Two years ago, for no apparent reason, I found it hard to walk.
After a kilometer or so, a deep ache would start in my knee. If I pressed on, the ache would radiate down my shin, fork up into my thigh. Eventually, if I didn’t stop, the pain twisted into my hip, needled into my ankle, and made me hobble, lurch, wince with pain. For days after, I could hardly stand.
I saw the doctor, who sent me to a specialist, who sent me to a physiotherapist. None of it helped.
And then one day it stopped.
So I’m mystified.
But there was one thing the whole episode clarified: walking matters. Before this happened, I took walking for granted. And I barely noticed how much of it I do. But everywhere I go, even if mostly by car or plane or train or bus, I end up walking stretches both long and short. Recently, I travelled to Europe and passed through 4 major airports. Big airports. Airports where the distance between arrival gates and departure gates is, literally, miles long.
I felt like I walked as far as I flew.
The only physical discipline that has consistently been part of biblical faith is walking. Other faiths have corresponding physical practices – yoga, tai chi, karate – but Jews and Christians have only ever had walking. Our ancestors, not least that wandering Aramean, Jacob, all walked: Patriarchs walked, Prophets walked, David walked, Jesus walked, his disciples walked, Paul walked. In the middle ages, walking became a premier act of faith through pilgrimage.
When Paul, or John, or any biblical writer, exhorts us to walk in humility, or walk in the light, or walk in the way, or walk by faith, or keep in step with Spirit, they probably meant it as more than just a metaphor. They wrote such things out of a life of literal walking. They worked out their faith one step at a time. Their whole life was pilgrimage.
As they walked, they worshipped. As they walked, they prayed. As they walked, they pondered Scripture. As they walked, they rehearsed their beliefs. As they walked, they walked with God.
I’m trying to do that. I’m trying to make each step a step of deeper abiding. I’m trying to let my walking mingle with my praying, my trusting, my hoping. I’m trying to make my ordinary, pedestrian life into pilgrimage.
I only wish it hadn’t taken almost losing my ability to walk to learn to walk this way.
Mark Buchanan is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta.