It seems that when we walk, we are creating in our brains some sort of map of the world. One theory today is that the move to bipedalism – standing up on our own hind legs and starting to get around on them – was a key moment in human evolution. Whether that theory is correct is disputed (we are hardly the only bipedal creatures – some dinosaurs and all birds share this, with varying evolutionary results). But it surely is significant: we humans have been flying through the air (and now just beyond the air) for hardly a century; likewise with cars and trains. Compared with hundreds of thousands of years, a century is a mere rounding error.
So it makes sense to think of our “thinking” as deeply connected to walking. If we peel off the headphones and simply walk, what happens?
Two sorts of things. First, one thinks about the walking itself. There are things to notice: clouds, plants, the condition of the trail, a water puddle, and so forth. A few weeks ago, on a hot Saturday morning on the Santa Fe Trail in Dallas, a thin, long snake slithered onto the concrete ahead of me. I stopped; I could not recall the last time I saw a snake. Oncoming walkers and bicyclists continued on, and the snake was still. It seemed to be making its own calculations regarding traffic conditions. Shortly, it turned in a tight half-circle and returned to the grass it came from.
A walker notices things and sometimes is caught up short by what he notices. These are these concrete, actual things that present themselves to the senses. But a walker thinks also about many bigger things. Some of them are memories. Some are problems that he turns over, trying to understand. Ideas, lines of music, events of the past, relationships, friendships, disagreements: in the midst of walking, these things emerge into consciousness; and sometimes the walking person enters into a sort of meditative trance.
One hypothesis is that walking’s key human work is in the movement back and forth from the concrete, immediate, sensual business of walking to the mental images and thoughts. When we walk we don’t just see some of the beauties of the world, and we don’t just work through some thoughts, but we do both those things better.
As I draw close to beginning a long walk that is a pilgrimage, it seems to me there is one thing to add to all this. A pilgrimage is a walk undertaken with a deliberate but unseen walking partner. A pilgrim intends to walk with God, intends to speak with God and hopes to hear God’s voice. From the snake on the path to the sudden recollection of an event on the playground (not recalled to mind for fifty years), the pilgrim’s companion is there to help him understand, to help him see this whole human path with the love of his maker, defender, redeemer, and friend.
Out & About. This Sunday, August 1, I am to preach at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas at the traditional services (7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m.).
“Good Books & Good Talk,” an occasional seminar, will return October 24 with Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” Anyone who reads the book (it’s a famous play) is welcome to the conversation, which will be at Incarnation in Dallas that Sunday evening.
The previous Sunday evening, October 17, I will give my fall theology lecture on the subject of borders.