Solitary Walking – a Reformed Spiritual Practice?

This is initial thinking and it is not simple.

Firstly, one of the big shocks of my thesis was that the Reformed Spirituality is instinctively Green. It is really weird because the people who are most surprised by this are the Reformed.  The idea that getting out into the natural world is good for the soul seems to be deeply embedded and has deeper roots than the idea that we are the driving spirituality of capitalism. The Green nature of Reformed may well stem from John Calvin’s idea of the natural world as the theatre of God’s Glory. Or rather it may well be that John Calvin’s own spirituality connected with the natural world which led to his doctrine of the world as “theatre of God’s Glory”. That is the connection made in  Ravished by Beauty by Belden C Lane. If so we are also called not to turn it into some safe primary school image of itself but to see it in its complexity with the dark and the dangerous included. I am never quite sure whether I like God, God is far too challenging for the word “like”.

Secondly, we are inherently an active tradition. This means that we like to tackle problems and achieve things. The idea of sitting quietly in a room does not fit naturally with who we are, so the idea that we should go out into the natural world and just breathe in the beauty is not going to fit with the Reformed activism. Here walking comes to our aid. We are doing something; it might not be getting us very far, far quickly but we are doing something.

Thirdly, there is a substantial literature on spiritual aspects of walking, quite a bit of it generally secular. However, what is probably more important to the Reformed Christian is there is a strong linkage with radical ideas of society and justice. Walking is not a practice that gives us just space but it also connects to radical views on what society is. People such as Peace Pilgrim, Jarrow Hunger March, and this teenager against climate change have used walking as a means of engaging in wider aspects of society.

Fourthly, Pilgrim sites may be un-Reformed but the journeying is far more ambiguous particularly within the Separatist tradition in England. It is the tradition that both created the Pilgrim Fathers and Pilgrim’s Progress.  The metaphor of the Christian life as a journey runs deep. It is also true that if Geneva is the birthplace of the Reformed tradition then it is also a tradition whose creation was dominated by refugees. There is no accident in the Reformed traditions perpetual return to the stories of Exodus and Exile. We are a travelling people and that goes for the English Reformed as much as anyone due to the Five Mile Act.

So walking in the countryside seems to be a good match with Reformed Spirituality. What do I mean by Solitary Walking? The normal term for hiking alone is Solo Hiking. What I want to get at with Solitary Walking is the deliberate embracing of the spiritual side of walking. Solitaries are another term for hermits so in this respect, I am exploring a spirituality that links with the eremitical tradition rather than the monastic.  So here are the Spiritual connections I see.

Firstly the Bible has lots of people travelling and because of the history of the Bible, a lot of these journeys were on foot. So we assume that Adam and Eve left the garden on foot, a journey from, not a journey towards. Abraham is called to journey (actually it is his father Terah who starts off the journey but there is no account of the call of Terah), the  Exodus,  Ruth and Naomi’s journey, the Exile and Return, Jesus’ peripatetic teaching ministry in Galilee and Paul’s missionary journeys are all stories of travel. There is no lack of travel during God’s revelation. Perhaps it could be argued that God is able to reach people particular when they are moving, it is the stationary periods where things particularly go wrong.

Secondly walking is physical, repetitive and slow. As such it is at odds with much of the modern culture which focuses on the new, the virtual and the quick. We become, myself very much included, stimulation junkies. Walking allows us to lower our desired level of stimulation without us going to the cold turkey of a plain room, silence, and stillness. Let me deal with each term in order. Walking is physical, you need to be at least partly present in the moment or you end up walking into things whether lamposts, other people or dog dirt. There is, however, more as the art of walking is keeping going and that means paying attention to very practical things such as food, what you are wearing and how far it is until you next rest. It thus in a very practical way brings you into the present. It is repetitive in that involves the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other, usually several thousand times in a days hike. In this perhaps it fits with a number of other spiritual practices such as bead prayers (e.g. the rosary) and  mantras (e.g. the Jesus prayer). Thirdly it is slow. I walk relatively quickly about 5km per hour on a reasonable terrain. It still takes me two hours to walk ten kilometers something a car cover in about 10 minutes! That means things change more slowly and I begin to notice things simply because I have the time to.

All of the last two paragraphs apply equally well to group walks as well as solitary ones. However, the solitary nature of a walk brings other spiritual aspects. These are silence, vulnerability, and freedom. I will take each of these as I suspect I am applying them in a bit of a different way.

Silence is rarely complete when walking, there is nearly always the crunch of your feet. However, when walking alone and not having a companion to talk with one of the things you do get is consistent big chunks of time when you are not trying to communicate with others. The only conversation you have is that which goes on in your own head.  The big advantage, therefore, is you actually get to listen to yourself  consistent spell of time. There is so much going on in modern life that distraction is everywhere. Although not necessarily physically noisy (though many distractions are) distractions are noisy in the sense used in signal processing. This noisiness means we loose connections with ourselves in much of modern life. The process of walking alone reduces the level of distraction so that we can hear ourselves and possibly in that gain some connection with God. However, unlike a silent retreat, it does not have the effect of a dive in off the high diving board into complete silence.

Vulnerability is not popular these days. We try and make ourselves secure against the need for other people. A single person is often seen as intrinsically vulnerable. I am dependent quite often on the kindness of strangers whether it is the offer of a cup of tea, helping me with directions or advice about local transport, the kindnesses are all welcome. In our seeking of self-sufficiency, we often cut ourselves off from receiving these kindnesses. This gives us the illusion of not needing others. What travelling as a solitary person among other people does is draw our attention back to our interdependence.

I really considered not including freedom in the list. It is perhaps not the usual item included in the spiritual practices and yet for me it is intrinsic to the process. There is on one level a very basic freedom, I have usually a number of miles to walk in a day and provided I cover those miles exactly how I do it and which paths I follow is totally within my control. It can feel quite liberating to take a path that is not that specified in the guidebook when appropriate. It reminds you of your self determination. On another level it gives a different freedom, that is the demands for time and attention most people live with most of the time. I am slightly disconnected from the continually on society that is part of modern life. If an email comes to work that needs urgent attention then it has to wait as I cannot deal with it until I have proper connections. What is more the people I meet do not know me, they are meeting me for the first time and thus have no expectations. I do not feel I am expected to be the canny statistician, dutiful daughter or loyal friend as no-one knows those personas. Personally I seem to attract these projected personas and they are not always compatible with each other.

Finally, having made a case for solitary walking as a spiritual practice largely suited to Reformed Spirituality let me point out why can only ever be part of the experience. I, myself and my shadow with the Bible are never sufficient within the Reformed tradition to be the Church. The Church must always consisted of an attempt to belong to a community. Some of this I believe goes to the heart of the Gospel where we have a God who seeks those who are separated from him. Other parts are very practical, loving people as an abstract idea is a form of wishful thinking, we can only really love people in the concrete physical reality of the present. Finally, my PhD has persuaded me that the discipline of the Church is realised within the life of the local congregational community.

That said I am still working on this and am not sure where it is leading.

Works Cited

Belden C Lane. Ravished by Beauty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Hardback. ISBN:9780199755080

You May be United Reformed If

  • You think the right colour to paint a church is blue
  • Your Church sells Marmalade to raise money
  • Your Church has a walking group
  • On receiving an important document you first proof read it
  • You regularly make soup in large quantities
  • Psalm 23 is ok but nothing compared with the Scottish Psalters version of Psalm 24 or Isaac Watts version of Psalm 122 it really is just another psalm
  • The right tune to any hymn is that which is sung by your own congregation
  • You put your hymnbook down to sing “When I survey..”
  • Having candles in church is heatedly debated on the grounds of fire risk

I will add as I think of fresh ones

A Doctor in the Church?

There has been a blog discussed on facebook suggesting that it might be a good idea for congregations to employ theologians. The blog was taken down, but I did find this article on Christian Century describing Theologians in Residence. Now before we go any further let me be clear I have a vested interest. I am a lay person just about to complete my doctoral studies in theology. So it looks as if the church is about to create positions for people like me. O this is America so it may come about in the UK about the time I am due to retire, so I am not holding my breath.

However I want to question the whole idea, but not for the usual arguments. The usual two are as follows. Firstly that all Christians (Muslims, Jews and Atheist as well) are theologians. That is they have a conceptual frame work that works around the idea of God (even if in the case of most* Atheists this is God’s non-existence).  I am quite happy with that, I would encourage such people to work at and thus clarify their understanding as much as possible. Trying to speak honestly about the nature of God is in my opinion a good thing. The second is that the cleric/minister/priest is a theologian in residence, and to an extent they are right. That is the cleric/minister/priest will have spent time in theological education, should have an understanding of the wider debates within Christianity and has a role in helping members of the local church grow in their understanding as well as action, character and devotion to the faith.

However “the Theologian” is not new, not within Reformed circles, it goes right back to at least John Calvin. His five fold ministry was Apostles, Prophet, Minister, Doctor and Elder (yes no Deacon although the role is explained in the Institutes).  What I am interested in is the office called “Doctor”. This is what I take a theologian of the Church to be. One thing should be immediately clear, those offices are in order of seniority, “Doctor” is lower than “Minister”. You technically would expect to be more of them, but there have been fewer recognised. Oddly enough it never go to none but you needed to listen carefully to discover who is Doctor and not a Minister. They also tended to fill roles that looked senior to ministers such as being involved in ministerial training.

Apostles and Prophets arise in time of crisis; the Apostles providing leadership and the Prophets warnings. However on a day to day basis they are not needed. He however then folds them back so that Ministers are the common place equivalent of Apostles and Doctors are thus common or garden prophets. Lets look at the two senior roles in ancient Israel Priest and Prophet. The Apostle would map to priest roughly. In one important aspect at least, the priest was entitled to income for his religious role. This is acknowledged for ministers. The snag for this is that the prophet isn’t. If a prophet was a priest then he did get the income as a priest to enable him to fulfil that role but he did not get it for being a prophet. The prophet needed independency to fulfil their role as prophet in ancient Israel. The doctor/theologian needs independency to fulfil their role in the church and the congregation needs an independency from them. A theologian is only as good as the insights that they bring.

So no a theologian in residency is not the way to go. In fact in some ways if a theologian takes such a post then they are compromising their role. They become over reliant on the hand that feeds them and can end up saying what it wants them to say rather than struggling with the word of God.

Remember I said that Doctors of the church should be more numerous than ministers, but few are recognised. They are there, indeed they exist already in every congregation in my experience. They quite possibly have done some extra study, fulfil teaching roles e.g. lay preacher, head of junior church and are known in the congregation for their deep spirituality. They probably make up the core members of your bible study groups. They may or may not be elders and not all elders are Doctors of the Church. Some ministers are, and some are not; just as some priests were prophets and some were not.

*I am aware that there are individuals who would use the badge Atheist, but do not make such a clear statement.

The Positively Attentional Living

I have not written for ages on this blog. I simply have been too full with my thesis but something has started bugging me and I think it is time I put it up. I have been reading quite a few Puritan writers on or off over the last couple of years and I am beginning to unearth a spiritual practice I think has been lost. We know of the Roman Catholic practice of confession, with its effort to note the sins in one lives, confess them to a confessor and then through repentance move on from them. It is also known Puritans quite often went in for a detailed examination of their lives that echoed this. What has not been asked is how the Puritans understood it. The Puritans seem to have turned the emphasis around 180 degrees.

Lets start one step back. There are many sets of techniques for assuring oneself of ones salvation. You may have come across the sinners prayer, or the conversion testimony if you have had contact with Evangelicals. You might equally find people who are concerned that their belief system matches as closely as possibly that of orthodox Christianity. Equally the more sacramental can be concerned about receiving communion and baptism. I am not suggesting one of these is right and others wrong, they are all partial. That is they grasp part of the truth about Salvation but not the whole. What the Puritans had was another such technique. It relied on the classical Reformed doctrine of Sanctification. The idea being that this was the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the believers life. The close examination was therefore not to detect sin and repent of it, but to detect the activity of the Holy Spirit and thus to rejoice at this assurance of salvation and also to help it bear fruit.

Now there is a lot to be said for this as one of the techniques. Firstly it points people towards the positive in their lives rather than the negative. Concentrating on the positive gives people energy. Secondly it changes our perspective of sin. While sin is not to be welcomed, awareness of it and repentance are; as these are signs of the work of the Holy Spirit, convicting us and healing us. I am not sure how to put it into practicebut there does seem something good about watching for where the Holy Spirit is working in our lives and those around us.

How Green are the Reformed?

I can remember when I was seventeen giving a brief talk on the pros and cons of nuclear power which was largely informed by information provided by Friends of the Earth. I was not a member of Friends of the Earth but the information had been given by a friend of the family and I read it and digested it. It was a hot green issue in those days and friend was a URC member.

Yet if you had asked me five years ago what was new in the URC I would have said a concern around green issues. This has been slowly but surely climbing up the agenda both in terms of personal behaviour (how often do you share lifts, recycle paper, tins and plastic or participate in other green initiative) and nationally within the denomination.

I suppose I was accepting the obvious, the way the Reformed tradition is credited with being an activist tradition. That is we are an industrious people. To give you some idea look at what the Scots did in “Wha’s like us” but then it was English who largely made up the New England Puritans, which were the driving force in the US as well as a good few industries England. It is hardly surprising being good bible readers we have taken perhaps too literally Genesis 1:28  “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth”(KJV).

Yet the more I look into it the more there seems to have been an undercurrent of ecological sensitivity. It is John Calvin who talks of world as “theatre of God’s creation” and Jonathan Edwards (17th Century New England Congregational Minister famous for his Hell fire sermons) who had a sense of rapture in the surrounding countryside. It looked rather as if it was something we had lost and rediscovered in this century. Then however T A Leonard with his walking holidays came along for the late nineteenth early twentieth century. I think it is safer to assume it has always been there.

So when Iona Community is seen as having Celtic Spirituality or the fact that perhaps the first book on the Green character of God was “God is Green” by Ian Bradley a Church of Scotland minister back in 1992 is not that surprising. They are giving voice to a secondary discourse that has run almost as a stream underground within the Reformed tradition.

The Reformed Look

This church should feel very familiar to many people in the URC; the plain wood, the clear glass the white washed walls, and the communion table at the centre in the front with a pulpit above and the Bible open. If it was not for the red carpet you’d almost be sure you were in a URC.

However look closer and you see the heating systems a bit different to what we are used and there is writing on the wall which is not in English. You are actually looking at a Waldensian Church in the Alps in Italy. If you click on the link it should take you to a webpage that tells you more about the Waldensians. However it is enough to say they are the Italian branch of the Reformed family of churches.
 
Some of the more ornate traditions within the faith look at us and see cheapness, they are of course wrong. The chairs and furnishings may be plain wood but they high quality oak, the windows may let through plenty of light but if you look carefully you see they are not plain glass, the drape across the door may not be spectacularly embroidered but is of heaviest quality velvet. This is not cheapness but a deliberate aesthetic and the quality of the goods use belies their plainness.

I have heard a number of theories, some suggest it is iconoclasm, if that is the case it is to Zwingli in Zurich it comes from not Calvin in Geneva, for whom candles and such were irrelevancy. It might have been a reaction against those who would enforce ritual upon us that we chose to be plain just to contrary, or perhaps as in many places the early churches were barns we have chosen to remember those times by keeping as similar sort of aesthetic. I suspect it is kept today largely because to us it feels right.

In what is often a light calm space comes a specific arrangement of items. At the focus is the communion table and not the cross (empty or otherwise) which puts our action in the context of a God who choose to connect with us. In quite a few churches although the communion table is the focal point the congregation is arranged so that we see each other emphasising the communal nature of worship. The lectern and pulpit are also prominent at the front, sometimes above the communion table, sometimes to the side to remind us visually of the importance of the Word. The lack of paintings and other artwork has not made the space lacking symbols but one where distractions are eliminated to allow the central symbols a more clear space in which to speak. It encourages us to pay attention to these things.

A Restless People

Firstly I have reached a bit of an impasse. I seem to be totally confused about what has been put into my local congregations Newsletter. So what I am going to do is keep posting them to the editor when finished and putting up Monthly one here, but the order will not be the same as in the Magazine. Now onto this month’s piece

It is one of the oft forgotten things that John Calvin was a refugee in Geneva to the day he died, he never took Genevan citizenship. In fact Geneva at the time had a large émigré population of Protestants from France, as well as attracting others from as far away as Scotland.  It was also a faction ridden city, not really a comfortable place to settle. John Calvin is therefore unique amongst the Reformers in not serving within his own homeland but always as an alien.

This odd coincidence has become a repeated pattern of travel and dislocation within the Reformed tradition.  There are the Pilgrim Fathers, who travelled from North East Lincolnshire to Holland, then back to the UK and onto found Plymouth Colony in what is now the United States. Gainsborough URC claims direct descent from the congregation that they belonged to. The Waldensians travelled from their valleys in Northern Italy to Geneva to escape persecution in the seventeenth century. The five mile act making people walk five miles from their homes to worship. John Bunyan’s work, Pilgrim’s Progress was very much a creation of those days. More recently, the continual moving across the Scottish border of more fervent Presbyterians, which supported the former Presbyterian churches in what is now Northern Synod and then the Industrial revolution pulling Scots south into England to provide the management for the factories. The burning bush is the start of the story of the Exodus. Reformed Christians seem to be on the move whether voluntarily, force  or in the imagination.

This seems to have entered our psyche in the URC we even imagine our buildings as connected with travel. Some think of the church building as a meeting tent that moves with the congregation; if the congregation moves, then you need a new building where they now are. Or perhaps it is a caravanserai, a place where people who are travelling, could come together from their wanderings, a place of relative safety and companionship with other travellers.  It is hardly surprising we often struggle with being a local church, somehow we are never quite at home rather we echo the writer to the Hebrews:

For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. 
(Hebrews 13:14)

Responding through the tradition

The coupling of powerful ideas
with each able to stir the imagination
that pull against the other
falling into no easy rest
a turbulent route that
has dangerous falls on one side
a whirlpool that will suck us in
there is no quiet water between
the only way to move forward
is to use the force of one
to balance the other.

Is it surprising that
those who will navigate
these waters
speak in measured tone
the risk of a missed balanced
is not the slight wobble
but an infatuation
that sends you spiralling
into the whirlpool of
a God so loving that
we can not conceive him
of him judging anyone
is beyond him
or head towards the falls
of a God who is so holy
that we are so base material
that we are destroyed
by the temerity even to approach.

However there is a third monster
that travels with the careful
tried and tested navigator
that captures the unwary sailors heart
by saying there are no monsters glories
and with careful line of thought
final safety may be assured
thus giving us deadly words
that do not speak to the heart
which sucked many careful people
dry of the blood of passion
for we have lost more to it
than too the others.

Struggling with Easter

I long ago fell out with the liberal Christian group or atheist who want to ask questions about how the resurrection really happened. Whether the talk is of “conjuring tricks with bones”, questions of the physicality of the resurrection, body snatching or the idea that some how Christ was in a coma. It is not that I want to argue with them, it just is not a question that I see as answerable or being really of interest. My God is certainly capable of doing it, whether he did or not is lost in the midst of times. What I am struggling with is why he did whatever he did.

First let me be honest where I am coming from. I do not want eternal life, thank you! The idea that my life might end and there be nothing more seems desirable. Indeed so desirable that if I had genuinely believed that was an option I would have been dead over twenty years ago. To me and I suspect some others with mental health problems, the simple act of existing feels wearisome. Do not get me wrong, I can feel joy, can participate in events, join in celebration and enjoy a quiet read. But I know I will come back to reality of me and how tired I am of it. When I am down this tends to sap the energy to do anything. When I am moderate I find silence and low activity levels totally absorbing. When I am up as at present, it acts more as a fantasy.

Now I struggle with Easter in two ways. Firstly the tendency to view it as the “happy ever after” end to the story. In most atonement theories it looks as if Christ’s action on Good Friday was enough. The Easter Sunday is an add on that seems to be the implausible ending to make a happy ending. There is one exception and that is the exemplar of God’s love theory. The argument would go that Christ went through the worst of human experience, was given the option to not come back and did. When I meet that one, the resurrection to me becomes mind blowing, its just not something I can imagine myself doing. I am not sure that I love anyone enough to be given an out and still come back. It makes no sense and yet in some ways it shows me something I can only just grasp.

However having got that far, I then run into the talk of eternal life. You think this is good news, well to this individual it is not. My personal idea of Hell I suspect is pretty close to a continuation of this life with the daily task of existing. Yet on Easter day I am supposed to get excited about that. Well I am not and no amount of jumping up and down will make it so. Yes I have lost people I care about to death, but I also did not want to hold onto them, keep them here. My Grandparents on my father’s side were really quite cross with God for letting them live so long. People walk out of my life for a whole host of reasons and death is only one of them. I have learnt to accept that though they will not be replaced yet I will find new friendships and different ways of living without them.

Here are some things that might just appeal. If the resurrection means that there will be a final reckoning when we will face the total of our lives, when the injustice, cruelty and such will finally be called to account, I can actually see something worthwhile in that. I need to face the hurt and pain I have caused to others, to not do so is to be deluded about who I am. I do not expect it to be pleasant but I do expect the integrity that goes with it to be a good worth savouring.

However there is another thing that I feel that if I could glimpse more than just mentally stretch towards might somehow make it and that is the experience of living a life shaped absolutely by the worship of God. Do not get me wrong I do not mean one where all day every day is a praise service. Our worship of God is wider and deeper than that. I mean one where for a while I am simply caught up in living so as to honour God. To focus not on existing but on the creator. I occasionally get moments of wonder, but the wonder is fleeting and I move on, as if nothing has happened. I want the tensions that seem part of living to be resolved for a short while and somehow they never are. Therefore if somehow I can imagine that eternal life is to be the briefest of flickers in the molten love of God and caught up in the heavenly praise then I begin to find images of eternal life that promise me not the endless dull tiredness but a relief from having to exist.