Jan 17, 2015

Why Walk?

A question I've been asked quite often on my pilgrimage is why I don't  just take a bus or drive. My usual response is that when I'm walking I can experience the world around me: the sights, sounds, and smells of the natural world, the sensation of the warm sun or cold wind on my face, even the textures of the path I'm walking. (A thick carpet of pine needles under foot feels very different from a gravel path or a snow covered road.) Most people in the West go to great lengths to insulate themselves from the outdoors, but walking gives me a deeper connection to creation.

This answer satisfies most people, but occasionally I'm told I could roll down the car window ‎and get most of the same with much more comfort. While that's true, it would also mean that we would not be having the conversation at all. Instead of speeding past the the village, I'd been free to stop in for a coffee in the café.

These human connections are what have given me the most joy in my pilgrimage so far. There have been moments of exultation as I survey the landscape from the heights or watch as the setting sun colours the surrounding peaks orange, red, and purple, but it's the spontaneous conversations that have meant the most to me. I've reported some of those, but there are many more which will likely stay in my notebook. I just don't have the time to write everything up when I'm walking for eight or more hours each day, and then have to find food and shelter for the night.

Another type of connection I've become aware of is with my own body. Walking is inescapably a physical activity. There are days when it is effortless, and walking feels more like flying, but even the assorted aches and weariness I experience serve to emphasise the fact that I am not simply an ambulatory computer. ‎My pace is affected by the slope, my weariness, the wind, and other factors. This in turn influences my breathing and pulse, which provides feedback for my pace. When faced with a steep slope, I automatically slow right down and begin moderating my breathing in order to maintain a steady, if slow, progress.

This post is itself proof of another type of connection I have been able to enjoy. Although I've met some pilgrims who choose to listen to music while they're walking, I prefer to use the hours of solitude to pursue stray thoughts. Sometimes they're pure whimsy, but occasionally I'm able to follow an idea through to its logical conclusion. One very wise man once told his students that in ancient Greece, philosophy was a pastime for the idle rich, since everyone else was too busy earning a living to have the time to think deeply. At the time I was working midnight shifts at a gas station, and I pointed out that people at the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum also had that kind of time. Walking for a third or more of each day doesn't mean that I'm deep in thought the whole time, but it does create room for it.

Yet another type of connection my journey has allowed me to make is the historical and cultural. I was in the fifth grade when I first started reading about the Roman Empire, and while it never became a consuming passion, I was fascinated by the world they inhabited. Had I chosen to avoid Italy and instead walked through central Europe and then down into the Balkans, I'd have had more than enough time to enjoy northern Greece. Instead, I'll need to leave this part of the world within the week due to my visa situation, but it was worth it. (I could have spent my entire 90 days in Rome itself and still have left with regrets about what I didn't get to see.) Paris, Turin, Milan, Siena, Ohrid, Thessaloniki, Sofia, Istanbul, and of course Jerusalem -- all of these are world class cities with art, culture, history. The line between pilgrim and tourist can get blurry at times, but this update is about connections. 

It is ironic that, in order for me to make (or strengthen) these connections, I have disconnected myself from my home, my family, my parish, my culture, and my language. As a pilgrim, I usually sleep in a different city each night, and my meals are either shared with strangers or eaten alone.‎ I usually manage to get online each day, but it's very different from my hyperconnected cyberpresence at home. And the really funny thing is, it's not necessary to leave home in order to connect the way I have. (Except for the cultural - there are some things the internet just can't deliver. But there are museums and art galleries.) All it takes is mindfulness: an awareness of my surroundings and my body, and the recognition that every person I encounter offers a new world of wisdom and experience and perspective. The author Jim Forest, in summarising Dorothy Day's view of pilgrimage, wrote, "every day of one's life and all that happened along the way, planned or unexpected, were segments of a heavenward pilgrimage, so long as the guiding principle was to live the gospel and to discover Christ in those whom one encountered."

It is not necessary to travel in order to be a pilgrim, and it's quite possible to travel great distances and remain nothing but a tourist. I have spent years preparing for this journey, but anyone reading these words can become a pilgrim within their daily routines. Again quoting Jim Forest, in his book Roads to Emmaus. 

"If you give yourself the time and freedom, and allowing sea or air passage of any oceans in the way, you can walk to Santiago de Compostela or even to Jerusalem. But if such major stretches are out of reach because of other commitments, you can be on pilgrimage in your own small patch of the world. Part of the work of a pilgrim is to be surprised. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, "I am astonished at the people who are not astonished." While being in unfamiliar places may make it easier to be surprised, you can be surprised right where you are. No matter how many times you have walked around the same block, there is always something or someone new to see, some detail previously not noticed. To pay attention to passing faces is a school of meditation and prayer."

A few days ago, I spotted some (English) graffiti in a bus stop just outside a small Greek village. Don't be content with merely existing. Start living! And the best way to do this is to pay attention to the people and the world around you. 

And perhaps, while attending to the presence of others, you may become aware of the Other‎, that still small voice of God. I haven't had any major epiphanies, but there have been small moments of grace, too many to enumerate. My prayer for this pilgrimage of mine is that it will draw me closer to Christ. And that is also something that can occur without leaving home.

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