“Take off your shoes.” The thought hadn’t occurred to me. In fact, thus far on the path, I could think of nothing but the fact that my leather work shoes might get dirty from all the sand, leaves, and mud. Well, that and the mosquitoes and spider webs. You see, I was on a 24-hour silent retreat, and this was a “prayer walk” through the woods by the Chattahoochee River. It’s not the kind of thing I would normally seek, but when it’s a requirement for your doctorate, you don’t ask questions. At this point I was four hours in, and I had stared out my window enough. So I took a walk.
Now I was used to walking in the woods, but the point was usually to get somewhere: a place to fish, a mountain peak to capture the view, a campsite, etc. This was different. The path didn’t go anywhere. It was just a circle. And when I say “path”...it was more of game trail than anything else, the weeds and ferns and ivy growing so close that at times I could barely see the shoes I was so worried about.
At last I reached a deck by the river. A welcome reprieve from my “spider-web-in-the-face,” “a-snake’s-about-to-bite-my-leg” anxiety. I was carrying a bag with my copy of our discussion series book in it. So I opened Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, and what do you know! She has a chapter called “The Practice of Walking the Earth.” It seemed serendipitous. It seemed like “God-moment.” So I sat down to read.
“Take off your shoes and feel the earth under your feet, as if the ground on which you are standing really is holy ground...you don’t need to go to the Sinai desert to engage the practice of going barefoot. Just choose a place outdoors that you are willing to encounter in the flesh without your customary cushion and protection...Let it please you. Let it hurt you a little. Feel how the world really feels when you do not strap little tanks on your feet to shield you from the way things really are….It will help if you do not expect God to speak to you” (Taylor 66-67).
“...do not expect God to speak to you…” The words echoed in my mind. “Ok, ok. I think I get it. Slow down, and stop looking for it. Stop waiting for something to happen.” So I took off those nice leather shoes I had been so worried about. I pulled off my socks, rolled up my pants leg, and I started walking. More slowly this time. More deliberately, gingerly placing each step on the ball of my foot instead of the heel to avoid putting too much weight on a sharp stick or stone.
It sounds funny, but the effect was almost instantaneous. My anxiety was gone. I could feel the softness of the damp, sandy soil. I could sense the crunch of the leaves. And for the first time I could sense my surroundings. Everything came alive. The birds in the distance. The gentle flow of the water. God didn’t say anything, but God’s peace was more real to me than it had been in quite a while. I guess sometimes we get so caught up in where we’re going that we forget to be where we are.