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Prayers of releasing/receiving/returning while walking

Lynne Baab • Tuesday June 6 2023

Prayers of releasing/receiving/returning while walking

Twenty years ago, in August, I marked my six-year anniversary as an associate pastor at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Seattle. A couple of things happened in 2003 that felt like nudges from God, briefly bringing to my awareness that perhaps I was approaching the time to leave that pastoral position. I did my best to ignore those nudges because I REALLY did not want to leave. I loved the congregation, my colleagues, and my ministry responsibilities.

In December 2003, Dave and I went on vacation to San Francisco, and I walked the outdoor labyrinth at Grace Cathedral. I had visited the cathedral five years earlier, and walking the labyrinth was a highlight, enabling me to ponder the patterns of our faith pilgrimage with beautiful views of the city as a backdrop. This time, to my surprise, the whole way into the center on the convoluted path, I didn't notice the view at all. Instead I was completely focused on an intense prayer: “No, no, no, I don’t want to leave Bethany. I’m not ready. I don’t want to. No, please, no.”

At the center of the labyrinth, as I paused to rest in God’s presence, a huge peace descended on me, almost as if I had emptied myself of those powerful emotions that were real but actually fleeting. Once I gave those emotions to God on that walk into the labyrinth, they were gone. On the way out, walking that convoluted path in the opposite direction, I prayed, “I’m willing to do whatever you want.”

Those moments of prayer in the labyrinth prepared me for the tumultuous events of 2004. In January, it became crystal clear that it was time for me to leave. In February, I read an article about seminaries needing people with pastoral experience and Ph.D. degrees to teach practical ministry courses. In March I applied for two doctoral programs in Seattle. In April I confirmed that I would enter a Ph.D. program in communication at the University of Washington. I left the church in August and began my studies in September. The Ph.D. degree enabled me to teach pastoral theology for a decade in New Zealand, from 2007 to 2017.

I was familiar with a pattern of relinquishing things into God’s hands while walking. That passionate prayer on the way into the labyrinth was similar to my habit of prayer walking in my 30s. I would walk the eight blocks from our house in north Seattle to Greenlake. As I walked the path along the lake’s shore, I imagined Jesus in a rowboat close to the shore, and I handed him my concerns and sorrows, asking him to dump them in the lake. When I reached the southernmost point of the lake path, I paused for a moment, then turned back. As I walked back along the lake, I imagined Jesus in the rowboat handing me what I needed: peace, patience, perseverance, kindness, and love.

The website for Grace Cathedral’s labyrinth suggests a process similar to what I have described. They recommend three steps, which can be used on any walk with a destination and return. These steps can also be used while journaling or laying in bed in the middle of the night processing our lives. I’m using their words for the three steps, and I’m describing the steps with a combination of their words and mine, adding some insights from my experience:

  • Releasing. On the way into the labyrinth or in the early part of your walk, let go of what’s on your mind. Shed your thoughts and distractions. Open your heart and quiet your mind.
  • Receiving. When you reach the center of the labyrinth or your destination, stay as long as you like. Continue to open your heart and quiet your mind. Receive what is there for you to receive.
  • Returning. As you follow the same path back to your beginning point, offer yourself to God, resting in God’s presence with you.

Many Christians pray while walking, and prayer walking is a spiritual practice that can take many forms. For many of us, the rhythmic slap of our feet on the ground and the movement of our whole bodies frees us to pray. Praying while walking integrates our bodies with our minds and spirits. My two favorite books about walking and praying come from my friend Steve Simon, Holy Walks: Learning and Praying the Psalms (you can read a blog post I wrote about it here), and David Hansen, Long Wandering Prayer: An Invitation to Walk With God. We can walk and pray close to our homes or miles away in a favorite beautiful spot.

One very specific form of prayer walking happens in a labyrinth. Labyrinths come in numerous designs. They are not mazes, which involve trying to figure out how to navigate through a complex pattern. Labyrinths have a clear path in and out, and most have a center where we can pause and reflect. Many labyrinths follow the labyrinth pattern on the floor of Chartres Cathedral, just outside Paris. That labyrinth was designed in the thirteenth century for Christians who desired to go on a pilgrimage but couldn’t. They could do a pilgrimage right in their cathedral. You can see that labyrinth design on the Grace Cathedral website.

Labyrinths can be a powerful metaphor for the life of faith: convoluted paths that feel too complicated, companions beside us for a while then not, sometimes feeling like we’re walking away from the center because the path takes us that way, and sometimes getting to pause for a moment of peace. Sometimes when I’ve walked a labyrinth, I didn’t pray at all. I just pondered the strange pattern and observed what I experienced as I walked the curving path.

I commend to you this process of releasing/receiving/returning that has been so transformational and helpful to me. You can do it walking in your neighborhood, walking a labyrinth, while journaling, or right now as you are reading this post.

God of transformation, we ask for your help to recognize what we need to release to you. We ask for openness to receive what you want to give us in return, so we can return to our daily lives with fresh love for you and renewed ability to allow the Holy Spirit to guide and empower us to do your will.

(Next week: Praying about the emotions of hospitality. This is the fourth post in a series on spiritual practices and prayer. If you’d like to read about how I define spiritual practices and see a list of all the posts in the series, the first post of the series is here. Illustration by Dave Baab: Botanic Garden, Dunedin, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

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