A long time ago now, I was on an overnight retreat and, to my surprise, I found myself left alone for the night, the only guest in the retreat house. Initially, this was a bit scary.
Praying with my body
I was reading a book by Tilden Edwards who suggested my prayer might be better focused if I emulated King David and danced before the Lord. Even now I can remember the horror this thought aroused in me. The house was empty and I was still afraid some great “other” would see me, if I followed Edwards’ advice, and mock me, just like David’s wife had. I later learned just how deeply that mocker was installed in me and how little assistance he needed to lock me up.
But I finally could not let it go; the suggestion was not going away. My logic was something like, “You’ve already gone on retreat, which seems absurd enough to most people. What prevents you from following Edwards’ direction?” So I opened up the creaky door to my room and got out into the hall in my underwear, half expecting a nun to burst in as I tentatively took my first few steps into a body-aware prayer. I still remember how it felt to consciously let my body move up and down the hall and into the presence of Jesus along with my mind and heart. I could feel my strength being applied to expressing my praise. I slowly lost my self-consciousness and became conscious of the Holy Spirit.
But even more, I simply did something with my body. I did not just think about doing it or imagine doing it and count that as doing it. When the Ark was returned to Jerusalem, David whipped off his kingly robes and humbly expressed his praise for everyone to see. He, and the rest of us, never forgot it. The Bible writers were honest enough to include the reaction we most fear in the middle of the story. Disdain, from the outside or in, is often a hurdle we need to overcome to pray at all. David’s own wife looked down on him because he was so “out there.”
The joy of walking
I like dancing. But I rarely feel moved to make it part of my prayer. I do a lot of singing. I like to lift my arms and do other things with my hands when I worship and pray. Sometimes I dance. But I’m more of a walker. This past month I experienced some deep joy as I walked.
Sometimes a Christian client and I are doing psychotherapy together and it is difficult to imagine how they are going to break the patterns of their anxiety or depression. They think they need to think better and it just is not working. Their life and their prayer have a set pattern; nothing new can happen, but things are just not working anymore. Sometimes I suggest they take a walk and spend some time with God, maybe even talk, certainly listen, but mostly just let their body be in the Lord’s presence and see what happens. Sometimes they try it. During their stressful day, they just get up and walk around the block. Instead of dashing home, they go over to the Schuylkill and let the river help them.
When we were following Paul around Greece last year, it dawned on me again that he walked from Philippi to Thessaloniki. Most of the people in the Bible are using their own two feet to get anywhere they go. They don’t jump into the car at the last possible moment to make it to the Sunday meeting, fruitlessly dodge potholes, get undone by unexpected traffic, miss the last convenient parking spot and fastwalk into the meeting, panting for the first few minutes. They have lots of time to be slow. If I walked to my Sunday meeting it would take about an hour and a half. If I walked the route like a pilgrimage to a holy site, it might end up being a supercharged experience I never forgot. But even if I was just taking my time and using my body, I would be more likely to meet God.
My walking experience in Assisi
This year, I was privileged to take the retreat of a lifetime in Assisi. I decided to devote my days to walking. I was a pilgrim visiting sites that were holy to me. But, more important (and in the spirit of Francis of Assisi), I was getting my feet on the ground, going slow enough to listen for birds, look for flowers and experience my whole self in God’s presence: heart, soul, mind and strength. It was wonderful. Every day I had a destination in mind. I put on my sandals and launched out on a route I’d never taken to places I had never fully explored. I do not have a “favorite” day. But I keep telling the story of walking to Porziuncola. So let me see if that inspires you to learn the joys of prayer walking.
I could see that going from my room at the top of the hill town of Assisi way down into the valley below was going to be a challenge. The dome of Santa Maria degli Angeli looms large in the valley landscape and it looks like it is far away. Later Franciscans created a huge, baroque pilgrim-processing center that dwarfs the little chapel which Francis was given as his first official rebuilding project. It is where he lived and died, and it is still the center of the Franciscan world. I was excited to get going; a prayer walk is like a small retreat, a vacation trip from normality to greater awareness.
I enjoyed the brick road I discovered had been built for just such a walk. Along the way I found a little chapel. I stopped in, as most chapel owners in Italy hope people will do — they leave the doors open. I found myself alone. As I knelt and prayed, an old song popped into my head: “See this bread, take and eat and live in me.” I sang it out loud and enjoyed the sound of it echoing in the room. When I arrived at Porziuncola, I was surprised to see a mass underway in the little chapel. As soon as I got to the door, the priest held up the wafer and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” A jolt like electricity pulsed through me and I made my way to the altar to receive the wafer. More so, I saw Jesus in the bread, in the place and in me. Being in the presence of the Lord is wonderful.
Knowing that I am in God’s presence all the time is great. Putting my feet on the ground and feeling it with all my being is even better. Some people have wondered why I would be so bold as to “break the rules” and take communion as a non-Catholic. I tell them that I was acting in the spirit of Francis, who never met a rule he could not subvert and redeem. As it turns out, I also acted under the guidance of Pope Francis, who made a bold statement on his way back from Romania on June 2: “During the press conference Francis went further. As he explained on the plane, ‘there is already Christian unity,’ according to the National Catholic Reporter. ‘Let’s not wait for the theologians to come to agreement on the Eucharist.’” Mostly, I was moving where my pilgrimage had taken me.
So why don’t you take a walk with Jesus? Maybe the thought embarrasses you. I can relate to that. Maybe it will take too much time. I can understand that, too. Maybe you just don’t think of yourself as a prayer-walker kind of person and you fear what people would say and how it would feel if you became one. But what will happen if Jesus invites you to walk with him and you don’t go? In fact, life is a pilgrimage. We don’t really know where we are going. We need Jesus beside us to get anywhere at all. Acting like that is true when I pray has truly deepened my prayer.