Wandering as a Spiritual Practice

By Donna Smith Martin

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For as long as I can remember, one of my favorite poems has been Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Sometimes it seems the theme running through my entire life can be summed up in its final statement:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


This is especially true when it comes to my spiritual journey. As each metaphorical fork in the road appears, the voices in my head arising from my upbringing and conditioning caution, “Take the well-trodden path. Follow in the footsteps of the conventional crowd. Be safe. Be comfortable.” But these programmed voices are countered by a still small voice deep within my heart that whispers, “Take a risk. Try something different. Trust. Life is an adventure to be explored and savored.”

Now lest you think I am a daredevil, you should know most people consider me a down-to-earth, logical, methodical sort of soul. More often than not in my life, reason wins out over risk. Nonetheless, in my heart, I am a wanderer. The road less traveled beckons me to explore its potential and mystery, to lean into its unpredictable charms and challenges. I consider its beckoning a kind of sacred calling, an invitation to walk in relationship and trust with the Divine, opening myself to new discoveries and insights.

An oft-used metaphor for the spiritual life over time is a journey. Likewise, the person pursuing (or undergoing) spiritual growth is known as a pilgrim. The use of the journey metaphor implies there is a path, a way, or a road that has a beginning and an end. For the literal pilgrim, that end or destination is typically a holy or sacred place (like Mecca or Jerusalem). But as any true spiritual pilgrim will tell you, it is the journey itself and not the destination that has the power to transform. Because it is by walking the path, replete with unexpected encounters, joys, and trials, coupled with commitment and perseverance, that shapes and molds the pilgrim more than the journey’s end.

Enter the wanderer, a special kind of pilgrim. The spiritual wanderer may or may not have a specific destination in mind. Their primary focus from start to finish (if there is a finish) is to BE on the journey – fully present, acutely attentive to each experience, listening for inner guidance and direction. The wandering pilgrim trusts that sought-for truth will be revealed, wisdom will be gained, and spiritual healing will be received in the measure divinely appropriate for a given place, time, and/or situation.

There have been many holy wanderers from various religions across time, men and women determined to seek and find direction and connection on the spiritual journey. But one specific type of wandering known as peregrinatio has always fascinated me. In the Celtic monastic tradition, Irish monks did their wandering in small boats known as coracles. Without oar, rudder, or sail, they embarked on their journey, letting the winds and currents carry them in their little vessels to an unknown destination. They trusted they would land where they were meant to be; their next place of service was found by letting the Divine take the lead.

Of this particular type of holy wandering, Christine Valters-Painter of Abbey of the Arts says, “In this profound practice, God becomes both destination and way, companion and guiding force. God is in the call to the journey, unfolding of the journey, and greets us at the end of the journey.” (See Abbey of the Arts blog dated 4-26-2015 at https://abbeyofthearts.com/blog/2015/04/26/wandering-for-the-love-of-god-shepard-pilgrimage-of-resurrection-through-creative-practice-a-love-note/)
Truly these monks were prime examples of the J. R. R. Tolkien quote “Not all who wander are lost.” They may not have known where they were going, but they were wandering with intention by faith. They always knew where they were….in God’s hands.
This brings me to wandering as a spiritual practice, which could also be called “getting lost on purpose”. Although I, for one, don’t plan to get into a boat and drift to an unspecified destination, there are other less frightening (or dangerous) ways to engage in experimental wandering. For instance: taking a different route on your morning walk or way to work, making a new dish without a recipe, creating artwork utilizing a new medium (i.e. if you are a painter, try clay), finding a new way to pray or meditate, or going for walk in a new setting – a park, a forest, the beach, alongside a creek. As you wander, notice how you feel in this unfamiliar territory. Is there something new to discover about your surroundings or yourself? Does your literal or figurative walkabout change the way you see things? Do these new surroundings provide you with inspiration or experiences you might not have had otherwise?

Yes, there is something to be said for wandering on purpose as a spiritual practice and I am not the only one who feels that way. Barbara Brown Taylor devotes a whole chapter to “The Practice of Getting Lost” in her book An Altar in the World. Some of the challenges she cites for this practice include: getting out of your comfort zone and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, containing panic when you are in unfamiliar territory, and having to depend on others (or the Divine Inner Other) for direction. Some of the benefits she mentions are discovering new things about the world, others, and yourself; finding freedom and inspiration through exposure to different environments or techniques; learning how to be resourceful; and developing trust in something beyond your reasoning mind – your Inner Wisdom, intuition, the Holy Spirit, God.

In addition to providing the challenges and benefits of “getting lost”, Brown Taylor also contends holy wandering builds spiritual muscle memory for the times when, rather than by choice, you find yourself lost in a metaphorical wilderness due to a loss – the death of a loved one, joblessness, betrayal, sudden illness or injury. In other words, intentional wandering prepares you to navigate times when the landscape of life, as you know it, becomes unrecognizable. In such times she asserts, the choice to wander becomes a matter of consent rather than initiative.

I can attest to the soul growth acquired through both varieties of wandering. For example, on several occasions, I have visited Lebh Shomea, a retreat center in South Texas near the King Ranch. Once a working cattle ranch, it is now a House of Prayer operated by the Oblates. The ambiance of Lebh Shomea alone is enough to let you know you have entered another world. Saturated in the sacred, it has an entirely different vibe and routine than normal everyday life. Retreatants are expected to maintain silence (except for one hour on Sunday) and attend daily morning worship as means of deepening connection to the holy through solitude, nature, and prayer.

Several unfamiliar aspects of my stays at Lebh Shomea contributed to my road-less-traveled experiences, such as: keeping silent when my natural inclination is to talk, attending Catholic services though raised a Protestant, and walking “the wilderness trail” where I encountered javelina, wild pigs, nilgai, and snakes. All of these things added to my holy wandering, as did the silence and solitude found in my room, the library, and secluded sanctuaries set aside for prayer. I came home a different person each time I traveled to Lebh Shomea. Yes, I was at least temporarily more relaxed and at a peace, but I was also more deeply connected to the Divine within, a feeling that remained with me as I reentered the familiar territory of home, family, and work.

Of course, I have also been involuntarily thrown into the wilderness by life circumstances, seemingly left alone to wander, feeling hopelessly lost. I am, in fact, in such a place at present. Two months ago my husband and I found it necessary to move into an independent living facility due to his deteriorating health and medical needs. This is not where I expected to be at the age of 65. I find myself a stranger in a strange land – a mature, able-bodied woman of sound mind (most of the time) in the midst of octogenarians and nonagenarians, walkers and wheelchairs, hearing aids and memory loss. There is nothing wrong with any of this or any of the people here; it is just unknown territory I did not expect to encounter this early in life.

Regardless, I am amazed at the similarities between my responses to intentional wandering and that of the involuntary variety. As I try to find my footing, I notice my resistance to the unfamiliar, my fear and moments of panic related to aging, and the emotional vulnerability that arises from not being in control of my life. Consent to feeling lost and patiently waiting for direction to be provided have become necessary tools in my spiritual toolkit. Additionally, I try to go into each day with a sense of adventure, exploring my new surroundings (both the facility and the neighborhood), trying new activities, stretching myself mentally, physically, and spiritually all while discovering new people and their incredible stories. Although I am not yet in my comfort zone, I am getting there and I can see how intentionally choosing some roads less traveled in the past has helped me to wander in this present wilderness with a trust and peace that I do not feel would otherwise be possible. Moreover, I think my future self will thank my present self for hanging in there when the way forward was not so well defined. Sometimes that is just the way spiritual growth works – mysteriously, paradoxically, slowly.

There is a saying familiar to many in some spiritual circles: “as within, so without”, meaning whatever is going on internally will manifest itself externally in some way. But I have found the opposite to be true also: as without, so within. External spiritual practices done with intention and openness can change our inner landscape. Such has been the case for me in regards to consciously taking the road less traveled. Wandering as a spiritual practice has shaped my soul and in the shaping has provided me with the experiences, inner resources, and resilience to navigate some unexpected wilderness wandering. I hope that my experience and this information will tempt you to try wandering as a spiritual practice too.

Peace on the journey!

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