Besides the question of “Why would you want to walk 2650 miles in the wilderness alone,” I have a wonderful, deep, thought-provoking community who ask things like, “How are you hoping this will change you? Do you have thoughts or hopes for how it will be used by God in your own development? I can’t help but think this journey will be transformational for you . . . Tell me about how you’re hoping to be transformed.”
Sheesh, can I get an easy question like, “What kind of water filter are you using?” (A Sawyer Mini Filter . . . Worked like a rock star) or “What was your favorite piece of gear?” (My Purple Rain Adventure Skirt . . . Simply the best gear choice I made.)
Seriously, though, I knew this journey would be transformational. How could something like this not be? And I knew that I wanted to be open to what the experience had to teach me and not manipulate it. I also wanted to go in with a bit of a plan so I could direct some of my time on the trail in order to help facilitate growth in specific areas. So, for my over-scheduling, list making, achiever personality, I was seeking rhythms and disciplines that would be life-giving while trying to balance those disciplines with open hands, allowing God to direct the journey as needed. Easy, right?
Speaking of God, when I started my planning I was in a bit of a rough patch in that relationship. I was having a difficult time spiritually in the midst of some things going on in my life. Remember the angry, cynical, bitter Tami I wrote about in the last post? Those things have a way of taking over your heart and mind if you let them, not leaving much space for hope, faith and love. I knew those good things were still in there at my core and I knew God was still a central part of my life but it was becoming more difficult. I felt strongly that I needed to grab hold of the opportunities this experience would offer to be transformed and renewed.
As I prepared for my journey, I looked forward to getting a glimpse of what it is like to be comfortable with so much solitude and be alone in my head all day without my normal myriad of distractions. To give my mind and heart the much-needed space to process hurts and questions without having a place to run away. It’s easy in my Portland life not to process things in a way that brings health and vitality. Instead, I just work harder, play harder, and entertain myself more.
So, I began the process of choosing very intentional and specific spiritual disciplines. If the term “spiritual discipline” is a new one for anybody reading I would encourage you to check out The Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster or The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. The general idea is to pursue practices or actions specifically for the purpose of spiritual growth and transformation, a focus on our inward journey and heart. I wanted to see what it was like to practice a discipline with consistent dedication over a longer period of time. I was also hopeful that choosing to engage in the same daily practices would focus my mind as I walked.
The first discipline I chose to do was the Prayer of Examen at the end of each day. I love this part of Ignatian spirituality. The Prayer of Examen would provide self-review and reflection to help me be more aware of God’s presence in my life, name what I am grateful for, and notice patterns and areas of growth.
The second practice I chose was the discipline of study. For one-week periods of time I would memorize a passage of scripture, quote, poem, etc. and meditate on it daily while I hiked. I tend to read over things so quickly without letting the words sink beyond my head and into my heart. I was really excited about the practice of holding these words for a longer period of time and seeing what I noticed as I mulled them over. I asked a number of close friends and family to provide these pieces that I memorized. I loved carrying parts of these dear people with me as I hiked!
Finally, I decided to engage in journaling. I already loved journaling but had fallen out of practice over the past couple years. My hope was that it would become a normal daily routine again. The journaling had no specific focus . . . Just to write about my day and whatever else flowed onto the paper.
So, these are the disciplines in which I chose to engage. Now, for what transpired over the course of my journey.
Like with any discipline, or desired habit change, I started with the greatest of intentions. Similar to the intention I have that I will be disciplined and won’t buy the Chicago Mix Popcorn each time I walk into Trader Joe’s . . . If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, right?
As soon as I set foot on the trail, I was in a new reality, trying to figure out my daily rhythms in the wilderness and trying to simply keep myself hydrated and fed and to get to my next campsite each day. Around day five I realized I had written in my journal twice, done one Prayer of Examen, and had memorized nothing. I’m a perfectionist. This was not a perfect record.
I heard the voice of my friend, Martha, in my head saying, “Tami, be kind to yourself.” (For anyone else who finds this phrase helpful here’s a song for you to listen to from the wonderful storyteller/musician, Andrew Peterson. Actually, just listen to the the whole album!)
So, I took her advice, offered grace to myself, and looked at it with new perspective. I was essentially getting used to a new way of life. That by itself was so much transition! I allowed myself another week to adjust before focusing on the spiritual disciplines. I was reminded that I couldn’t change everything at once. Sometimes it’s just too much. I settled in for the long haul.
The Prayer of Examen, which I thought would be the easiest discipline for me, turned out to be the most difficult to engage. At other points in my life it has been really instrumental so I assumed it would be the same on the trail. However, I found myself so exhausted at the end of the day that I would crawl into my sleeping bag and forget all about it. Or, I would fall asleep in the middle of my reflection time. By the time I was in Washington, the Prayer of Examen had become a distant memory.
Unlike the Prayer of Examen, the discipline of study became the BEST PRACTICE EVER!! I had my doubts about this one and how much I would get into it. I was just memorizing stuff . . . How great could it be? Well, let me tell you! I started with one quote, memorized it and meditated on it. The next week I added another quote and then another and another. Each morning of my journey I would go through my entire repertoire of memorized quotes. By the time I reached Canada this would take me a little over an hour. I loved it so much that I started going through the list each afternoon, too. After going through the quotes I would then focus on the piece for the present week, saying it over and over, wondering about the words, the author, the context, and how it spoke to me at that time. Each day I would become aware of new things. Words would hit me differently throughout the journey and be exactly what I needed at the moment.
Between reciting each quote I also breathed a prayer, “Lord, my Lord, help me to listen to your voice and decide for your mercy.” This prayer got added onto during the journey as I realized what a difficult time I have fully trusting the Bible. Each time I read scriptures there are tons of questions that come up. Sometime in the Sierras I added “and trust your word” to my prayer so it became a rhythm of saying, “Lord, my Lord, help me listen to your voice, decide for your mercy, and trust your word.” This prayer brought each quote back to a central focus of listening and loving well.
The discipline of study has become a part of my daily life. It turns out when I really connect with something, I want to keep doing it! As I walk or run around Portland I find that the movement of my body automatically brings these memorized quotes to mind. The words are like old friends, reminding me of who I am, what I’ve learned, and what’s important to me.
Journaling was what I expected it to be. It didn’t surprise me too much. I used it much more as a record keeper for the journey (daily mileage, who I met that day, who I camped with that night, cool things I saw along the way, etc.) and sometimes I found the energy at the end of the day to document what was happening in my heart, as well. It has become a daily practice again. Mostly. No extreme likes or dislikes with this practice. It’s a staple discipline for me that consistently seems like a helpful way to process.
And, now for the greatest surprise of my trip! Prayer! I had not chosen prayer as a daily practice because, honestly, I was scared. I had not felt the desire to pray for a while and didn’t want to feel the weight of disappointment if I failed at this discipline. I was struggling to find the words to engage in conversation with God as I muddled my way through my spiritual life. With my cynicism hanging over me, I wasn’t sure what to say and felt overwhelmed by the heaviness of things going on in the world around me.
Then, one morning about a week into my journey, I felt so overwhelmed by the immensity of the task before me, the beauty surrounding me, and the gratitude I felt to be out there. The words just started coming out! I had tried for the past year to formulate words to prayers that I could authentically say and here I was just being present while the unformulated words started tumbling out of my mouth from deep within.
And that was just the beginning. Any of you who have backpacked for long periods of time with a group of people know that there is something about being in the wilderness that opens you up. You talk about things with your fellow backpackers that you would never talk about in the “front country.” This is how my prayers felt–the most open and authentic prayers. I said honest things and asked hard questions and trusted that God would hold those things with me.
This was exactly what I meant when I said I wanted to balance the trip with intentionality but also open hands to allow God to direct the journey. Since there was an opening, I jumped in and engaged fully in this gift.
So, now I’m off the trail, living a perfectly disciplined spiritual life. Ha! Not so. I write this not as someone who has not mastered anything (especially in regards to that popcorn at Trader Joe’s) but as someone embracing the journey of honest and messy spirituality.
Discipline is hard. It takes effort, intentionality, and determination, which can be exhausting at times. But if we want something bad enough, we’ll continue pursuing it. Change happens when we fully engage in opportunities for the growth and health we desire. And, now, after an intense encounter with these specific disciplines I find that my soul craves these life-giving practices.
And we won’t do it perfectly. No matter how dedicated we are to our spiritual life or change we desire some days are just . . . Blah (for lack of a better word). These are the moments when the phrase, “Be kind to yourself” is especially helpful. It isn’t, “Be kind to yourself, don’ t care anymore, throw in the towel, and give up.” It is about receiving God’s grace, offering grace to yourself, noticing where we got side-tracked, adding what we learn to our self-awareness file folder for next time . . . And choosing to try again.
It is a balance of discipline and open hands. Along the way we may find that the thing we are so adamant about engaging in just isn’t working for us (like the Prayer of Examen for me) or maybe doesn’t connect with how we learn. This is okay! Offer yourself the freedom to explore, practice something different, and release it if it doesn’t seem like a good fit. You may also find that God has something surprising and better in store for you that you hadn’t thought of. Like my prayer experience!
We all have to figure out how we honestly and authentically pursue Christ in our daily life depending on what that daily life looks like here, now, today. You may not have four months of free time to hike on a trail. I get it. I think sometimes we feel like we need some grand, big “thing” to help us pursue the Christian life while really it’s the little daily things that I’ve found are the most important–making the choice to intentionally interact with God even when we are tired, busy, uncertain, not sure what we believe, or when things seem to be going perfectly.
What does this look like for your daily life–here, now, today? Maybe there is a specific spiritual discipline you want to commit to daily for a month. Or, maybe you’re where I was before I left for my trip and any form of engaging with God would be a good place to pick up. Wherever you are in your journey I encourage you to just take one step down this path. That’s all there is to hiking any trail–metaphorical or literal–one foot in front of the other walking towards your desired destination.