Life at the Pace of Walking
Today’s post is by Cordelia Burpee
“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”
~Abraham Joshua Heschel
I have been doing a lot of walking lately. I thought it might be boring—all that time alone with no one to talk to, nothing to listen to—but I have realized that these long walks provide an opportunity to think and to see things I wouldn’t normally notice. This hour or two (or more) gives me the chance to really pay attention to details of the landscape, the world around, that are readily visible only at the speed of feet. At that speed, with no other distraction, the land opens up and surrounds me, rolling out in an unhurried panorama of trees, mountains, sky and water. As I get pushed to the outer edge of the road by incoming traffic, I have ample opportunity to discover all that has been left behind in that gravely border—the odd bits of change, the single shoe (or sodden sock), the perfectly good sunglasses, the squashed toad. At this slow pace, I can track the curve of that unexplored side street or ponder the previously unnoticed footpath as it disappears in the high grass.
As I walk, there is also plenty of time to think. I think about how different life looks at this pace, about how this is still the only form of transportation for many people around the world and how much our lives would change if we lived this way. Commuting would then mean the six-mile walk to the next village. The world would, I suspect, seem much larger and we would know our neighbors so much better.
Walking this way together would provide lots of time for folks to talk with each other, and I think about Jesus and his disciples on the road with nothing but the sky and the land before them. As I walk, I reflect on the lives, the challenges, struggles and blessings of the people who live in the houses that I pass, and as I pass the cemetery, I pick out the grave stones of those who are no longer among us. I watch the apples on the trees and wonder about this year’s apple crop and which varieties are coming next.
I also spend time going over in my mind all that I have to do when I get home and what I am going to say come Sunday. Recently I have been pondering how often we describe the life of faith as a journey. I never really considered it before, but this implies that faith is not really so much a state as a process—we don’t “have” faith as much as we are “becoming faithful.” Thinking of the life of faith as a journey implies movement, direction and eventual destination. This understanding challenges us to realize that where we are now with God is different from where we were two years ago. Or where we will be two years from now.
I wonder how true this is for most of us. Isn’t faith, our relationship with God, our participation in worship, a habit; something we do the same way—worshipping the same, praying the same, engaging the same, thinking the same—week after week, year after year? As we go about our routine, has our understanding or experience of God evolved over time or are we stuck?
I was scanning church-related articles recently when I came upon the title, “Are We Wandering or on a Pilgrimage?” and the title intrigued me. What is the difference? Is there a difference? Perhaps the difference is intentionality. When we wander we “move about without a definite destination or purpose.” (Think of the ancient Israelites wandering for 40 years.) A pilgrimage, in contrast, has a purpose and intention. It is a process of seeking, discovery and transformation. Which are we engaged in? What difference might it make in our lives?
Are we, like the ancient Israelites, wandering around in the wilderness, hoping for a change, perhaps waiting for the old habits, the old understandings to die out so we can eventually enter new territory with a fresh outlook? Or are we purposefully engaged in the quest for a particular purpose or destination? Are we heading somewhere or simply in motion?
All this wondering about “journeys” and “wandering” and “pilgrimage” keeps my mind busy so I don’t notice the blister half forming on my right foot, but this is something for us all to consider. Of course, even with direction and a plan, there is no telling where God may take us. (Remember that old saying, “We plan, God laughs?”) But I suspect that many of us don’t give this much thought, that most of us are on automatic pilot. When was the last time that God surprised you? When was the last time your church surprised you, or that you learned something new? When was the last time you surprised yourself?
If you can’t remember, if you have no new stories, wonderings or odd encounters with the Divine, chances are you stopped noticing, stopped being open, stopped expecting something new, life changing and illuminating to happen in your life with God. The fall is a perfect time to challenge yourself, to practice a new spiritual discipline, to set aside time for prayer, or study or journaling, for being still and listening.
God has lots of surprises to offer, some uncomfortable, many life changing, all offering a more expansive and spacious way of being. But first we have to be open, to keep our eyes and minds and hearts open to what God has brewing. So that we are ready to notice those interesting unexpected side trails as they emerge along our way.
A version of this article first appeared in the Congregational Church of South Hero (VT) parish newsletter.