Sometimes We Fall

Yesterday Dave and I spent three hours hiking at Lebanon Hills Regional Park, one of my favorite parks within a 30 minute drive from where we now live. Largely dirt paths through forested areas and, once we put some distance between ourselves and the trailhead, very quiet except for the birds in the trees and the ducks on the lake.

Walking over some wet leaves on the path, I tripped over a hidden tree root. Unable to catch my balance, I went sprawling on the ground, my right forearm and hip taking the brunt of the fall. The scrape on my forearm is not a pretty sight. We had water to clean the worst of the debris from the area, but no first aid supplies with us. (And, of course, I fell at the point furthest from the trail head, the point at which the way from which we came and the return route were about equidistant.) It only stung at first, but within a half mile the sting turned to stiffness and pain.

We can’t stop all our falls. It is true I might have been able to break the fall had I been using my walking poles, but maybe not: two of my three falls on the Camino occurred while I was walking with poles. It is true that mindfulness of our surroundings minimizes the likeliness that we will fall, but I was paying pretty careful attention to the path. Sometimes, no matter how careful and mindful we are, we will fall.

The only question is how do we respond to our falls, physical or otherwise. We can be annoyed with ourselves or the situation. We can feel sorry for ourselves. Or we can pick ourselves up, wipe ourselves off, and keep walking.

We enjoyed the rest of the hike yesterday.

It is true that some of our falls are a lot more serious than a stumble in the park, no matter how much pain that causes. But it is also true that it is always our choice how to respond to our falls.

First Hike of the Season

Yesterday was the first weekend day this year that I was in town, I had a clear morning calendar and the weather was warm and sunny. And that could only mean one thing: my first hike of the season. I dusted off my hiking shoes (the Merrill’s that took me across Spain on my Camino), picked up my friend Dan, and off we went to Fort Snelling State Park.

This is nothing new to people who have been following this blog over the years, but there is little else that is as good for my soul as hiking. It grounds me (no pun intended) in a way nothing else does.

Yesterday we saw an eagle in flight and a deer running through the woods. We stood on a bridge with our eyes closed just listening to the flow of the water underneath. We talked some and walked silently for part of the time. We laughed as we hopscotched our way through the muddy or washed out portions of the path (having ignored the sign that said the Pike Island part of the trail system in the park was closed). And I could feel my body thanking me, especially my legs, which truly were meant for walking. We were only out for about three hours, but it was glorious.

We can experience God everywhere – in the city, in the suburbs, in shopping malls, at the workplace, in our homes and in the homes of our friends. But there is something special about being with God in nature.

I’m planning on plenty of hikes in the coming weeks and months. I hope you get out for some yourself.

Just Walking

There is a piece in the current issue of America Magazine titled The Walking Cure. In it, Michael Rossmann, S.J., talks about the benefits of walking, such as our increased openness to pleasant surprises and simple beauties we would easily miss if we were driving, the opportunities to engage in conversation with others, and the way it puts us in a more relaxed state.

I read the piece with pleasure because walking is a favorite pastime of mine. I love long hikes in the woods, but also afternoon or early evening walks in a nearby park or just around my neighborhood. Apart from the physical exercise, and the part my daily walks play in my training for the Camino I will walk this fall, walking clears my mind, slows me down and allow me to be mindful.

I also resonate with Rossmann’s discussion of walking and productivity. He writes

More than this, walking like prayer, makes me feel more like a human being, rather than a human doing. Sure, I could travel in a way that is far faster or spend my time producing more, but I often feel more liberated when I realize that I don’t always have to produce. I don’t always have to rush form place to place. I slowly learn with each step that life is not about efficiency or productivity.

Rossmann observes that people sometimes ask him where he is going during his evening walks, and seem perplexed when he responds, “I’m just walking.” When I read that, I was reminded of my time in Bali many years ago. In Indonesia, “jalan, jalan” – just walking – is a common evening pastime. The people in Indonesia see nothing at all perplexing about it.

It would be good if more people here could enjoy just walking, doing nothing but appreciating God’s creation.

Touching Holy Ground

If I had my druthers, I’d never wear shoes, but would walk barefoot all of the time. Putting on my shoes is the last thing I do before leaving the house and taking them off is the first thing I do when I walk in the door.

I especially like walking barefoot outside – whether it be on dirt or grass, or even the pavement. I love feeling the heat of the sun on the black pavement, and, although this isn’t the time of year for walking outside barefoot, I confess I took advantage of the relatively warm days we’ve been having to run out for the mail barefoot the other day. There is something about feeling the ground beneath my feet that I love – it makes me feel connected with everything around me.

Given my love for the feel of the ground beneath my feet, I was delighted to read the following passage from Brother David Steindl-Rast’s Common Sense Spiriuality. Leave it to Brother David to turn walking barefoot into sacrament:

There is only one condition for seeing life sacramentally: “Take off your shoes!” Realize that the ground on which we stand is holy ground. The act of taking off our shoes is a gesture of thanksgiving, and it is through thanksgiving that we enter into sacramental life. We shouldn’t forget the grace received in going barefoot either. Going barefoot actually helps. There is no more immediate way of getting in touch with reality than direct physical contact: to feel the difference between walking on sand, on grass, on smooth granite warmed by the sun, on the forest floor; to let the pebbles hurt us for a while; to squeeze the mud between our toes. There are so many ways of gratefully touching God’s healing power through the earth. Whenever we take off the dullness of being-used-to it, of taking things for granted, life in all its freshness touches us and we see that all life is sacramental. If we could measure our aliveness, surely it is the degree to which we are in touch with the Holy One as the inexhaustible fire in the midst of all things.

So take of your shoes and gratefully touch the ground, touching God’s healing power through the earth.

To Feel the Earth Under My Feet

There was a book I read in high school. I remember neither the title nor the author, but there is one line in it that I always remembered. The author shared his response to the question often put to him about why he walked. His response was: I walk to feel the earth beneath my feet.

I thought of that line this afternoon. One of the first things we did after settling into our room in a bed and breakfast in Ely, Minnesota was to tak a short hike on one of the trails on the B&B’s property. As we began the hike, we walked through an area of white pines. Then the trees changed. Before my eyes even registered the change or my nose picked up the new scent, my feet knew we had passed into an area of pine trees.

Like the author of the book whose name I can’t remember, I love walking. And his explanation is as good as any others I’ve been able to come up with. I love to feel the earth beneath my feet.

There are few things I love more than walking in a pine forest and what I love most about walking in pine forests is the feel of the bed of pine needles under my feet. It is hard to put into words the quiet softness of the feeling. It comforts me and it slows me down. My foot – even shod – makes contact with the needles and I instinctively stop, close my eyes and breathe deeply, savoring the moment.

And I smile, and say: Thank you God, for letting me feel the earth under my feet. And thank you especially for pine forests and the bed they make for my feet to walk on.

Walking with Awareness

We take so many things for granted. The air we breathe. The sights and sounds around us as we walk through our day. We’re so used to them being there that we don’t even think about them…or the gift that they are.

At least here in the Twin Cities, this is a good time of year for taking walks (not too hot, not too cold, just right). And so I encourage you, as I often encourage retreatants, to take some time engaging in a walk of conscious awareness of your sense experiences. The instructions I generally give retreatants are taken from A Walk of Thanksgiving and Praise, by Sr. Thelma Hall, RC.

Sr. Thelma writes, that “[s]ome of God’s richest gifts to us we tend to accept as “standard equipment” somehow rightfully ours as fully equipped human beings. It may prove a revelation to consciously cancel this presumption in an experience we call ‘A Walk of Thanksgiving and Praise,’ and rediscover, under the plenitude of God’s goodness to us the unique gifts of love He has made to us, in each of our 5 senses.”

She suggests a walk of about half an hour. To be conscious of the time as a time of prayer, she instructs one to begin the walk as one would begin any prayer period, taking time to be aware of God’s presence.

As you begin your walk, she encourages you to “take a deep breath of fresh air, and reflect upon how rarely you consider it to be the sustainer of your life, day and night, the unceasing providence of God whose love holds you in existence, and is continually creating you.”

Then, as you walk, spend time consciously experiencing the use of each of your senses, starting with the sense of sight. “Use your vision to revel in, caress, enjoy, discern: colour, shape, depth, texture, movement, etc. in everything around you. Reflect upon all that sight has contributed to your life experience to enrich it; beauty, non-verbal communication with others, knowledge through reading and observation, protection, happiness, pleasure, etc. Try to realise, how different your life, and you would be, had you been born without this sense gift, or had lost it. Recognising in all these reflections the loving gift of God, express ALOUD to Him your thanksgiving and praise.”

After sight, engage in a similar conscious process with the sense of hearing. “Stop for a while and really LISTEN, even to the seeming silence, in all reality teeming with sounds. Again, reflect upon all this sense of hearing has contributed to your life experience to enrich it, the sound of human voices, music etc. and how different your life and you would be without it. Recognising in these reflections another loving and personal gift of God, express ALOUD to Him your thanksgiving and praise.”

And then engage in the same process for touch…taste…smell. Finally, conclude your walk by expressing thanksgiving and praise to God for all of these wonderful gifts that we tend so often to ignore.

Enjoy!