Today, I’m pleased to post my interview with Christine, who runs the fabulous site Abbey of the Arts. She is a writer, photographer, artist, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, and teacher. Christine earned her doctorate in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and is a Registered Expressive Arts Consultant and Educator.
Christine is deeply involved in exploring the intersection between spirituality and creativity. She hosts two online classes on this topic, “The Way of the Monk, the Path of the Artist” and “The Eyes of the Heart: Photography as Contemplative Practice,” both of which are very popular. She’s also written three books, including “Awakening the Creative Spirit: Bringing the Arts to Spiritual Direction.”
I hope you enjoy her approach to maintaining creative zest and her perspective on the creative process!
Tell us about your creative pursuits, paid and unpaid.
My creative work focuses primarily on writing and photography – but I also consider my teaching and retreat work to be a part of the way I give expression to my gifts in the world.
I have been a writer ever since I could first hold a pen and when I was eight years old I wrote a series of illustrated short stories with my best friend on 008, the woman spy who took over where James Bond failed. I like to think that my writing and my feminist sensibilities were birthed together. My writing now focuses on spiritual practice and creative expression.
I have always had a camera in my hand because my maternal grandparents owned a chain of photographic supply stores in the Northeast US. It wasn’t until the last few years with the movement toward digital photography and my own deep embrace of monastic spirituality that I began to take it more seriously as an art form and as a contemplative practice. I don’t consider myself a professional photographer, but my images are in service to my writing and teaching. I love the way image and text can illumine one another.
Do you have any formal training in your creative discipline(s)? Do you feel training is important in creative development? Why/why not?
I have participated in a wide variety of writing workshops, both nonfiction and poetry, as well as photography and mixed media classes. I have also earned professional status as a Registered Expressive Arts Consultant and Educator and bring the perspective of the expressive arts to much of my work. The focus of the expressive arts is on process over product which I find tremendously freeing, and engages multiple modalities to deepen an experience.
I think there is great value in learning new skills, being stretched by a good teacher, and in being a part of a community of artists. I don’t think training is required to be an artist, and sometimes the judgment that I can only make art if I am trained becomes a block for many and a reason to never start. The most important thing is to step out of the way and keep showing up to practice.
What habits do you cultivate to facilitate your creative “flow”?
The most important practice for me is nurturing contemplative ways of being and honoring my own rhythms. For me creativity flows most freely when I have space for silence and solitude and am able to listen deeply to what wants to emerge in a given moment. I call it organic spirituality – following the threads and tending to the shape my life and expression want to take rather than imposing a form on it.
What advice would you give to a “blocked” artist in your discipline to free up their creative energies?
I approach blocks from two perspectives – first, I ask myself if I am trying too hard, pushing too much, or working too many hours. Walking is an essential practice for my creative process because it moves me out of my head and into my body. Rest, keeping Sabbath, journaling, reading, cooking a meal, and walking all help disengage my mind and invite my intuitive wisdom to flow again.
The second perspective is to directly engage the block – to welcome it in with curiosity and compassion, dialogue with it through writing, art, speaking, or movement. What does it look like? Feel like? What does it have to teach me about myself? What wisdom is it offering? Often when I engage the resistance rather than resisting it, the energy of it shifts and opens as I honor what it is here to say.
Which artistic project that you are working on excites you the most right now?
My deepest passion is bringing together contemplative practice rooted in desert, Celtic, and Benedictine monastic traditions with creative expression as a way to nurture the lives of artists. Early this year I began teaching an online class called “Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist” which filled quickly and each session I have added fills up. I was delighted to discover the deep hunger for this integration. I am also shaping this material into a book and out of these classes is emerging an online community of monks and artists.
How do you select your creative projects? What elements of a potential project tend to intrigue you the most?
Mostly I let the creative projects choose me – I listen for what is emerging, for where my curiosity is taking me, which threads I want to follow, and for what stirs my energy – either with resonance or dissonance (there is always a deep invitation to self-awareness when we follow what stirs our energy). I love projects which lend themselves to multi-dimensional offerings and interactions – personal practice, teaching, writing books.
Any other advice to artists to help them make their creative activity more satisfying?
Remember that art-making is a practice which teaches us about ourselves – be attentive to the process and allow art-making to be a container of awareness where you approach your process and inner voices with openness and wonder – wondering what insights they are offering into your ability to be compassionate with yourself and the world. I find it most satisfying when I regard all the elements of art-making as sacred – engaging ritual to begin and end with intention and honoring the tools as sacred objects. I express this in my description of my “Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist” class:
Be. Here. This Moment Now is all there is, don’t go seeking another. Discover the sacred in your artist’s tools, they are the vessels of the altar of your own unfolding. Look at this cup of holy water, washing clean the brushes. See the blank page, awaiting your blessing. Gaze on the colors before you, each one a name of God: Saffron, Cobalt, Azure, Ruby. Say each one slowly and taste its juice in your mouth. Let this be your prayer. Brush them across the page. First the small strokes, then the larger sweeps. Lose track of all time. This too is prayer. Listen for the words that rise up: Awaken. Envision. Sing. Alleluia. Place marks on the page saying I am here. Watch as word and image dance together. Luminous. Illuminated. This is your sacred text. This is where God’s words are spoken, sometimes in whispers, sometimes in shouts. Be there to catch them as they pass over those sacred lips, tumbling so generously into your open arms.