Walking as a Focal Practice Q&A with Arthur Paul Boers, by John Shorb
When I was a student, I was burned out and would cope by going for long walks. I was never interested in long distance walking or hiking – just 40 minute walks here and there. About nine years ago, I was still living in Ontario and I read an article in the local newspaper about a group of women who hiked the Bruce Trail. It is 500 miles long and they walked it on a part time basis. I thought it was interesting – and that I could do it: I could take days off and walk.
I was not sure exactly why I was doing it. But while I walked, things were happening to me. It was a physical challenge, but I also started to experience time differently. I saw geography differently. I saw distance differently. I noticed that when I walked things were going on with me that usually happened when I was on retreat. When I go to the monastery for retreat, I start to relax quickly. It gave me the courage – and conviction – to re-evaluate what was going on in my life, reprioritize what was most important to me, and re-enter life in a more balanced way. Long distance walking is a lot like retreats – with the added benefit of going outdoors, seeing nature. This was good for the environment and good for me physically.
Albert Borgmann is a philosopher at the University of Montana and he has a term he uses: focal.
Things or realities that are focal have three qualities.
First, they have a commanding presence – they remind us that there are realities bigger than us, that demand loyalty from us and fill us with awe and inspire us.
Second, they have a meaningful continuity with other realities – engaging in a focal thing or practice is going to connect you with a web of relationships in many different directions.
Third, focal reality has a centering orienting power – it reminds us of our deepest and most important priorities.
People talk about our culture as geography of nowhere and no places. All our towns and cities are beginning to look alike. Our cities’ landscapes look like each other, dominated by big box stores, strip malls and chain restaurants. We don’t have architecture that is different or inspires us. Instead of preparing a meal, we heat one up in the microwave. More and more we are eating on our own and in a hurry.
Sunday morning worship is one of the few places where focal practices are offered on a regular basis across the generations. Christians exercise hospitality, they sing, they read scripture, they preach and they give testimony. One of the many reasons why worship is important is that it is because it is one of the few places in our culture now where focal practices are regularly engaged and practiced.
Arthur Paul Boers is the author of The Way Is Made by Walking. He taught Pastoral Theology at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana for seven years. He now teaches leadership at Tyndale Seminary. Prior to being a professor, Professor Boers was a Mennonite pastor for 16 years. He is also a Benedictine Oblate – a person who is outside a monastery but commits to living Benedictine values.
Adapted from an article at: