Please see below Fr Chad’s Home Retreat for Saturday 20th February. Alternatively, click here to view on our YouTube channel.
Via vitae – the walk of life
When I was a boys’ house chaplain, twenty years ago, it was my responsibility to organise the annual house retreat. One year I suggested the theme of pilgrimage. ‘But we always do ‘journeys’ responded a disgruntled top year. Comparing life to a journey seems one of the weariest religious clichés, particularly if advocated by an enthusiastic walker. Encouraged to walk on family holidays, along Northumberland beaches, up Scottish hills, I was then fully converted as an 18yr old by trekking in the Himalayas. And when I joined the monastery, having walked from London, the oldest monk here, Fr Columba, urged me to keep hold of that image of my journey as a way of understanding my monastic life.
He was, of course, echoing the Rule. Behold, in His loving kindness the Lord shows us the way of life, the via vitae of my title. Monks are to walk in God’s paths, guided by the gospel, taking the narrow road that leads to life. As our hearts expand, we will run the way of God’s commandments with the unspeakable sweetness of love. He wrote his little rule for beginners for those who are hastening to their heavenly home.
Why is walking such a central, powerful image? Perhaps your experience of lockdown has opened you up to the benefits of walking. You may know the famous tag ‘solvitur ambulando’ – things are resolved by walking. At one level this is a physical therapy. I have two doctors in my life, my right leg and my left. Kierkegaard knew this : every day I walk myself into a state of well being. Dickens also: if I could not walk far and fast, I think I should explode and perish. Walking allows me to be in my body and in the world without being made busy by them. Rather these three in conversation, my mind, my body, the world, are enabled to make a harmonious chord.
I know I do my best thinking when walking. The American Thoreau wrote the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow. One theory is that the ground’s impact on the ball of my foot sends pressure waves through the arteries, boosting blood flow to the brain. The regular, metronomic beat of my step shapes my thoughts into a coherent narrative. Walking is writing with the feet. As I walk, I learn to read the landscape around me, to dance and flow with the interconnectedness of the myriad details, both physical and spiritual.
For we are hybrid, and walking can be sacramental, the physical experience conveying a spiritual grace. Thoreau was convinced: heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads. Angels whisper to us when we go for a walk. The Japanese writer Koyama says the love of God moves at three miles an hour, as this is the pace at which we walk. Grace works andante, at walking speed.
Now the therapeutic benefits of an afternoon stroll are available even under current restrictions. But long-distance walking is not – with its demands and disciplines, its clear sense of destination and purpose. In May 2017 I walked from Iona to Lindisfarne, connecting two holy islands, in the footsteps of St Aidan, in thanksgiving for 25 years as a monk. At the start, on Iona, I wrote in my journal:
Walk slowly, place your feet, feel the ground, work with the grain, open your beating heart to the pulse of the earth, do not force the pace, find the joy that comes from peace not victory, learn to love the now, the moment, not as a lap on a race, a tick on a list, but let the blood flow, the fire burn,
At the end, on Lindisfarne, after 300 miles of bluebells and blisters, more beautiful than I had imagined, more painful than I had expected, I reflected
pilgrimage is both the business of walking, planning the route, working out the accommodation, looking after my feet, packing the rucksack, but also the prayer for the enabling of the Holy Spirit, no longer relying on my own strength ..and when you walk through a landscape at a slow pace, you become part of it, not visiting or observing, but physically engaged, a pilgrim not a tourist.
To walk as a pilgrim is to connect with an ancient tradition. The psalms of ascent, written perhaps 3000 years ago, became pilgrimage songs for the journey to the holy city. I rejoiced when I heard them say: 'Let us go to the house of God. And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. And in the middle ages the word ‘saunter’ emerged, to describe those gently wandering towards ‘la sainte terre’, the holy land. In our time the Camino de Santiago in 2018 attracted more than 300,000 pilgrims.
A physical pilgrimage brings physical demands. But walking has also become an image to describe our whole life of faith. The Hebrew word halak means both to walk and to live. St Augustine told his Easter congregation ‘sing alleluia - but keep on walking’. Monks are called to keep walking, to persevere, through dangers, difficulties, darkness, death.Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is rich with obstacles – the hill of difficulty, the slough of despond, Vanity Fair, Doubting Castle. At Christmas I spoke of light in the darkness, not light without darkness, the psalmist knew this: If I should walk in the valley of darkness no evil would I fear. As did Job - ‘by his light I walked through darkness’.
The particular challenge of lockdown may well have been those times of shadow, without the usual sense of incentive or delight, perhaps a sort of gravitational pull downwards, even an emptiness, when ‘pilgrimage’ becomes a question of simply taking the next step, seeing it as the next gift. When my blisters were at their worst in Scotland, I remember literally counting my steps, in batches of fifty. It is not that we bypass difficulties, it is that they do not dominate. when you walk through fire you shall not be burned.
St Paul recognized the burdens of this life, but still maintained ‘we are always confident for we walk by faith, not by sight’. And that is not possible on our own. St Benedict saw his monks as those who walk according to another’s decisions and directions, choosing to live in monasteries and to have an abbot over them. It is not just my individual perseverance, it is my humility and obedience in accepting guidance. O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! Through the Abbot and my brethren, it is the Lord who is teaching me to walk. You shall be careful to do therefore as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.
This means sometimes stopping, to find your bearings. Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it and find rest for your souls. I have a good friend who keeps telling me ‘we are called to be saints not heroes’, pilgrims not Olympians. It can be a painful experience living out what Jesus told Peter: when you were young, you walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will carry you where you do not wish to go.
The Old Testament is full of examples of how to get it wrong. Those who walked in the customs of the nations, who walked in the sins of their fathers, who walked in stubbornness of heart, who turned aside after gain. Isaiah unforgettably describes those haughty daughters of Zion who walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet. It is when David is walking on the roof of his palace in the evening, that he spies Bathsheba bathing, that his lust leads to the plotting of her husband’s death. Nebuchadnezzar is walking on the roof of his palace admiring the glory of Babylon, when his pride leads to his own madness.
But we are called to walk humbly with God, like Micah, to walk whole-heartedly before God, like Hezekiah. Jesus sent out his disciples to walk in simplicity - Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money. As God promised in Leviticus I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect, and as the psalmist declared I shall walk in the path of freedom for I seek your precepts. Every day on my Scottish pilgrimage I prayed the ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’, ‘Come Holy Spirit’, to strengthen and direct me. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit, heads erect, in freedom.
Ultimately, I think, what makes this possible is that God walks with us. I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people. It is when Jesus is walking by the sea of Galilee that he calls his first disciples, it is when he is walking on the way to Emmaus that he transforms his disorientated disciples. ‘Get up and walk’ is the cry for his healings. Jesus is not a guru inviting his disciples to an ashram, but an itinerant preacher and healer saying ‘follow me’.And now we walk in the steps of that man, in the joy of the spirit, as we return to the Father.
Give judgement for me, O Lord: for I walk the path of perfection. I trust in the Lord; I have not wavered. Examine me, Lord, and try me; O test my heart and my mind, for your love is before my eyes and I walk according to your truth.
Chad Boulton OSB
20th February 2021