Walking is a spiritual practice that I am predisposed to. After all, photography would not happen unless I walked around! Simply putting one foot in front of the other, time after time, without expectation of arrival at an end point is a contemplative practice. Recently, though, I discovered a new way of viewing walking as a contemplative practice. This practice had an end point and I was completely aware of all the w’s – who, what, when, where, why. I was not letting go and receiving images (well a little). I was literally focused on my feet and putting my feet, one step at a time, on stable ground.
And this is a metaphor. Sometimes, sitting at our desk or listening to our loved ones, can be a practice of just being aware of what is now and putting your best effort towards arriving at the next now. One step at a time.
As you continue reading, consider the questions, “In what area of my life can I start (or continue) putting one foot in front of the other? What new story will be created?”
Here is my story.
Monday, I went hiking to Bridal Veil Falls / Lake Serene in the Central Cascade mountains of Washington. It was a spectacular day. (The weather is forecast to be fabulous all week-long in Seattle leading me to believe somebody is playing with our emotions.) I felt confident I could do the +7 mile hike. BUT I forgot to look at the way the path is (smooth vs. rocky) and the grade or “up-ness.”
I started out on the popular path and asked a co-hiker what to expect and she told me it was steep but that it was worth it. And that there were a lot of switchbacks. OK. I can do this! I will just take my time and be careful.
In February of this year, I was going through a diagnosis of Celiac disease. Now most folks just think that this is digestive only. Well, it is not. It causes inflammation in every part of my body. It grew tumors in my ovaries. I had a period for 3 weeks. I was severely anemic. The test didn’t say, “Low,” it said “Alert!” I could not walk up a short hill without being severely out of breath because I had very few mature red blood cells to carry oxygen around. In short, it stank.
And, over the last few years I have had surgery on my left ankle (torn tendon) and my right foot (two! neuromas crowding out my middle toes). I couldn’t walk without pain until, oh, last year after the neuroma surgery. Generally, I count every pain-free step a success. Would my feet hold out? Always a question. And with the ankle surgery, I generally look for nice, solid, flat ground so my ankle will not roll.
Rats! This path is not smooth. Very rocky. Wet sometimes. Muddy sometimes. But mostly rock, rock, rock. Keep my eyes down and make sure my feet land on flat spots! That’s the plan.
Anyway, I started up the path at my own pace. I got a little less than two miles in and found the below sight. I tried really hard to capture this thing that was happening with the sun and the water! It looked like liquid sunshine was pouring off the top of the waterfall. My eyes received the beautiful image of sunshine being poured down the mountain, could my camera receive it? A little.
At any rate, it was astounding. And it was the second set of falls I had seen. This mountain is one big slab of granite! (Hence the rocky path) And there is water everywhere. Well, okay, not everywhere, but in a lot of places. It was hard to get a good picture, but earlier, there was a set of falls that were very tall and jagged. But the trees were very overgrown so you could only get glimpses of the splash of light and water. This is the very bottom of that series. I received beautiful images of flowing water.
I got past the falls and it was two miles to Lake Serene. I was feeling good so decided my body could do this! I kept on going. And going. Up and up. Picking my way carefully through rocks. Resting when I felt overwhelmed. Then there came a moment when I thought that I was not going to be able to do it. I grounded my feet to the earth and drew on the strength of my God and the strength of the earth. I breathed deeply. This had become a spiritual quest.
I kept on going. But at that moment, I felt like giving up. I soon encountered a woman and her dog. They were resting. (Yay for rest!). I asked her how much further. She said, “When you feel like you have been through the worst possible climb, then it is just a bit more up and a little down and you’re there.”
OK. The worst possible climb. I can surely get to this.
I went up and encountered massive rocky path, with only about a 9″ clearance to skinny through. Surely, this is the worst possible spot.
I kept going and encountered another massive rocky path, with water and slipperiness. Surely, this is the worst possible spot.
Add water and repeat.
Finally, I broke through the shadows of the forest into a sunny meadowy type area (is it a meadow if it is on the side of a mountain?). I looked up and my breath left my body. It. Was. Amazing. I received the most beautiful blues intermingled with a dark granite mountain and white fluffy clouds rising like steam. I remember the story of Moses going up the mountain to be with his God and going into the cloud. This is a place to connect with spiritual strength. I felt strengthened, encouraged, excited, and alive. A complete contrast to how I felt when I was in the shadows.
I was now in the sun, with this incredible sight, having passed through at least 5 stretches of the worst climb ever. And I saw another worst climb ever in front of me. But my spirits were jubilant. I was in the light and had left the darkness. Amen!
I kept on going. There was one more seriously worst climb ahead and then I was there. Lake Serene.
In fact, this lake feeds into the waterfalls pictured earlier. I had climbed all the way around to the other side. Here is what the top of the waterfall looks like from this same point, just facing the other way.
I clambered through the snow a bit and sat at the closest point I could get to the top of the waterfall. Ate lunch. Relaxed a moment.
Time to head back down. Surely, down would be easier! It always is. Mostly.
On the way down, I kept my head down looking to keep my feet planted so my ankle will not turn. I almost made it. Darn it. One misstep and a turned ankle. Choice – fall in a way to minimize injury or try to get that wobbly ankle to hold me up. Quick decision – my ankle will not withstand the effort to stay firmly up. Fall it is! Sheesh. I hate rocky, downhill, paths. Now, cuts and bruises, scratches and blood. I would hate to see what I looked like.
I crossed back in front of the amazing waterfall that poured sunshine and the woman I had met earlier was there with her dog! She was resting. Her dog decided to try to clean up the scratches on my legs a bit (ha ha!). We chatted a bit and she moved on. I stayed and tried to get some more photos of the falls and take a rest. Oh, and to use the water to wash my arm which has a pretty serious scratch(es).
But, gosh darn it, I did it! I am still on the path. I can still walk. My body is sustaining me. This is such a big deal, you have no idea. I was misdiagnosed for at least 20 years. To be able to do this is the most awesomely amazing thing ever. My muscles don’t even hurt as much today as they did on days the inflammation from being celiac made them hurt. (That was a bad sentence, sorry.)
I kept going. And I made it back to my car by about 5:00 p.m.
The quest was complete.
I am proud that I had the perseverance to keep on pushing through. My blood tests still say “alert” on the iron portion, but it is improving. My ankles and feet are okay today. My right arm and right shin are pretty banged up, but as long as nobody touches them (!) I will be fine.
The return hike took 2 hours. It took me 4 hours to go up.
Walking or hiking as a spiritual practice, for me, is typically about opening myself up to the images around me. Receiving images that I sometimes share here or on my blog. This time, though, it transformed into something else. Instead of receiving the beauty around me, I had to dig deep to connect to the strength of the earth, strength of my faith, and to the strength in my own body in order to find sustenance for the journey. This is a new kind of spiritual practice for me. I had thought, Monday night, that I would not be eager to repeat this experience. But I am. Focusing on putting one foot in front of the other in this way gave me a faith in myself that I sometimes lack. Especially in my own body’s ability to sustain me. That is my new story. I trust my body.
Shalom and Amen.
Adapted from a post at my blog. Trials on the Trail.
© 2013, post & photos, Terri Stewart, All rights reserved
TERRI STEWART is Into the Bardo’s Sunday chaplain, senior content editor, and site co-administrator. She comes from an eclectic background and considers herself to be grounded in contemplation and justice. She is the Director and Founder of the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition that serves youth affected by the justice system. As a graduate of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, she earned her Master’s of Divinity and a Post-Master’s Certificate in Spiritual Direction with honors and is a rare United Methodist student in the Jesuit Honor Society, Alpha Sigma Nu. She is a contributing author to the Abingdon Worship Annual.
Her online presence is “Cloaked Monk.” This speaks to her grounding in contemplative arts and the need to live it out in the world. The cloak is the disguise of normalcy as she advocates for justice and peace. You can find her at www.cloakedmonk.com, www.twitter.com/cloakedmonk, and www.facebook.com/cloakedmonk. To reach her for conversation, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org