Walking in the Wilderness
There was a time when I didn’t take walks alone very often. With children to keep up with, walks were usually an exercise in multitasking as much as they were actual exercise, and they were rarely peaceful. Now, I frequently take walks alone, just because. A need to get out of the house during the pandemic and an increasing focus on self-care are the reasons I began taking walks alone, but I have maintained the practice because walking has become a sustaining spiritual practice for me.
In the spring of 2020, as the time approached to leave the church where I had served for 9 years, it became clear that I no longer had a home base for my path in ministry, or my own discipleship. I was setting out into the wilderness. I would no longer be hanging around my campsite, with short forays into the woods and back to camp. I was packing up and walking away, with no plan or destination in mind, no timeframe or set distance to travel. I had provisions for my journey and skills for procuring more, but no specific plan.
That was when I began walking on a regular basis.
I realize now that walking was an intuitive spiritual practice, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I thought I was seeking movement, a little time alone – and I did achieve those things – but unexpectedly, my walks became important times of reflection and discernment. Walking nourished me, like a cool drink of water or a restful night of sleep.
I hadn’t truly considered my path, in my life or my ministry, in a long time. As a teenager and early twenty-something, I contemplated and considered my path often, making decisions strategically with the hope of following a certain path. As I settled into local church ministry and started a family, my sightline became shorter. Instead of focusing on the horizon, I became focused on the here and now, on avoiding tripping over the rocks in my path. But I had begun to look up again, farther in front of me, and what I saw in the distance did not align with where I felt called. I needed to change directions, to take another path. What followed was the decision to change my work situation, to pack up and leave the campsite, setting out into the wilderness.
As I walked the streets of my neighborhood and the trails of nearby parks, I found myself imagining a path through the woods as a metaphor for my ministry. Walking in the woods, a person can go a long time without seeing another human, or even a trail marker. For many months after leaving the church I was serving, that’s exactly what happened on my metaphorical path. I simply walked along the trail, enjoying the fresh air and exercise, appreciating what I noticed and learned along the way. It was invigorating to be in the wilderness. I just wanted to keep walking; I didn’t want to stop and set up camp, to encounter anyone, to approach a crossroads.
At times it didn’t even feel like I was going anywhere. My path might have been circuitous; it was certainly meandering. There were days I was comforted by knowing it didn’t matter if I was going somewhere, as long as I remained in the wilderness. Other days, I felt anxious and directionless without a plan. I noticed that even when I passed by a familiar spot, it never looked exactly the same. The woods are not static – weather, wind, animals, and the changing of the seasons all influence the landscape – the context is different each time. Not only were the woods changing, so was I.
That was when I realized that my walks had become a form of prayer.
My walks had begun to resemble my experiences walking labyrinths. I deeply value the spiritual practice of walking labyrinths. I love that when I walk a labyrinth, I don’t go anywhere but I am always changed in the process. I enter and exit at the same point, wander around a small, fixed area and emerge different than when I entered the labyrinth. Similarly, each time I set out on a walk, I left from my house and returned to my house, not having “gone” anywhere, but changed still.
As I walked, all the thoughts floating around in my head began to converge in a way that enabled me to reflect and discern, to listen to my life and to God. As I walked, I reconnected with my call to ministry. I considered my gifts and passions, turning them over like a stone in my hand, feeling their weight and observing their particularities, those experiences that contributed to their present form. As I walked, I discerned God’s voice leading me in a clear direction, but still, there were no signs. Like a labyrinth, I knew I would find my way out eventually, that the path that leads inward always leads back out. I also knew that on a labyrinth, there is no point in trying to look too far ahead; it is best to keep walking, trusting the path with each step. As I walked, I trusted the path, and I kept walking.
One day, I began to see signposts in the distance. I didn’t know what the signs meant, but I could detect them ahead of me on the path. It seemed I was approaching a crossroads; nothing else would need that many signs. When I reached the first sign, I felt anxious, wondering if other people or perhaps a community lay ahead. I wasn’t sure, after so much time in the wilderness, if I was ready to encounter anyone else. It became clear that this was merely a turnoff, an opportunity to travel a different path for a considerable distance before arriving at a campsite. As I kept walking on my path, the signposts continued to appear. So did the people; I was clearly traveling in a more populated area. I struck up a few conversations, learning that those walking in this area had things in common with me. I stopped here and there and helped others, offering what I had to share. And still, I kept walking.
Soon, I discovered that I was near a community. This area was different than where I had camped before. Perhaps I should take a closer look. It was a smaller community than I was used to, but that might be a nice change; I could get to know people more easily. Everyone I met was kind and generous. As I approached and began to explore, I was welcomed with open arms. I was invited in and included. I learned that in this community all are welcome, and all are accepted. So, I set up my tent and decided to stay.
I still take walks in the woods because time alone is critical for self-reflection and spiritual formation, but I am no longer walking through the wilderness with no destination in mind. When I walk, I leave from and return to the same place. And just like when I walk a labyrinth, I am changed each time. I am glad to have a place to call home again and a church to serve, after wandering in the wilderness for so long. And, I am grateful for every meandering step that brought me here.