Walking. Breathing. Praying.
We’ve had very little rain where I live. The grass is crunchy and dry. Leaves are drying on the trees and falling off in the wind. But last night a rain storm was blowing in. After a quick supper I headed out for a second round of my daily walks. I hoped to complete a one mile walk around the neighborhood before the rain started. I donned my trusty lightweight waterproof rain jacket and headed out. The air was thick, humid, but cooling down from another hot day. Cool enough that the jacket was just right.
I bought this waterproof rain jacket in 2020 for a sabbatical trip I was planning that included an eight-day retreat near Belfast, Ireland. I anticipated chilly damp weather and a lot of walking, as described in the travel guide for the retreat. The COVID pandemic conditions caused that retreat to be cancelled - twice in 2020 and once in 2021. Finally, it was to take place in August 2022. In July I flew to Scotland, ahead of the retreat in Ireland, where I spent five days walking around Edinburgh and Glasgow. I visited all the gorgeous places in those two cities, including heading south to Galston, in the Ayrshire region, where my ancestors are from. I walked and walked, nearly 20,000 steps each day. I wandered through one ancient church and then another, struck by their beauty and history. In each church I stopped and prayed and just stood still, as if I could feel all the prayers ever prayed in that church. Prayers through the ages echoing in the silence and vibrating in the light filtering through the stained-glass windows. Prayers of hope, fear, sorrow, joy. I lit candles and prayed for the people I know who are suffering from one thing or another. Every day I put on that rain jacket and my waterproof walking shoes and walked and prayed and tried to be present to the moment. More than memories, I wanted to embody the experience.
The day I was to leave for Ireland I had to take a COVID test, just to be sure I would arrive healthy. The result was Positive. I was stunned. I felt fine, no symptoms. It was ironic that COVID once again would prevent me from going! I had to cancel my trip to Ireland, arrange to stay in the hotel in Glasgow for five more days, and find a place to get a medical test to confirm the home test. I did all of that, and then went for a walk. Three of the five days of my COVID isolation I went for long walks. I stayed outside and away from people. I walked for my sanity and sorrow at missing this long-awaited retreat in Ireland. I walked for my lungs and my respiratory system as if I could walk the virus out of my system. I walked to pass the time. My hotel room was small and my view out the window was a parking garage, although I could see the sky as well. And, I could hear the traffic, I was near the Buchannan Bus station in Glasgow. I walked to places that were quiet. An hour to and from the botanical gardens, another hour to the Kelvingrove museum grounds, and another day an hour long walk to and from the Necropolis. Three hours of walking each of those days, just to pass the time. And pray. And be present. Both last night, and while in Scotland, I walked in a steady, soft drizzle, my hair blowing all around me, the jacket keeping me dry.
Over the years, whenever I am stuck while writing a sermon, or anxious about some meeting, or stressed out following a meeting, I go for a walk. Walking is a form of prayer for me. People who meditate regularly describe walking meditation – a mindfulness walk where one pays (excruciating, I imagine) attention to each step: lifting my foot, moving my leg, placing my foot, arm moving in rhythm, breath in, breath out. Slow, slow walking. I like to think that I am practicing walking meditation, but it’s not that level of observing my body. I do notice my breath, breathing in and out. Especially when I had COVID, which was followed by a long lingering cough and some breathlessness, my breathing was more noticeable, difficult. Yet walking is a prayer practice for me. In this prayer time I observe my thoughts and often work through something that I am stuck on, insights flow through my steps and my breath. I always feel better after I have taken a walk. My body feels more relaxed and my mind is calmer. And now I think that I am embodying aspects of all of the walks I took during my sabbatical time. Perhaps I now carry with me traces of all those prayers?
After five days of COVID isolation I had a negative COVID test and time to fill before I could finish my trip in Paris, where my husband and I planned to spend our wedding anniversary. I took the train to Oban where I stayed for two nights and wandered around that small tourist town on the west coast of Scotland. I took the ferry/bus/ferry to Iona and spent a day walking
that small island, the ancient home of St. Columba. I walked the nunnery, built in the 13th century to house women of faith, who lived and worshiped and prayed. The nunnery is now ruins, but through the ruins, flowers grow. Standing on the nunnery grounds, amidst the falling buildings and blooming flowers, my eyes filled with tears, my heart swelled. A thin place. I walked the cemetery and the Abbey and the roads around the island. I took in the fresh air. Iona got into me. I feel it in my being, even now when I walk the neighborhoods of the town I live in.
Walking. Prayer. Breathing in and out. Body moving. Mind calming. Walking. Prayer.
|Nunnery on Iona, rain jacket and wind-tossed hair|