Walking / Writing

The Sacred Practice of Walking

. 4 min read . Written by Russell Smith
The Sacred Practice of Walking

Walking and writing to ponder my Frequently Unanswered Questions

My friends at Foster asked me to introduce myself to their readers, and to articulate some of the questions I seek answers to, even if I don't get to ask them often. The essay below was originally published on Foster's Co-Authored newsletter. Thanks to Sara Campbell and the Foster team for this kind invitation!

I walk. 

I walk in nature. I walk on the beach, up hills and down valleys. I walk in downtown Louisville. I walk in other cities. I walk in my neighborhood. I walk at my kids’s school. 

Walking played a vital role in my recovery from two open heart surgeries. At age 10, my Mom made me walk in the mall, a mile a day for months, to regain my strength. At age 39, on a treadmill, I carefully but consistently ratcheted up the intensity to complete my recovery, completing a walk of four miles in one hour, which I’d never done in my life, on my last day of cardiac rehab.  

I also ruck — put a weight in a backpack, put the backpack on, and take a walk. Preferably a long walk. At my fastest, I’ve rucked nearly 15 miles in five hours. But rucking is only a part of my walking practice. 

Often, I walk alone. Paradoxically, in motion, I find stillness. My legs propel my body forward, but my mind and emotions calm. I feel peace around me and in me. 

Often, I walk with my wife, my daughters and my dogs, or some combination thereof. My favorite conversations with them materialize on our walks. Even with the dogs. 

From a young age, walking felt like a different kind of activity than anything else. Especially walking in nature on summer visits to North Carolina, I felt surrounded by profound beauty and sought absorption into that magnificence. I find walking a spiritual endeavor. In the words of the wonderful saunterer Stephen Graham, walking allows me “to reach for the infinite.” I feel the universe beside and around and in me. I am a drop in the River Ocean; I am a vein on a leaf reaching out from a branch on the World Tree. 

Sometimes, in this action of spirit and life, I walk and talk. For years, friends have approached me to discuss issues of deep importance or challenge to them. They appreciate my willingness to empathetically listen, without seeking solutions or judgment. And so now, on “Spiritual Companionship Walks,” with friends or friends of friends or even people who find me through my writing, I help create stillness for my companion, whether in person or by phone. 

Sometimes, people have challenges or forks in the road or questions — perhaps even their Frequently Unanswered Questions — that they yearn to discuss. We feel we can’t yet reveal a question containing only a single flame in our heart to our life partner. We can’t divulge a deep doubting to a parent. We don’t know where to initially turn in our grief. We can’t share an apprehension of pathos with our closest friend yet. And yet we need to softly, carefully exhale on to this single lick of flame, so that it grows in our heart. We know we must begin to breathe it into life.

Over the years, many friends and indeed relative strangers have called upon me to help them create the stillness needed for calling aloud this yearning of their heart. These Spiritual Companionship Walks I have been asked to guide create the stillness in motion they have sought. It’s walking, side by side, as a friend, at the beginning of a pilgrimage. 

I write too. You can read more on my newsletter, Solvitur Ambulando, which means “Solve It By Walking.”

Walking, Writing, Stillness, Spirit. 

Quaestiones Gignere Quaestiones: My Frequently Unanswered Questions

I wrestle with these questions every day. In my experience, good questions beget other questions – maybe smaller questions, maybe larger questions – much as a good walk unfurls new pageants of colors, trees, birds, streets, animals, and sounds. 

Quid Sit Deus?

Leo Strauss ends his book of ancient political philosophy, The City and Man, with: “What is God?” I have silently spoken these words to myself at least once a day since I read them nearly 30 years ago. I do not know the answer, and yet I do not know a more lovely question. 

What Do I Do With a Gift?

My now-deceased political philosophy professor, James V. Schall, S.J., would say, “Most people believe they reveal their souls when they give a gift. Really, we reveal ourselves most when we receive a gift.” In college and the few years after, I thought he was referring to the gift of life. What would I do with this incomparable gift of life I have been given? Yes, I had a heart defect, but I had life! Do I use this gift well? Do I misuse the gift of a body and life? Do I disuse it? Do I use my gift of life to harm someone else’s gift of life? Do I use my gift in pursuit of higher things?

Now, I also wonder whether Fr. Schall might have meant other gifts, too. The gift of children. The gift of loving parents. Perhaps, even, the gift of faith.

How Do I Calm My Emotions, or, Why Am I Such an Asshole?

Many people who know me believe I am such a calm, peaceful, happy, cheerful bloke. Those closest and dearest to me all too often witness a very different side of me. Angry, dejected, bitter at the world, believing that every two-minute wait at the post office is evidence of the universe conspiring against my awesomeness from being sparklingly unleashed on the world. 

I’ve struggled for so long to bring my immediate, reflex reactions to my emotions under control. I feel like I am making progress — slow, arduous progress, like climbing a Himalayan mountain. 

That’s what I feel. But you better ask my wife and kids what they believe.

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The Foster collective is united by our belief in the transformative, life-affirming power of the written word. Coming together for weekly writing sessions via Zoom is our foundational practice.  

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