She’s the Inspiration by Kathryn Sadakierski

Birthing the Holy:
Wisdom from Mary to Nurture Creativity and Renewal
By Christine Valters Paintner
Ave Maria Press, 2022
$18.95   194 pp.

What do the moon, a burning bush, and a rose have in common? As Christine Valters Paintner outlines in her book Birthing the Holy: Wisdom from Mary to Nurture Creativity and Renewal, these are all symbols of Mary, the Blessed Mother. In addition to these common representations of Mary, Paintner introduces readers to a variety of lesser-known titles for the greatest saint, providing an overview of the variegated depictions of the Mother of God stemming from a multitude of cultural and faith traditions. A helpful guide for students of world religions, creatives, and those striving to cultivate a closer relationship with Mary, Birthing the Holy combines artwork and written reflection to expand upon and enrich the reader’s understanding of who Mary is, as well as who they are.

Written in response to Paintner’s own journey of mourning the loss of her mother, Birthing the Holy fleshes out Mary’s humanity as Paintner relates to Mary as a woman who grieved the loss of her son, balancing on the threshold of life and death, at the manger and at the foot of the cross, but ushering in rebirth through the triumph of Christ. Spanning 31 different titles for Mary, Birthing the Holy can be read chronologically, in order of Marian feast days in the calendar year, or in the thematic sequence that Paintner has devised according to stages in one’s creative and spiritual journey. While part I consists of three chapters on archetypes of Mary, parts II through IV are each comprised of nine, which lends itself well to saying novenas (nine consecutive days of prayer with special intentions for the archetype of Mary whose intercession is being requested). A conclusion reflecting on one final archetype of Mary closes the book.

Ultimately designed to deepen one’s prayer life, Birthing the Holy can be personalized to the needs of the reader. With its accessible format and reassuring tone, it is the kind of book that can be returned to again and again, whether to be used formally in daily prayer or consulted at various seasons of life, because, as Paintner writes, “whether we are birthing a new dream, a new pathway, a new relationship, a new human being, or perhaps a new garden or new project, we are still called to rely on divine grace in sustaining us. Mary is our ally in this; she knows intimately what calling on God for sustenance looks like.” 

When searching for direction, for instance, readers may find that passages on such titles for Mary as “Star of the Sea: She Who Helps Us Navigate” or “Mother of Good Counsel: She Who Supports Our Discernment” especially speak to them, providing guidance through uncertain times. Paintner invites us to call upon Mary in the ways that most resonate, reminding us that Mary meets us where we are, and that we can always “Reach for Mary’s steadying hand.”

Having been drawn from such a multiplicity of traditions, there is something here for everyone to learn. Catholics familiar with Mary will emerge from the book with a new appreciation for the diversity of roles that she has served in salvation history, and the universality of her image, thoughtfully conveyed in such a way that the face of Mary can be regarded with a fresh perspective. Citing an array of sources, from Doctors of the Church such as St. Thomas Aquinas to modern psychologists like Carl Jung, Paintner offers a balanced survey of philosophies that inform her writings on each Marian archetype. Interesting and informative as the reflections are, concisely providing key historical and theological context about Mary, Paintner explains that “[t]hese meditations are meant to be read not for information, but for formation.” Certainly, the meditations are not merely objective listings of facts, but thought-provoking launchpads for spiritual development, each reflection including suggested creative explorations and poetic prayers that embody essential aspects of Mary’s wisdom—a wisdom rooted in the virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

Paintner encourages readers to channel the wisdom of their inner spirit and better know Mary through guided reflections inspired by each Marian archetype. At the end of every chapter are ideas for spiritual exercises and creative experiences meant to kindle inspiration, including journaling, listening to sacred music, or drawing, while meditating on the traits of Mary explored within the chapter. For individuals seeking to translate their ideas into creative works, Birthing the Holy is an excellent resource, and would lend itself particularly well to classroom use as a reference for teachers aiming to incorporate reflective, arts-based activities into their instruction.

With each chapter, Paintner also creates a space for readers to connect their experiences to those of Mary, engaging in introspection that is reflective of Mary’s own interiority, storing treasures in her heart, truths that can come to light through contemplation (cf. Luke 2:19). Accompanied by Kreg Yingst’s block-print illustrations that not only complement the text, but reach beyond to impart further insight, the chapters facilitate opportunities for what Paintner calls “visio divina.” Much like in ekphrastic writing, this process encourages readers to respond to works of art, processing their takeaways through their own creative labors.

Reading Birthing the Holy is akin to looking at a stained-glass window. A breadth of Marian names is presented herein, each colorful glass shard in the window another facet of her identity, but all are part of the same scene. A shared love for Mary between cultures and peoples makes up the heart, shining through luminously. There is less of an emphasis on the differences between discrete expressions of Mary, and more of a focus on how every soul can grow when the seeds of hope that Mary brings are planted, refreshing the spirit with the dew of a new morning (aptly, Mary is known as the “Morning Star”), the possibility of reaching greater closeness to the sun, and to Mary’s son, Jesus.

Detail of the icon Our Lady of Czestochowa (Robert Drózd | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0)

Take the Black Madonna, for example. Also known as the “Hodegetria,” or “She Who Shows the Way,” this Marian archetype emerges from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, with other iterations including the Polish icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Said to have healed blind travelers en route to the sanctuary of the same name, the Hodegetria bestows new vision, unveiling our eyes to the divine that is within and without, so we may see the hidden depth, the beauty beneath the surface, in the circumstances we’re met with. As Paintner puts it, “When we embrace our inner pilgrim, we let go of our maps and walk by trust . . . knowing Mary will . . . show us the way.” This comes to symbolize the creative process as well: the blank page, the unfamiliarity of the road ahead, can seem daunting, but liberating us when we allow Mary to restore sight of what most matters. We can see God as never before, discerning how he is calling us to use what he has given us.

While Birthing the Holy serves to underscore the richness of Mary’s identity in all of its interwoven strands, its themes are cohesively melded to communicate that Mary is the “holy root” of inspiration—a model of how to draw from one’s full spectrum of emotional experiences, from sorrow to joy, suffering to resiliency, to empathetically reach out in meaningful ways that transform the lives of others. We come to see that we are part of the mosaic, too, all under Mary’s mantle, continuing the mission of positively impacting the world, using our unique creative gifts to heal, and “revealing heaven all around us” as Mary does. Just as Mary is mother to all, bringing people from all walks of life together, so can our creative works foster dialogue, inviting harmony and fulfillment. As Paintner advises, “Our world is so hungry for the mercy Mary offers. . . . See how Mary wants to partner with us to bring more compassion into our communities.”

By saying “yes” to the potential of who we can become, taking steps forward, and letting Mary nurture the seeds of belief within the heart, Paintner demonstrates that we, too, can bear witness to God in our work through the maternal care of Mary. In emulating the fortitude and open-heartedness of Mary, we can bring forth blessings that honor God, for “Mary’s yes is not a onetime event but a holy invitation to us across time to bring Christ to birth in our own lives.”

Throughout the written portraits she paints of Mary, Paintner celebrates renewal through her, the artistic ways in which we branch from our spiritual roots in her to touch other souls, and the yeses to the ageless wisdom of a transcendent love that beckons us to keep going with our sights set on what is yet to be born, what is still to bloom from the imagination. Equal parts nourishment for the mind and spirit, Birthing the Holy is a read I would say “yes” to. ♦

Kathryn Sadakierski’s writing has appeared in Agape Review, DoveTales, Edge of Faith, Ekstasis Magazine, enLIVEN Devotionals, Refresh Bible Study Magazine, and elsewhere. She holds a B.A. and M.S. from Bay Path University. Kathryn is passionate about sharing her love for God through her work, with the goal of making a positive impact.

Top image: Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Bundoran, County Donegal, Ireland; detail of the stained glass window in the east wall of the north transept, depicting the Annunciation | Andreas F. Borchert | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0
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