July 5, 2015 Psalm 19
Have you ever started out walking, say, to the pharmacy, and all of a sudden found yourself standing in front of the post office? Maybe that would only happen in a small town, or Boston or NYC where people walk a lot.
I once was driving home from another part of town when I looked out the window and realized I had no idea where I was. This was not the onset of Alzheimer's. I was so lost in my thoughts I had literally gotten lost - neglecting to make a highway connection.
My friend Bonnie was driving to work and realized she was low on gas. She pulled into a gas station, paid at the window, got back in her car and drove away. Several miles later she noticed what she had forgotten to do.
There’s an epidemic plaguing this country right now. It’s called “NOT living in the present moment.” As Barbara Brown Taylor states in her book An Altar in the World, “Most of us spend so much time thinking about where we have been or where we are supposed to be going that we have a hard time recognizing where we actually are.”
Those who have been infected are easy to spot: the guy walking his dog, tugging on the leash to keep moving as Fido is busy inspecting a bush over in the grass; the mom practically yanking her three year olds arm out of its socket at the supermarket as the child stands captivated by a candy display.
Children and dogs live very much in the present. They notice what is around them - the sights, the smells, the sounds.
Most of us live in that fast, multi-tasking track. It’s difficult to just be in the present moment. Those of us who identify ourselves as people of faith profess to want a relationship with God, but God cannot be found racing around from one task, obligation, appointment to another.
God said to Moses, when he came to inspect a burning bush that had not burned up, (sing) “Take, take off your shoes. You are standing on holy ground.” That’s a rendition from one of our hymnals.
Maybe what we need to do is take off those stilettos, or those thick padded running shoes and really feel the earth under our feet - the spiritual practice of going barefoot. Then take a walk. barefoot, or in a comfortable pair of walking shoes. Ground yourself in God. After your walk, you might take a moment to think about those who have no shoes, or car, to whom walking barefoot is a way of life.
This was Jesus’ main mode of transportation - Moses, Abraham too. As far as we know with the exception of one brief stint on someone else’s donkey, Jesus walked. While I was riding in a little bus on a modern highway from Galilee to Jerusalem I thought; “This would have been a long walk!” But if Jesus had been on a fast horse, think of all he would have missed along the way. Ever try to take pictures out the window of a moving car?
Whenever I travel the first thing I want to do is walk, so that I can feel, see, hear, smell, allow myself to be enveloped in my new surroundings.
How many of you go for walks, with or without dogs and children? - go hiking in nature? - walk a labyrinth?
Most people can walk, which makes it one of the most easily available spiritual practices. Buddhism has a word, apranihita, which means wishlessness or aimlessness. They apply it to walking meditations. The idea is that we do not put anything ahead of ourselves and run after it. We enjoy the walking without any particular aim or destination. If your mind is heavy with worry or anxiety, or thinking about where you’ve been or where you’re going, you miss the beauty around you. This kind of walking pulls you into the present moment.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, describes it this way: “Walking meditation is meditation while walking. We walk slowly, in a relaxed way, keeping a light smile on our lips. When we practice this way, we feel deeply at ease, and our steps are those of the most secure person on Earth. All our sorrows and anxieties drop away, and peace and joy fill our hearts. Anyone can do it. It takes only a little time, a little mindfulness, and the wish to be happy.” (from The Long Road Turns to Joy)
This is a practice that can be done anywhere. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests concentrating on your breath while you walk or using a phrase as a mantra. A friend told me she uses a Celtic benediction: “If the grace of seeing were mine today, I would glimpse You, O God, in all that lives.” He also suggests, if you are drawn to something you see along the way, stop and notice - be present.
Now that the weather in Newton is more amenable to walking, I’ve been doing more of it. I’ve decided to walk to the Y, do my exercise, and then walk back home, instead of driving. Although I have a destination, I’m trying to keep my mind totally in the present as I walk. During each walk I’m noticing more and more: sights, sounds, smells - flowers and weeds, birds, and dog poop on the sidewalk, trash scattered around, signs I never noticed before.
I notice the people I encounter on my walks: those that smile back and reply “good morning” when I greet them; those with tunnel vision on a fast track to their destination; and those who look away, not acknowledging they have been spoken to. I notice their dogs, turning around trying to strike up a friendship with me.
There’s a lovely little art exhibit at the Oak Square park. I wonder how many times I walked past it without even noticing. And it has a wonderful message! Brown Taylor suggests that “To detach the walking from the destination is in fact one of the best ways to recognize the altars you are passing right by all the time.”
A pilgrim is a person who prays with their feet. Pilgrimage is one of the most ancient and universal of prayers, used by all the major faith traditions. When I went on sabbatical four summers ago I called it a pilgrimage. It was. I did a lot of walking. All the faith traditions have pilgrimages.
One of the five pillars of Islam is the hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken during the 12th month of the lunar year. Dressed only in a white cloth that many will use later as their burial shrouds, pilgrims walk seven times around the ancient Ka’ba in the center courtyard of the Great Mosque. They walk counterclockwise, against the march of time, scraping away the crusted sins that have accumulated during all their lives.
Hindus make a holy journey to the river Ganges where one’s sins are bathed away, or they climb high into the Himalayan Mountains to the source of the Ganges.
Buddhist pilgrims perform full prostrations as they make their sacred journeys to Bodh Gaya in India or Mount Kailash in Tibet.
Jews travel to the wailing wall in Jerusalem where they write their prayers on little pieces of paper and pray.
Christians have a rich history of traveling to shrines and holy places like Rome, Jerusalem, Lourdes, Fatima and Guadalupe. A friend of mine walked the Camino de Santiago, a 500 mile stretch from St. Jean in France to Camino de Santiago in Spain in 43 days. This pilgrimage began in the 8th or 9th century. Over the years thousands of pilgrims have walked it each year, from St. Francis to Charlemaine to my friend Art. Today approximately 100,000 Christian pilgrims walk it every year.
Not all of us are able to make such pilgrimages. Back in the 13th century a labyrinth was placed on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France, to be used by Christians in that part of the world who couldn’t travel to Jerusalem. Today you find them all over the world. We brought a portable one in last summer and walked it and we will do that again on August 16th.
As Father Edward Hays so eloquently points out in his book Pray All Ways, “The purpose of the pilgrimage is to come home, but to come home with new eyes and a new heart.” It doesn’t matter if our pilgrimage takes us to Chartres Cathedral or a walk along the Charles River, or the beach at Cape Cod, walking can be an ‘inner-venture,’ a journey of the Spirit we are making towards a deeper connection to God, a journey that can fill us with a sense of awe, wonder and child-like interest in all we meet along the way.
What if you can’t walk, you might ask. At Plum Village where Thich Nhat Hanh teaches walking meditation, he has people in wheel chairs sit and choose a walker to intensely watch as they deepen their own breathing. After about twenty minutes of this most people discover that they can do walking meditation without even leaving their chairs. I remember walking a friend in his wheel chair to the library one day, and we both marveled at all we noticed along the way.
So I’d like to do a little experiment today, taking you on a virtual walking meditation along some of the walks I’ve taken since coming to New England. I invite you to walk it this morning from your chairs. And then find time this summer to take some walks on your own, or with family and friends, silently watching for the little altars around you.
As Thich Nhat Hanh says: “The miracle is not walking on water but on the earth.” And as our psalmist says today:
The revelation of God is whole
and pulls our lives together.
The signposts of God are clear
and point out the right road.
The life-maps of God are right,
showing the way to joy.
The directions of God are plain
and easy on the eyes.
Let’s see what God has to reveal to us today.