay, “is a life that can be led and, in fact, must eventually be led by every good Christian. It is the life for which we were created, and which will eventually be our everlasting joy in heaven.” He thought contemplation was especially important for Christian poets, who must “not shrink from facts and penance and sacrifices” but should instead “seek them”; who “will not be bored with prayer” but would discover how prayer can “become the life of our soul.”
Merton concludes the essay with a hypothetical ideal: the Christian poet whose verse “can, indeed, help to bring us rapidly through that part of the journey to contemplation that is called active.” Merton cautions that contemplation is tenuous, and not permanent—an aspiration, not a fixed identity—but he believes the careful work of skilled, devotional poetry can aid in our spiritual development.
Dreaming of Stones, the first poetry collection by Christine Valters Paintner, known for her works of spiritual nonfiction, exists in the tradition lauded by Merton. Paintner has lived in Ireland since 2012, and Celtic culture and landscape permeates her work. Structured in six thematic sections, the collection may even be used as a guidebook for contemplation.
“Hours,” the first section, includes melancholy pieces of daily thought. In “Vespers,” the “sun slides down / the gap between houses” while the narrator thinks “under the mulberry spectacle of sky / how everything I love will end.” She considers the “horarium of the ordinary” in “Little Hours” and offers powerful imagery in “Vigils,” a poem composed for her mother: “Room strung with plastic tubing / like Christmas lights burned out, / fluids delivered and departing / your slack sallow skin.”
“Pendulum,” a poem from the “Possibilities” section, speaks to the uneven moments of life: “Some days I am swollen with / possibility, a ripe peach, / fingers sticky with sweetness, / while others I am hollowed out, / a bone scraped clean, / gleaming under the / weight of midday sun.” Paintner’s poems often depict one resigned to life struggles—a life perhaps best met with the contemplative modes that Merton suggests in his essay. In fact, a poem in the collection is invoked to the Trappist monk. In “Whose Silence Are You?” she writes “I walk barefoot across wet grass, / night’s questions relentlessly wrestling / in my mind’s knotted weave.” The narrator ends the poem still plagued by questions, but at least she is “no longer full of my own echoing emptiness, / I am able to hear at last.”
Dreaming of Stones ends with a section titled “Monks and Mystics,” a sequence full of Irish monks who Paintner says “have become guides for me in this new home” of Ireland. In “St. Sourney’s Well,” she describes a character “Walking the rounds, always sunwise, / slowly arriving, footsteps bless / the ground, saying I am here.” Although there are “No pronouncements in reply, / no choruses of Alleluia” and “Only moss and streams and birdsong,” nature itself is sufficient response.
In her afterword to the book, Paintner describes her writing process as “inspired by the practice of lectio divina, or sacred reading.” She might discover a line of poetry “from another poem, from a piece of Scripture, or from a conversation,” and then follows that line toward a full narrative. She says that “poetry-writing, and not just reading, became central to my spiritual practice.” While we shouldn’t expect poetry to be utilitarian in a strict sense, Paintner’s poetry does offer its readers a healthy number of moments like the narrator at St. Sourney’s well: ways to look anew at our surrounding world and its gentle contours.
Nick Ripatrazone has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Atlantic, and is a Contributing Editor for The Millions. He is writing a book on Catholic culture and literature in America for Fortress Press.
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