Walking as a Focal Practice

Q&A with Arthur Paul Boers

by John Shorb

Arthur Paul Boers is author of The Way Is Made by Walking and Our Work, God’s World published by the Church Health. He is a professor at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Ontario and a Benedictine Oblate – a person who is outside a monastery but commits to living Benedictine values. Church Health Reader spoke with him about walking, spirituality and contemporary culture.

John Shorb: When did you first become interested in walking as a spiritual discipline?

Arthur Paul Boers: When I was a student, I was burned out and would cope by going for long walks. I was never interested in long distance walking or hiking – just 40 minute walks here and there. About nine years ago, I was still living in Ontario and I read an article in the local newspaper about a group of women who hiked the Bruce Trail. It is 500 miles long and they walked it on a part time basis. I thought it was interesting – and that I could do it: I could take days off and walk.

I was not sure exactly why I was doing it. But while I walked, things were happening to me. It was a physical challenge, but I also started to experience time differently. I saw geography differently. I saw distance differently. I noticed that when I walked things were going on with me that usually happened when I was on retreat. When I go to the monastery for retreat, I start to relax quickly. It gave me the courage – and conviction – to re-evaluate what was going on in my life, reprioritize what was most important to me, and re-enter life in a more balanced way. Long distance walking is a lot like retreats – with the added benefit of going outdoors, seeing nature. This was good for the environment and good for me physically.

Walking is a spiritual discipline. When I realized this, I sat there for about ten minutes thinking about how it’s too bad Christians don’t understand that. Then I realized that we have known that at points in Christian history – the practice of pilgrimage. Once I realized that it was a spiritual practice, I knew I had to try a physical pilgrimage. I had to go on the preeminent pilgrimage: the Camino de Santiago. In Medieval times the three most important pilgrimage destinations were: Jerusalem, Rome and the Camino de Santiago. In 2005, 95,000 people walked it and this year they expect 250,000. This route is set up well and has a rich history and tradition.

You write about walking as a healing practice. Have you encountered instances of healing either on the Camino or elsewhere?

One thing that fascinates me is why so many people are interested in this Camino de Santiago. Why are so many people going on it? A lot of them are not Christians – they call themselves spiritual, but not religious. Our culture gets more and more disembodied: we center around gadgets and technology. Walking a pilgrimage is a discipline that engages us completely. As I walked, I was using my entire body – both the right and left sides, so both sides of the brain were engaged and stimulated. When we use our body and our mind, our imagination is engaged and we become more aware of our senses. It is a great way to reflect and remember.

As I walked, one discipline I practiced was reviewing my life. As the memories came forward, I prayed and tried to understand what God wanted me to notice. I had this deep sense of God’s providence and care throughout my life. I saw the grief and hardship in my family’s lives and I saw God’s movement in the midst of that pain. I thought about a quote from the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart who says, “Whatever happens to you is the best possible thing for your salvation.” God’s providence was at work, even in the midst of circumstances I would not have chosen.

Many people that I encountered along the way were in a transitional crisis. They had lost a job, a relationship had fallen apart, somebody important to them was sick or had died or they had dealt with a serious illness themselves. A lot of people that I spoke with struggled with meaningfulness in their lives. Walking was a way to revaluate their priorities and make commitments about other ways to live. That was a kind of healing.

You talked about how we have become disembodied as a culture. How do you see walking or other things bringing us out of that?

Albert Borgmann is a philosopher at the University of Montana and he has a term he uses: focal. Things or realities that are focal have three qualities. First, they have a commanding presence – they remind us that there are realities bigger than us, that demand loyalty from us and fill us with awe and inspire us. Second, they have a meaningful continuity with other realities – engaging in a focal thing or practice is going to connect you with a web of relationships in many different directions. Third, focal reality has a centering orienting power – it reminds us of our deepest and most important priorities.

As I hiked the Bruce Trail and the Camino, all these things happened. I was aware of God’s majesty, providence and creation. Pilgrimage connects me with those who built the trails, maintained the trails, kept the trails and connected me with other pilgrims who were walking at the time. It connected me to God and to Christian traditions – the pilgrims who had walked centuries ahead of me. It had such an orienting power because it directed my attention to the kingdom and reign of God. I thought about what it would mean to live my out values as a disciple of Jesus more carefully. That call came to me both in hiking and in pilgrimage.

My suspicion is the reason the Camino is so popular is because there are fewer focal places out there. People talk about our culture as geography of nowhere and no places. All our towns and cities are beginning to look alike. Our cities’ landscapes look like each other, dominated by big box stores, strip malls and chain restaurants. We don’t have architecture that is different or inspires us. Instead of preparing a meal, we heat one up in the microwave. More and more we are eating on our own and in a hurry.

My wish is that Christians would speak up about this and model other ways of living. Sunday morning worship is one of the few places where focal practices are offered on a regular basis across the generations. Christians exercise hospitality, they sing, they read scripture, they preach and they give testimony. One of the many reasons why worship is important is that it is because it is one of the few places in our culture now where focal practices are regularly engaged and practiced.

Considering the demands of culture and the following isolation, what is the effect on clergy? What would you say to a young clergy person?

We all live in a culture where people feel stressed and pulled in too many directions. There is this prevailing sense that we are too busy. In a culture where people are stressed, overwhelmed and have trouble living up to their own priorities, clergy can model for other people a way of living that is centered on God’s priorities.

That is what Sabbath means. There is time for the things that count. There is time for work, time for rest and time for worship. If pastors do not model this, then our congregations will not know how to live accordingly. I was a pastor and I know it is easy for us to be caught up in busyness and of justify our existence based on how many things we can check off on our lists. There is kind of works righteousness in there that is very dangerous. It is dangerous to our souls and it does not help our people.

There are always going to be too many things for us to handle. We are always going to try to squeeze things in. So we have to figure out what is important, make those central and let the other things fall in their place around it.

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