Thursday morning, after a night of howling winds had dropped the temperature 40-some degrees, I hurried from my front door to the Girard subway station and from Chinatown to church. It was 18 degrees and still windy, and I didn’t have a minute to pause, even a second to notice anything along the way. In my rush, and buried in so many layers, it was as if there was no world around me; just the cold.
But the difference between that rush and my walks of the last few days did strike me. In the sunny warmer promise of Spring ahead that we’d experienced before this most recent arctic incursion, I had taken three leisurely, but deliberately looping walks in the city — two for errands and one just for walking.
I walk often and cover some distance on foot. Still it’s a treat when I head out less for the destination and more for the walk itself. It’s then that I begin to notice what I stumble upon along the way and the world begins to open up for me. It occurs to me that such an experience is both an example and explanation of spiritual practices.
At Old First this year, we have four different Lenten spiritual practices going:
Prayerful Bible reading with “Lenten Awakenings.”
Contemplative worship with the 7 p.m. Thursday night services.
Hospitality / Community Building with the Lenten Sunday Suppers.
Social justice with the canvassing to organize “Jobs and Education voters.”
Talking to people about their experiences and worries about these various practices, I realize that for many folks there’s something frustrating about taking up a spiritual practice.
We wish they would work the same way as a diet or an exercise program. Eat the right foods in the right amounts at the right times… or do enough miles and minutes of cardio… or attend enough yoga sessions — and there are predictable, even expectable results. Forseeable outcomes that come of clear and concrete directions.
We lose weight. Tighten and strengthen. Get in better shape. Feel better. And though individuals’ results may vary (I suspect by how closely they adhere to the prescribed regimen!), more or less the results of diets and exercise plans are the same for all of us.
Spiritual practices — or where they lead — are less charted. They are unmappable. That’s where the frustration comes in, I believe. People don’t know what to expect. Or might be unsettled by the results they begin to get. Or they might even miss some outcomes that are so far from what they expected.
Spiritual practices sometimes also provide step by step directions to follow. But that’s pretty much where comparisons end. Progress, challenges and outcomes of spiritual practices are varied and their outcomes are less clear.
Our journeys they set us on are not all the same. Any more than our lives are the same.It’s just a fact. I think that’s because their goals are much broader… or perhaps more personal. Spiritual practices promise to place us on a long and complicated road, for which there seems to be many different routes, detours, stops and happenings along the way. And, instead of having a clear destination one can expect and work to reach, spiritual practices lead to all the distant, foreign and unforseen places that God would send us. And meet us.
Spiritual practices are not about getting our spirits in some defined shape and health. Instead, their goals are much more open-ended… loftier and less tangible: they aim at what it means to be human, to be human with other people, being human in creation. About being human before God.
Therefore, our religious traditions commend different religious practices to us without ever telling us what exactly will happen to us when we undertake them. The only way to find out is to choose a practice and begin, and see what happens.
If you aren’t sure about the practice you’ve undertaken for Lent, how you are doing or where it’s headed. If you haven’t chosen a practice, but wish you had. Consider walking as an accessible, model practice. It’s both an explanation and a possibility for spiritual practices.
Jesus walked almost every place (apparently with the one exception of his entry into Jerusalem at the beginning go his last week.)
Our whole faith might have been different if he’d used a chariot or a car! Instead, on foot, meant there was time to see things– the needs of a beggar abandoned by the side of the road or the importance and transience of the lilies in the field and the sparrows in the air. If he’d been moving quicker, say to reach more people, the littler things in life might have become a blur to him. Moving slowly, they became apparent and came into focus.
Sometimes he was walking to get somewhere. Sometimes his walking seemed more serendipitous — walking only for whom or what he’d encounter along the way.
For his followers, going with him was the point, even if he was a sort of moving destination.
Jesus took his time. Never traveled faster than four miles an hour. He found his whole, holy, expansive world within a couple of hundred miles, about the size of New Jersey.
Maybe for those of us who wish to follow him, his pace is a good model for our practice.
Not everyone can walk, but most of us can. It’s both one of the most easily available spiritual practices and a good model for all the rest. All it takes is a decision to walk with awareness. Try sandals. Or barefoot.
Where you are going is not the point. To detach the walking from a destination is both the best way to notice God’s signposts along the way as well as to begin to experience how walking is a spiritual model for other practices. Don’t get caught up in where you have been or race ahead to where you want to end up. Instead, look down at your feet to see “here is where I am supposed to be!”
Notice the hills and the rough patches. Enjoy the smooth places. And when you are tired. Or feel strong. Look around and notice where you are. Who is nearby. How do you engage with them. Are you feeling lost. Or challenged. Or bored. Feel the muscles in the back of your legs. The air you take into your lungs. The soreness in your feet. Or the bounce in your step.
You cannot really fail at a spiritual practice, because it’s about becoming more aware of yourself in your world at a certain time. In that sense, whatever you experience is right. Even if it feels like it’s not working. Keep walking! Because that’s what and how you learn about yourself, the others you pass on the journey and God!
Vaya con Dios, and see you in church,