Walkways and Pathways
Often I am inspired to write one of these reflections by an experience I would never guess could become spiritual. This happened recently when I was in a large east coast city. Since I grew up on an Indiana farm, visiting a city continues to be an eye-opening experience. As a kid, I had cornfields, not skyscrapers! I appreciate nature, to be sure, but I also appreciate the marvel of human engineering and building that the large cities represent.
It was during a rather leisurely walk in the middle of this large city that I began to take note of something pretty mundane. A couple times, I turned off a big, multi-lane street on which I was walking and headed down a much more narrow side street. There is nothing remarkable about that, until I began to notice the stark contrast between the huge throughway that the big street represented and the tinier walkway that linked some of the larger roads.
It occurred to me that I would never describe the major throughway as a “walkway.” I was intrigued with that word, so I checked the dictionary. A walkway obviously is a place to walk. More precisely, a walkway can describe a connecting place between two buildings or streets. Literally, it is a “way” to walk.
My mind immediately went to some of the European or Asian cities I have visited. Sometimes those walkways are nearly hidden, obscure and twisting. Occasionally, those walkways would be covered. I also remember heading down some of those foreign city walkways and was really unsure where they would take me or what I might see on the way. They were a bit foreboding. They provoked caution, even though I would know it was a “way to walk.” The walkway would get me from point A to point B. But that is as special as it ever became.
As I reflected a little further, I realized that I switch language when it comes to spirituality. Instead of walkway, I use the language of “pathway.” I am sure for some people, the two words, walkway and pathway, are synonymous. But for me, pathway is a spiritual term. I would agree that a pathway could also be understood as a means to get from point A to point B. But this becomes very different when points A and B are spiritual. For me a pathway is never simply a way to move from 8th Street to 9th Street.
I am certain all the major religious traditions offer pathways for people to search for and connect with the Holy One. Of course, a tradition like Buddhism would not talk about the Holy One, but something more like the realization of the truth. But the Buddhist also would have a spiritual path. Since I know the most about Christianity, let me stick with that tradition to illustrate the nature of a spiritual path.
It is well known that at one point Jesus talks about being the “way.” Of course, this has led to doctrines that can become very controversial. I prefer to avoid doctrine and talk about Jesus’ description of the “way” as the pathway he trod and invites all his disciples to walk, too.
The spiritual path begins with faith. For me personally, faith meant coming to trust that there was a God and that I could come to know and connect with the Divine One. Faith means that no one can prove that God exists and that we can know God. It is a pilgrimage of faith and a way of trust. I can become confident, but I can never be sure that God is there with me and for me.
So I walk the spiritual path in trust and learn to love. Learning to love is not like the walkway that takes us from 8th Street to 9th Street. Learning to love is a pathway that is more byzantine. It is more like those ways in Asian cities that can even seem foreboding. On the spiritual pathway there may be some fear and trepidation to test the faith with which one walks.
Learning to love on the spiritual path is much like walking the maze. Unlike a labyrinth, a maze is not easy. In fact, when we enter a maze, we cannot be sure we can even make it to the middle. The path is not clear; it is often not even marked. There will be dead ends, wrong choices, and times of being lost.
This is why the spiritual path requires times of prayer and meditation. We need time to explore, time to test options, times to listen for God’s still small voice. The spiritual path can be frustrating, because it is often not clear whether we are making progress---whether we really are getting anywhere. We are tempted to want to try to turn our spiritual pathway into a walkway. We want a guarantee---a sure thing.
That is the difference. If you are on a spiritual path that seems like a sure thing---believe this and do that---you can be confident you have turned the spiritual path into a walkway. For me this is a sure sign that I have opted for the illusion that I’ve got it and I will surely make it. I know I am on a spiritual path and that is why I am sure of nothing. And that feels like progress!