Is there a spirituality of walking? I don’t know. There must be. There is a spirituality of most things and activities. But I can only share my own experience.
I had thought that walking the pilgrim path would be the occasion of clear thinking, profound thoughts, great spiritual insights. The reality is that my mind is as erratic as ever. Since I do not have the demands of work to focus my attention on this or that particular task, my mind is free to roam wherever it will. And roam it does!!! I sometimes think that it would be wonderful if the physical walking were as easy and free-ranging as the mental roaming!!!
Sometimes I think of family, parents, siblings, nephews and nieces, uncles and aunts. I remember incidents, events and occasions. I continue to grieve for my brother John at moments when personal memories surface, allowing grief to leech its necessary way through me. Not so intense now, the roller coaster of the first weeks having settled to a more undulating pace. It is good to have the time and space to let the grieving happen.
Sometimes I think of other relatives and friends, colleagues, past and present – memories, times shared, tasks accomplished, challenges ahead, wondering about them, where they are now, what they are doing …
Rarely do I think about work. Not surprisingly, I am on sabbatical, so I am not facing the daily demands, deadlines and challenges that normally shape my working days, sometimes for 16 or more hours a day! So it is great to have a break from those demands.
Sometimes my focus is simply on the path ahead, on putting one foot in front of the other, looking ahead and choosing the best place for the next step: on a wet track, avoiding the pothole full of water; on a muddy path, finding the stable ground where my foot will not get stuck in the mud or slip; on a stony path, avoiding the pebble or stone that is loose or will be a stumbling block, avoiding the sharp edge that will be painful to walk on; on a roadway, keeping to the edge so as not to be at risk from or a hazard to passing traffic.
Sometimes, I enjoy the surroundings, the scenery, the flowers, the trees, the farms, the orchards, the birdsong ….
Sometimes I am thinking about what to write in this blog, editing and composing it in my mind!
Sometimes I am looking out for the camino arrows/markers, to find which way to go at an intersection or junction, or to confirm that I am on the right path.
Sometimes my eye is on the far horizon, which makes me feel puny, that I have such a long way to go, that it is hours more walking ….
Other times I look down, and the horizon shrinks to the size of what can be seen within my immediate environs, my world circumscribed by the brim of my hat! Then I become a colossus, striding across my seen world, each step advancing a fifth or a quarter of the ever-receding horizon under my hat!
While looking down gives me a sense of progress, looking up helps me to see where I am going, and looking out for the camino signs shows me where to go and how to get there, and looking around to nature raises my spirits and my energy for the walking – so I need to do all four, look down, look up, look out, look around.
But often times, my mind simply goes blank, no thoughts, no ideas, no prayers, nothing in particular, just the momentum of walking, the rhythm of the movement, the legs thrusting forward one after another, matched by the rhythm of the walking poles, their click on the ground, the monotony of putting one foot in front of the other – the extra effort and concentration needed at intersections and forks in the road and negotiating changing terrain, especially the extra effort of walking up inclines, all demand attention in their own right – but the ordinary, regular walking, hour after hour, is simply that, walking. It becomes mindless. It is “mesmerising”. It becomes metronomic.
I have found myself counting the steps, the mind wanting somehow to quantify the passage of place/time, the numbers of no real account, not measured from one point to another, but simply as a measure, putting a number on the otherwise metronomic, mesmerizing, mindlessness of the exercise.
Since the numbers are meaningless, I have decided on an alternative. Instead of counting, I use a mantra, making it a spiritual exercise. The mantra I have found most useful is the Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus) word (or two words) maranatha.. It is found in 1 Corinthians 16:22 and means “Come, Lord Jesus”. Using this word as a mantra has been popularised in recent times through the meditation movement by John Main OSB and his successor Lawrence Freeman OSB. The practice of the mantra is founded on the ancient monastic teaching of St Cassian.
As I walk, I try to practise this spiritual discipline of the mantra. I sound the four syllables of equal value in synchronisation with my walking: ma (right foot/left pole), ra (left foot/right pole), na (right foot/left pole), tha (left foot/right pole).
So I walk, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, …
The theory of the mantra is that it is not we who pray, but the Holy Spirit who prays in us, calling out “Abba, Father” (see Rom 8:16, Gal 4:6). I like the theory. I have never been a good pray-er! I like the idea that the Holy Spirit prays in me.
The mantra, then, is just a device, to claim the mind, to hold the mind’s attention, to still the mind (I once heard a Buddhist monk describe it as the “monkey mind” chattering about so many things, much as I have described above!), so as to allow the Spirit to do its work of praying and shaping us into the sons and daughters of God. The repetition of the mantra cultivates the mind, going back and forth, abrading, sandpapering, polishing, so allowing the one who recites it to be shaped, enlivened, animated and made fruitful in the Spirit.
So I walk across Spain, the mantra carving a way into my mind, heart, body, and soul, inviting the Spirit and the Word to come more deeply into my life, or more precisely – since I am made in and through them from my mother’s womb (as the Prophet Jeremiah says), and since I am claimed by Christ in Baptism, anointed by the Spirit in confirmation, conformed to Christ the Priest in ordination – it is allowing the Spirit and the Word to come out from within me, to emerge from me, so that I am realising (in both senses of the word, as in “cognitive awareness” and also as “making real”) who I already am, becoming who I already am.
Sometimes my mind still wanders to other things (as above). That is fine, especially if they are useful thoughts, but if they are no substance, then I simply return to the mantra, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ….
Sometimes I catch myself again counting numbers, so I simply resume the mantra, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ….
Initially it is strange, awkward, deliberately intentional, sounding the syllables in time with the walking …
But after a time, they synchronise, and the mantra simply becomes part of my walking, part of the rhythm. The walking drives the mantra. The walking carries the mantra, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ….
Sometimes it is the other way round, the mantra drives the walking, especially at the tougher times, when climbing a long ascent, or towards the end of a long day, when I am tired, then I use the mantra to maintain the rhythm of the walking, the mantra drives the walking. That is when the mantra carries me: ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ….
So that is my spirituality of walking. It is what I am trying to do, every day, for as often as I can during the day, making the daily walking into a true pilgrimage, not just from day’s starting point to day’s destination, but a god-wards directed journey, my whole being seeking deeper surrender to God’s ways. Come, Lord Jesus, into my mind, my heart, my body, my soul, my feelings, my relationships, my world: ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ma-ra-na-tha, ….