Christine Paintner’s Birthing the Holy, is an exquisite little book of Marian devotions that opens the door to understanding of the sacred feminine writ large. Moving through thirty-one different names of Mary covering preparation, calling, incubation and birthing, Paintner invites us to consider Mary much as in the way we might turn a diamond in the sunlight to admire its manifold facets and brilliantly hued refractions of light. The format suggested is that of a month-long retreat, in which each reflection is used as the day’s theme.
Help with that retreat can be found at the website Paintner and her husband, John, run called the Abbey of the Arts (https://abbeyofthearts.com/). It’s mission is to “…offer programs and resources to nourish contemplative practice and creative expression. We are rooted in the Christian mystical and prophetic tradition but welcome any seekers who are hungry for nourishment with ancient roots.” Readers interested in delving deeper are encouraged to take a look.
Rooted in feminist theology yet drawing from masters of contemplative prayer both ancient and new, Paintner weaves a tapestry of reflection that can take a thoughtful reader deep into the experience of life and love. She admires Carl Jung and makes use of his structure of archetypes to illuminate the many titles of Mary. Each title is used thematically in the book as the locus of a meditation upon some dimension of the human experience and of a particular set of theological insights.
Some of Paintner’s favorite authors, e.g., Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Meister Eckhart and Denise Levertov happen to be favorites of mine as well. The book resonated harmoniously with me as I saw some of my favorite quotations and themes appear. I was introduced to a number of other voices too, like feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, with whom I was not familiar.
A certain amount of the material in the book is elegiac in nature. In the book’s introduction, Paintner describes the excruciating loss of her mother. Someone had at that time asked her to reimagine her relationship with her mother in terms of feminine Jungian archetypes, using Mary as a touchstone, and she did.
In the reflection upon Mary, Mother of Sorrows, Paintner writes: “We do not live in a culture that supports healthy mourning. We are most often encouraged to get over it and pull ourselves back together. Mary is here to remind us that the river of grief must flow freely through us; otherwise it becomes stuck and we may experience depression or illness.” Encouraging us to allow the tears to come Paintner invites us to write in our journals about “…the moments or seasons when your heart has been utterly broken? When you lost a loved one, a promise, a dream, a job, or an ability?” (p.107). Having worked as a hospital chaplain who did encourage healthy mourning, I found these words very poignant. I wish I’d been able to be there for here at the time of her mother’s passing.
I found analogies to Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Therapy framework when Paintner described addressing the “voices within.” The overlap and influence of Jungian archetypes is clear in these sections.
Each chapter is concluded with a short poem, or “blessing,” as Paintner would have it. Each says in poetic terms what was expressed in the prose text. I loved the blessing in the Queen of the Holy Rosary chapter:
“…as we pray with the Mysteries
of your life and touch
your joy, your luminosity, your sorrow, your glory,
help us to know our own
deep joys and sorrows
as the very place where grace enters into our lives,
bringing all that feels broken
together into a mosaic of wholeness
like the circle we pray with…” (p.8).
This chapter also helped me consider the rosary anew when it suggested that I ponder and then ask for the gifts and qualities of Mary and Jesus that are being manifested in each mystery of the rosary.
Paintner and I share admiration for Denise Levertov and Thomas Merton. Levertov’s poem The Annunciation might actually be recommended as prefatory reading for this book. Likewise, Merton’s observation that “the gate of Heaven is everywhere” from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander serves as a key to understanding Paintner’s appreciation of the world without and the world within.
This short review is intended only to whet the reader’s curiosity. For anyone who would enjoy deepening his or her appreciation of the sacred feminine to be found par excellence in Mary. This is the book for you.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.