By Michelle Francl-Donnay
Make me know the way I should walk: to you I lift up my soul. – Ps. 143:8b
Over lunch last week my friend Lisa confided that she’s found driving to be a good time for meditating. “I need something just enough to keep my body busy.” And besides, with three daughters in two schools and voice, dance and music lessons, Lisa spends a lot of time behind the wheel.
Lisa is not the only person I know who finds God while on the move. When I posed a question about prayer posture to my friends on Facebook a few weeks ago, the answers came flying. The most popular way to pray? “Walking?” “Walk!” “What she said – walk!”
I think of stillness being the first step in prayer. To begin you kneel, or sit or stand. Yet I often find a walk to be sacred time, a practice that leads me to an interior stillness even as my feet take me up and down the hills of Haverford. There is a measured, rhythmic nature to this prayer for me and perhaps an antidote for a touch of restlessness as well. Like Lisa, I wonder if I move my body to keep my mind from fidgeting.
The psalmist suggests that lessons in walking are what we are to seek from God, and like riding a bike or pitching a baseball, the way to learn is to practice. So perhaps it’s not surprising that so many people – myself included – pray on their feet.
I know that I often walk in search of clarity. Solvitur ambulando, an aphorism often attributed to St. Jerome, is advice I put into practice regularly: to solve a problem, walk around. When I’m struggling with a piece to write, or suffering an overdose of teen-age angst, I grab my sneakers and circle the block once or twice. A change of exterior scene often changes my interior outlook.
The early desert fathers also saw a salutary role for walking in prayer, particularly when a monk felt troubled or unable to pray. “Force yourself to get to your feet and walk up and down in your cell,” advised Joseph the Visionary, an eighth century convert to Christianity and mystic. When we find ourselves unable to express in word or thought our desire to walk with God, the remedy seems to be to simply stand up and walk regardless, in the hope that God will join us.
Theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., reminds us that the first description of Christians in the Acts of the Apostles was “those who belong to the way.” To move, to walk, he notes in his essay “Everyday Things,” is to acknowledge that we have here on earth no fixed home. “We are really pilgrims, wanderers between two worlds.” Not only are we in search of God on our walks, but our God-made-flesh seeks us out, moving between those two worlds, and carrying us along.
Just as stillness in prayer makes manifest a readiness to hear God that I cannot express verbally, I suspect more than anything else my walks articulate a certain restlessness of spirit and a deep desire to reach that end for which I was created. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord,” said St. Augustine. Both my soul – and my soles – would agree.
My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has its inner light, even from a distance –
and changes us, even if we do not reach it…
– From “A Walk” by Rainer Maria Rilke
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.