Few human activities are more basic than walking, and few more taken for granted. You need to watch an infant to be reminded that walking is a hard-won achievement. Learning to walk is one of the main projects of our first year of life. Somehow it dawns on us at a very early age that getting around on two legs might be better than crawling. Once this miracle is achieved and the parental applause dies down, it’s something we do daily, minus ovations, until accident or illness or old age stops us.
Everywhere is in walking distance if you have the time. You can walk to Santiago de Compostela in Spain or even to Jerusalem. But if such major stretches are out of reach, you can be on pilgrimage in your own small patch of the world.
One of the people I learned this from was Catholic Worker cofounder Dorothy Day, whose monthly column in the organization’s newspaper was appropriately titled “On Pilgrimage.” She saw every journey in terms of pilgrimage. Living in a derelict part of Manhattan that most New Yorkers took pains to avoid, Day had an endless ability to discover beauty in unlikely places. She rejoiced at the sight of grass breaking through cracks in the pavement, was exultant with the smell of garlic escaping a kitchen, and gazed joyfully at flowers blooming in a tenement window.
It must have been partly thanks to Day that I gradually found a similar capacity to notice beauty even in places of chronic ugliness. I still recall the rapture I experienced while spending a year in a high-walled prison for an act of civil disobedience during the Vietnam War. Walking from my cell block to the dining hall, I saw the reflection of the sunrise on windows just high enough to mirror the light: The windows were streaked with molten gold and raspberry light. It was breathtaking.
Long-distance hiking shoes are not needed. Just walking to a nearby shop can be a small pilgrimage—inhaling the smell of the day, getting a glimpse of life in other houses, pausing to admire how a building has suddenly been gilded by the late-afternoon light. “Been there, done that” is definitely not a pilgrim attitude.
You can walk to a great shrine on a journey that takes weeks or months and fail to become a pilgrim. Pilgrimage is more an attitude than an act. If all you’re seeking is exercise or diversion, you might be happier racking up miles on an exercise cycle at the local gym. Pilgrimage is a conscious act of seeking a more vital awareness of God’s living presence. As was said in medieval times, “If you do not travel with the King whom you seek, you will not find him at the end of your journey.”
Praying goes well with walking, no matter how short or long the path. I often do my morning prayers while walking in a nearby park. As walking is something nearly all of us do every day, praying while walking is simply making better use of time spent on your feet.
Prayer is an activity that depends on the heart. Christ said, “Blessed are the pure of heart.” These days the brain has come up in the world while the heart has been demoted. In our brain-obsessed society, it ought to disturb us that Christ didn’t say, “Blessed are the pure in mind,” or, still more timely, “Blessed are the brilliant in mind.”
Most of the time I rely on traditional Christian prayers. I like to recite prayers handed down from earlier centuries, prayers polished by generations of use and available to any who care to make them their own. Once a traditional prayer has been learned by heart, it is available no matter where you are or what you are doing. The more prayers and psalms you memorize, the richer your prayer life becomes. But even one prayer recited over and over can be enough. The prayer isn’t your own composition, yet it becomes yours.
One of the prayers most widely used by pilgrims is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The roots of the prayer are in the story Jesus tells of a tax collector standing in the back of the synagogue, so ashamed of what he has done and what he has failed to do that he could hardly lift his head. All he could say was, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Other walkers use the rosary, in which silence and word touch each other seamlessly.
Making prayer a normal part of daily life, an activity as ordinary as walking and breathing, takes discipline. Yet what a different life one discovers when prayer becomes part of the basic structure of daily life, with time given to prayer at the beginning and end of each day. Daily life becomes an event of pilgrimage.
One need not walk to pray, but most of us do at least some walking and can use those spaces to make a beginning with prayer. Were we to discover the opportunity for prayer that walking provides, we might find ourselves doing a great deal more walking. Walking and praying, no matter what the destination, we may find we have become pilgrims along the way.
This article appeared on the January 2008 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 73, No. 1, pages 37-38).