Well...it happened. I am back at work after 5 weeks of a sabbatical filled with hiking, writing, and reading. I have to say that I enjoyed it. I also learned a great deal about interacting with the natural world which, of course, was the point. I find it is good to have goals even in an ostensibly less-structured time. I like being able to look back and see what I did. Among other things, I hiked 35 of New Hampshire's 48 4,000 footers and 18 of New Hampshire's "52 With a View" mountains. I have written about many of them here. Not bad.
This is my third sabbatical. After every sabbatical at least one person will use the term "rested and refreshed" to describe my state upon returning. I don't get the "rested" part. I never really rested. I worked--and played--pretty hard actually and now I am tired around the edges. However, in one sense--perhaps that of restarting a computer, for example--I could be refreshed. Sabbatical is a reboot. It involves getting rid of old programming and updating systems. I am not done yet. There is more sabbatical to come. Still, I am in the reboot process and that is...interesting.
I had a number of goals for myself at this point in that process. One of them was simply an act of definition. I wanted to answer the question of what a "Sabbath Walk" actually is. I named this weblog after the concept, which did not originate with me. What sort of "walk" helps us to connect to the Great Whatever? How do we find ways to act in the world that will expand our horizons? In an earlier post I talked about what the implications might be for the institutional church. Here, I want to lift up some aspects of what I learned.
Now for this project my sabbath walks have been actual walks. That is what works for me. Of course they could really comprise any number of activities. Some people's sabbath walk is more of a sit or a read. There are people who explore through music or math or science. I kept it simple by making this metaphor for life somewhat literal. There are, of course, other ways to connection. Here I am talking about hiking, but there may be something in it for you even if that is not your bag.
I learned pretty quickly that not every hike fit into the category of sabbath. Some of them were too challenging. Some were too easy. There were distractions along the way. Like Goldilocks I found that there was an element of "just rightness" that I needed to get into a prayerful or meditative mood. I have hinted at this realization in a number of other posts. Just as in formal worship--where through the elements of the ritual we attempt to elevate our minds and hearts--there are conditions that help or hinder the spiritual exercise of walking in the woods.
Of course there are infinite variations to these conditions. However, for the sake of simplicity I have begun to use four broad categories that need to be present in relatively equal measure for a true sabbath walk. If they are not there the adventure can still be worthwhile, of course. It is just that the conditions make the spiritual connection--the meditative aspect--harder to find. There was much to say about ,my climb up Mount Washington and Mount Monroe, for example, but either my own state or the state of the hike itself (or both) made meaningful reflection difficult
Anyway, here they are. All four of these aspects are recognizable to most hikers as being par for the course. Which is to say that they are part of any climb or walk. When we are mindful of them, we have a better time. In fact, these are often the specific reasons we went for a walk in the first place!
1) Physical Challenge and Discipline:
It is hard to miss this one. I mark my own discipline of sabbath walking from right after my back surgery. There was rehab involved. I had to get out and get moving! Hiking was more interesting than going to the gym, where I injured myself in the first place. It was also something I was familiar with from a lifetime of getting outdoors. Most people--hikers and non-hikers alike--recognize that there is a physical challenge involved when we intentionally take a long walk. Even strolling around the neighborhood indicates that we are somehow pushing ourselves. The challenge is part of why we do it. We are "getting in shape" but we are also getting to know our bodies, their likes and dislikes. Knowing ourselves and the vessel that carries us is essential to a well-grounded life.
Now, this can often be the primary motivation for some hikers. It is a legitimate door into a sabbath discipline. Getting stronger and feeling better physically is important in and of itself. So too is the pride and joy of achieving a difficult goal. When I climbed Mount Adams and Mount Madison a couple weeks ago, I was chuffed to have done so. The trip was very much about dealing with the 5,000-plus feet of total elevation gain and staying hydrated. We were coping with the discomfort and the risk around wet trails and the slippery rocks. My brother waited at the end for us and became worried something bad had happened! We were just slow. We all high-fived each other in the parking lot at the end. That said, the physical challenges out-weighed some of the other aspects so it was hard for me to make it a "sabbath."
What I can say, though, is that one's physical presence brought about by addressing a physical challenge with intention and discipline is essential to the walk. It's just that too much physical challenge makes it hard to concentrate on other things. We must push ourselves and engage our bodies. Yet it can be--and should be--at the level of the walker. That is part of our practice of self-awareness, after all. It also needs to balance with a few other things.
2) Mental Challenge and Discipline:
Now, it may be easy to conflate this with the physical challenge. Many athletes, for example, talk about getting the right mindset for their respective competitions. I am a big basketball fan and--if this were a different kind of blog--I would tell you about the many times in the NBA and WNBA where a less-talented team beat a more talented one because their heads were in the right place.
We see this in a good walk, as well. Lets say we are climbing a physically challenging mountain and we need to find the courage and fortitude to keep going. In that moment we must push through the pain or despair to the other side. It matters that we do this. However, it also matters how we do this. For some it is a case of baring down, finding hidden reserves of power, and soldiering through. Others--and I would put myself in this category--do better through a discipline of openness. When I hike I try to cast my eyes and my heart outward into the landscape and toward other hikers, using the power of the world around me to drive me forward.
It wasn't always this way. I remember hiking Mount Moosilauke early on in this project. In retrospect I probably shouldn't have. I was still in pretty bad shape both physically and mentally. I used the "dig deep, push through" method and it got me to the top of the mountain. About halfway down, however, those reserves ran out. I "crashed" emotionally and had trouble getting myself back to the car while in full hot mess mode. This was the state of things on many hikes for a while. However, I started turning the corner while climbing the Tripyramids and by the time I hit the Osceolas--where I actually took a major fall--I at least had the sense of what I needed to do going forward. All that stuff in my posts about noticing the colors, the views, the little plants, and the people began as part of that exercise of openness. It was a very practical adaptation to help me survive.
The world/creation/the universe etc has more energy than we have on our own. It is good to find ways to use it.
3) Receptivity to the Moment:
This one logically follows from the previous ones, doesn't it? It is in some way about aesthetics. Most folks who go for walks have a view in mind. That is why we climb mountains or circle lakes. It is why we try for the most "natural" places in our lives. We are trying to be called up and out from the concerns that tie us down and reduce our humanity. An experience that points to the vastness around us helps with that.
Human constructs often demand more from us than we are able to healthily give. There are societal and economic demands on us. In order to maintain our selfhood in this environment, we naturally pull ourselves inward. We stay in our lane as much as possible. We also travel as fast as that lane allows.
Maybe we manage to live in the moment while we are drinking our first cup of coffee in the morning. After that, though, for most of us life is a series of next moments. There are things we are expected to--or want to--achieve so we going about doing those things.
This is what draws us to our sanctuaries. We are not products of our constructed world. We are products of the world before we built those things. You might want to go back and read the two previous sentences again. The solid foundation of a house of worship, or the quiet of an art museum, or the chaos of a concert, or the primal energy of the trail, are all sanctuaries for our souls where we can be present in the space we are occupying at that very moment. Our challenge is to find those places where we are receptive. There are many, many directions in which to go to seek them.
If you have read my posts here then you know that I have developed a practice of receptiveness while hiking. Particularly when I am alone, I make a point of sitting, feeling the rock beneath me, listening to the wind and the animals in the bushes. If there is a view I try to enjoy that, too. It isn't entirely necessary though. This practice has helped to save many a hike that I would otherwise deem a bust. Most recently it helped me through a soggy hike up Mount Israel.
The sabbath walk needs time to make connections to the right now, and sometimes it isn't that easy.
4) Contributing Creativity
Worship is a dialogue. Yes, in many formal settings it may not feel that way. Folks who get their information about worship life third-hand may not be aware that in pretty much every tradition there are ways that everyone participates and adds to the moment. In my church there are hymns and responsive readings. There are announcements that are sometimes longer than the sermon. There is coffee and conversation afterward that frequently lasts longer than worship, itself. A sabbath walk requires these elements as well. Our conversation--broadly conceived--creates a new thing and adds to the whole of creation.
Creativity can be intimidating. People think of painting, writing, and preaching, for example. However, it doesn't have to be that way. Do you sing along to the radio in the car? That is part of a dialogue. You are changing the original document--the song--and making it your own at least for that place and time. I sing hymns on the trail these days, particularly when things are getting rough. I picked this practice back up from my distant past on a solo hike up Tecumseh and have continued to do so when the spirit moves.
I also take pictures and, yes, I write. That is extra, though. As this project has gone on I have found it harder to post something new for each walk but I still form sentences in my heart as I go along, even though you may never read them. I also usually manage an Instagram post. Pictures don't feel as repetitive to me.
A sabbath walk doesn't just involve being in the moment and witnessing what is before us. It involves making that moment more meaningful and beautiful. This doesn't always happen. There is so much going on as we walk that we may be too distracted. There may be too much going on before and after our walk. We may not be in the right space to make something new.
However sabbath is about practice and we do get better at being creative over time. We get better at talking back to--and building--creation. We need to forgive ourselves when things don't go right. There will always be another sabbath-day.
So--once again--not all walks are reflective. That is fine and good. Sometimes we need to get something else out of an experience. That said, I do believe that there is a place for worshipful walking when we can. These four aspects in some sort of balance are--for me at least--what makes the difference between a good hike and a sabbath walk. If you are curious which ones made it for me, I have an "Actual Sabbath Walks" section which will give you a sense of what I am talking about. They can be a challenging as Mount Katahdin or as easy as Mount Norwottuck. On my list, for whatever reason, things aligned in such a way as to create an attitude of worship and of connection to something greater than myself.
I hope your walks--or your "walks"--are also satisfying. If you feel like sharing, please do! Communities--congregations in whatever form--make everything more meaningful.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.