The following is an extract from the book Heaven All Around Us: Discovering God in Everyday Life. At the conclusion of a chapter on neighbourhood, I offer this brief reflection on walking as a spiritually formative practice. What I have particularly in mind is walking where you live, but it applies more generally too.
You might give it a try!
I like to walk. I walk to work. I walk around our local park for exercise, and to local cafés and bookshops. Wherever I can, I walk to meetings and pastoral appointments. Not long ago my beloved downloaded an app to my phone that tells me how many steps I’ve taken each day, how far I’ve walked in total, even how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed. The daily tally of numbers is extraordinary. That said, apart from adding to my sense of virtue in the late evening before I slice off another piece of cheese, I am hard pressed to find a connection between this and the wellbeing of my spirit. If walking is a spiritual practice, there has to be more to it than this.
In reality, walking is about the slowest form of movement we can imagine. For the philosopher Frédéric Gros, “walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.” It is certainly not preferred by the driven or the busy; walking stands resolutely apart from things that propel. Commonly it’s the priorities of productivity and efficiency that overrule walking as dead or wasted time. Even the term pedestrian reeks of the dull and unmotivated. Regardless, the act of walking remains a very human one. It is an act of the spirit. For as long as human beings have inhabited this earth walking has been an act of longing and aspiration: we have walked to find home; we have walked in spiritual pilgrimage; we have walked to celebrate, to protest, and to commemorate; we have walked as a form of rest and recreation, and in pursuit of better health; we have walked to discover new worlds, to conquer new heights, and even to pray.
Sadly, the commitment to walking is in decline. The head of Australia’s Pedestrian Council has said, “While it took human beings a million years to learn how to walk, it’s taken only fifty to forget.” Cars and boats and planes and trains have all promised, even delivered, a much more speedy arrival, as if arrival is the only good. The worth of walking is found in others things. It is not a practice of productivity, not even of transition, but one of presence.
Jesus walked. He walked his way into people’s lives. He walked into deserts and through towns, between villages and around lakes. He walked up hillsides, down laneways, and across fields. He walked into graveyards and by wells, in neighborhoods, and through temples. He walked alone and with others. He walked to his own death and away from his own grave. He even walked on water. And for what purpose? The writer Barbara Brown Taylor believes it was critical to his impact. Walking gave Jesus time to see things, she writes, “like the milky eyes of a beggar sitting by the side of the road, or the round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market.” Indeed, if he had moved at a faster pace—on horseback, camel, car or bus—it might all have been a blur. Instead, he walked.
For me, it’s walking in my neighborhood that comes closest to a spiritual practice. It’s something I choose to do at night once dinner is sorted and other commitments have been met. It’s a routine that brings my day to a quiet end, like a plodding benediction. It’s a kind of walking that has no sense of destination and no purpose other than the walking itself; yet there is a sense of place and belonging that comes with it. As a spiritual act, neighborhood walking is many things: it’s a routine act of intention; it’s a choice to be present; it’s an acknowledgement of community and place; and it’s a daily stride of contemplation. In all of this, walking is a prime candidate for a spiritual discipline.
To embrace walking as a spiritual practice, most especially where we live, is to engage with the practice routinely and intentionally as one of faith.
1. Walking for Awareness
If we want to see our neighborhoods, to truly inhabit them in the way that Annie Dillard inhabited her precious Tinker Creek, there’s nothing like walking them. Walking is an act of awareness, a way of seeing, noticing, and being present to where we live. It’s an immediate thing, very here and now. I can’t walk my neighborhood and not be present to it. When I walk its streets I feel it and smell it. As I put one foot in front of the other, the neighborhood’s contours become my own.
When I drive through my neighborhood, my destination is elsewhere. I am focused on the most efficient way in or out. I don’t see it. When I walk my neighborhood I am aware of it. I notice the individual homes, the front doors and windows. I notice the little signs of life and those of struggle. I see the unkempt lawns beside those that are neat. I see the graffiti and the trash cans alongside the mail boxes and garden beds. At night, I can see the flickering glow of televisions through curtained windows and the momentary glimpses of life within. When I walk it, I can no longer ignore this place of mine. I see it as a human place, a place of God.
Writing in the 1930s, the Jewish philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin described his youthful wanderings in the center of Paris. He suggested that to get lost in a city as a failure of navigation is nothing more than ignorance; but to lose oneself in a city “as one gets lost in a forest” is an entirely different matter.
“Then signboards and street names, passers-by, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a crackling twig under his feet, like the startling call of a bittern in the distance, like the sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing erect at its centre. Paris taught me this art of straying. It fulfilled a dream that had shown its first traces in the labyrinths on the blotting pages of my school exercise books.”
There is something about this “art of straying” that is key to walking in the neighborhood. It’s about listening to its sounds, learning to interpret its sights and smells, and better understanding its pulse as a living organism. Such a practice takes time and the routine discipline of walking. It can be done alone or in company. Either way, it is a pathway to awareness.
2. Walking for Belonging
“When you give yourself to places,” Rebecca Solnit writes, “they give you yourself back.” It is in walking that we give ourselves to our neighborhood. We walk ourselves into its story. By walking its streets and laneways we physically insert ourselves into it over and over again. In return, the neighborhood opens itself up to us and we become more consciously a part of it.
Neighborhoods are not large. In fact, by definition neighborhoods are defined by their proximity. In leading groups of people to think about their neighborhoods, I invite them into a simple exercise. I begin by giving each one a large blank sheet of paper. I then ask them to draw a thumb-sized picture of their own home in the center. It may be a stand-alone house, an apartment block, or something different. Whatever shape it takes, I ask them to represent it on the paper. Next I ask them to map out around it the streets and laneways of the neighborhood. “Imagine you take a walk around the streets that surround your home, just five minutes in each direction,” I say, “what streets would you walk? What landmarks, shops, public buildings, or parks would you pass?” Once they have the neighborhood mapped out, I then ask them to identify all of the points of human connection they have on the map. It may be with the neighbor across the street or on the floor below. It might be the person at the corner store from whom you buy milk, the man who walks his dog in the same park, a café proprietor or a teacher at the local school. The only proviso is that the contact is within walking distance and on your map. For each of these connections I ask participants to add a smiley face to the page. Some pages are filled with smiley faces, and others have just a few. Regardless, they are always there.
Walking the neighborhood is a discipline of both noticing and belonging. The more we notice the more we belong. We give ourselves to our neighborhoods when we walk them. We do it again and again, and in time, we find a sense of place and belonging takes root. In Solnit’s words:
“Walking is only the beginning of citizenship, but through it the citizen knows his or her city and fellow citizens and truly inhabits the city rather than a small privatized part thereof. Walking the streets is what links up reading the map with living one’s life, the personal microcosm with the public macrocosm, it makes sense of the maze all around.”
3. Walking for Contemplation
The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a walker. “Never did I think so much, exist so vividly, and experience so much,” he wrote in the eighteenth century, “never have I been so much myself . . . as in the journeys I have taken . . . on foot.” Sadly, we often think of contemplation as an act of zoning out, of freeing our minds from the constraints of where we are to inhabit a higher plane of zen-like meditation. This was not the case for Rousseau. What’s more, it’s a misunderstanding of contemplation’s gift.
As I have said in a previous chapter, to contemplate is to look deeply into life in order to discern its truth. The life into which we look is the life around us, its objects, contexts, routines, and encounters. We do so assuming that life’s sacredness is immediate, not far off. When we walk, we open our minds to this possibility. We are consciously on the lookout for the life and truth of God.
Granted, the neighborhood is not the first place we think of when it comes to “the beauty of holiness” and all things God. Perhaps walking amongst mountains, along rugged coastlines, or down country lanes has more an air of the Spirit. Writers like the nineteenth-century Henry David Thoreau influenced a generation to see the act of walking in the natural world as one of great virtue. Walks in the neighborhood are a harder sell. There are not many neighborhoods in our cities and suburbs that allow the natural world to preside. Neighborhoods are constructed places, more full of concrete and asphalt than of grasslands and creek beds. Yet the fact remains, they are the place of our lives. In Mackay’s words, our neighborhoods and suburbs are the places “where most poems are written, most cups of sugar borrowed, most flowers grown, most dreams fulfilled, most passions stirred . . .” As with our homes, neighborhoods are filled with the life we bring to them. Over time we fill them with this life and they become immeasurably more than a random collection of sleeping pods. They play host to the evolving truth of our stories. In walking, we open our ears to hear them.
Depending on where you are, you can purchase the book in a number for places.