Thomas R. Hawkins
Thomas R. Hawkins is co-pastor with his wife, Jan, at First Presbyterian Church, Hartford, Connecticut. They live in Belchertown, Massachusetts and are the parents of two adult sons.
An avid hiker, Thomas has walked parts of the Appalachian Trail and climbed several mountains in New England. He and his sons have walked in England’s Lake District and on several national trails in the United Kingdom, including the Hadrian’s Wall Trail and the Ridgeway Trail. At home, he walks the family dog, Spenser.
Thomas is the author of several books on spirituality, leadership, and Christian education. His latest book is Every Step a Prayer: Walking As Spiritual Practice (Upper Room Books, 2016). He has also written for several volumes of The Upper Room Disciplines: A Book of Daily Devotions.
Q & A with Thomas Hawkins
What inspired you to write a book on walking as a spiritual practice?
Walking has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I love to walk in the woods, on city streets, in parks, or anywhere there is (and sometimes where there is not) a path. Walking has always renewed me emotionally and physically.
When I had a problem to solve or a decision to make, I found that I could do my best thinking when I went for a long walk. One day I realized that walking was not just a physical practice for me but also had a big effect on my emotional and spiritual life. Walking had evolved into a personal spiritual practice.
Since I do not always meditate well by sitting still and being motionless, walking became an approach to meditation and prayer that fit my personality type. And, as I dug more deeply into scripture and tradition, I discovered that I was not alone. I wrote Every Step a Prayer to help others who may be like me realize a physical activity like walking can be a spiritual practice. Meditation does not always require being physically motionless.
How has walking helped you develop a closer relationship with God?
Most of my walking happens in nature: in parks, woodlands, nature trails, or along rural roads. Walking slows me down and I notice more deeply the world around me: its sounds and smells, the shape and texture of plants or trees, the flight of birds and the movement of a rabbit or squirrel. Moving slowly through the natural world that God has created and continually sustains, I experience an intimate presence of God both around and within me.
I also find myself walking city streets and sidewalks. I love to explore a city on foot. Again, because I am moving slowly, I am more aware of the faces of people around me, the small gestures and actions that are being given and received. In Genesis, God says that humankind is created in God’s image. So in these encounters with others, however brief or fleeting, I am awakened to the presence of God in people around me and in human community. I come back with a deeper sense of God’s presence in every person I meet.
How long have you been walking as a spiritual discipline? What made you shift your focus from walking for exercise to more prayerful walking?
I think it was about four or five years ago that I realized walking was not just something I did to relax or stretch my legs but was a spiritual practice. I was doing a lot of walking at the time because I had a great deal on my mind, and walking some of the paths around my farm in central Illinois became a crucial part of working out the choices and decisions I faced.
About the same time, my youngest son, Jonathan, invited me to join him on a long-distance walk along the Ridgeway Trail in England. That walk became an unexpected form of pilgrimage for me. As we journeyed along this Neolithic trading route from the Salisbury Plain to north of London, I discovered walking was a deeply spiritual experience for me.
In your book you mention the many ways we “take to our feet” in worship. Could you elaborate on the significance of walking in worship?
I think we often underestimate the physical, embodied aspects of worship. As a pastor and worship leader, I often focused on the words of a hymn, for example, without giving much thought to how the pace and rhythm of the tune affected our breathing as we sang it. Yet I know that how we breathe affects how we feel. When a child is upset and runs to a parent, the parent often says, “Take a deep breath.”
We know that taking some deep breaths has a calming effect. The same is true of hymns and singing. Yet still we focus on words and not the physical effect of singing on our bodies. In the same way, how we move our bodies in worship – such as walking – has a physical impact on us; and anything physical or embodied reverberates deep down in our emotional and spiritual lives. So naturally something like walking or any other physical movement has a profound effect on our worship as the people of God.
How can walking be a spiritual practice in nonliturgical churches?
I suspect it is actually a more powerful gesture in nonliturgical churches. In more liturgical traditions, there is emphasis on a whole range of physical gestures of which walking is only one. People kneel, stand, walk, genuflect, make the sign of the cross and many other embodied gestures.
My experience of more nonliturgical worship is that there is a lot more taking to one’s feet, and these other postures and gestures are more muted. So walking perhaps plays a more prominent role as a potential path for spiritual experience. If pastors and worship leaders looked more carefully at what people are actually doing physically, they could probably take more advantage of people’s taking to their feet. I was always a bit troubled, for example, when we sang “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” as we sat in our pews or joined in singing “Guide My Feet” with our bodies firmly planted on our chair cushions.
What are the benefits of walking a labyrinth vs. going on an extended walk such as a hike or pilgrimage?
I experience walking a labyrinth, going on an extended walk, and going on pilgrimage as three different but related spiritual experiences. All emerge out of the basic impulse to take to our feet, but they speak to different human needs.
The whole design of a classic Chartres labyrinth, for example, is intended to focus spiritual energies in an intense way. There is a spiraling intensity of spiritual energy when I walk a labyrinth.
When I go for an extended walk, on the other hand, the rhythms of my body and therefore of my breathing and my consciousness are completely different. I fall into a rhythm that carries me along without my having to think much what my feet are doing; in the labyrinth, the frequent twists and turns disrupt my natural pace and force me to focus my energy more intently.
On an extended walk, I am more likely to experience God in an outward connection to nature and people, while the labyrinth draws me into the depths of myself.
Going on a pilgrimage is still different for me. When I walk a pilgrimage, particularly one that is long and somewhat arduous, I find myself focused on the physical and spiritual strength it takes to keep going. This leads me to a place where I come face-to-face with the ways I often try to rely on my own strength rather than depend on God’s power and presence. Walking a long-distance pilgrimage has usually called forth a deeper reflection on my letting go, on my illusions of self-sufficiency.
How can walking encourage Christians to take action or demonstrate their convictions on such issues as homelessness and hunger?
What comes to mind is the slogan sometimes used on CROP Walks: “We walk because they walk.” In Every Step a Prayer, I talk about how walking has become associated with people who are too poor or too marginal to afford to ride. When I was speaking about this connection to a group of people, one woman said that she often walks home with groceries because her family tries to reduce its fossil fuel footprint by walking as much as possible. Frequently people in cars shout nasty epithets at them as they drive by. Sometimes people in cars even throw stuff from their car windows at them. This woman remarked that when she walked, she was often made to feel she was somehow a second-rate person.
I think that walking can become a way of identifying in a concrete way with those who are marginal or excluded. It can sensitize us to their plight and their experience in ways that deepen our compassion and challenge us to stand with them. As I read the Bible, I find again and again that resistance to entrenched privilege and power is a constant theme, whether it is Moses challenging the status quo of Egypt’s Pharaoh, Elijah standing up to King Ahab, or Jesus rejecting the purity laws of his time that marginalized people. Walking in a world of speed and convenience can itself be a form of resistance. It can strengthen us so we are more capable of resisting and challenging entrenched social, economic, and political structures that give privileges to a few at the expense of many.
In a typical week, how much time do you spend walking? Do you walk mostly by yourself, or do you sometimes walk with others?
Our family dog, Spenser, is a very energetic Westie. He demands that I take him for a walk several times a day. It is obviously one of the high points of his life, and there’s no way he will let me avoid taking him for his walks. So I usually walk a few blocks every day whether or not I want to go out in all kinds of weather!
I actually enjoy much longer walks several times a week without Spenser. There is a rail trail that I love to walk as well as some trails through a conservation area that I walk several times each week. At certain times of the year, I need to walk some of my pastures, fields, and woodlots to check on their condition as well as just enjoy the changing seasons. I used to walk with my grandfather when he would check his pastures and woodlots while it was raining to see where water was flowing and if the water was causing any damage or erosion. I still love to walk in the rain because of that childhood experience.
My favorite walks are when my spouse, Jan, and I go for a walk. Sometimes we don’t talk much as we walk along, but I feel a spiritual link between us on those walks. When I am working as a coach or spiritual director and someone seems stuck and unclear, I will often suggest we go for a walk and talk as we move. Frequently, the very act of moving our feet seems to unlock my companion’s thoughts and feelings.
What advice would you offer those who would like to start walking as a spiritual practice?
Don’t try too hard – just be open to whatever happens. There are times I walk and I am just walking. It’s then that I remember the saying that before enlightenment, a monk chopped wood and carried water. Then, after enlightenment, the same monk chopped wood and carried water.
I’d also suggest people make sure they have the right shoes and other apparel to walk comfortably. If someone is uncomfortable or in pain, nothing else is going to matter. Finally, I would suggest starting small. Walking as a spiritual practice is a bit like spiritual reading. What’s important is not the distance you cover but the attentiveness and awareness that emerge as you engage in the practice.
What are the main takeaways you hope people get from reading Every Step a Prayer?
I hope they come away with a sense that the biblical world was a world where people walked rather than rode, where moving slowly and thoughtfully mattered much more than speeding past others without really seeing the world or people around you. Slowing down and noticing what is around us, as we do when we walk, can open our hearts to an ever-present God who walks with us. It also opens our eyes to all those creatures (human and otherwise) who are made invisible in a world of speed and power.
Finally, I suspect there are many people who have given up on prayer and meditation because they have been taught that these spiritual practices mean sitting still, being quiet, and not moving; but they know they are not physically wired to sit still. Their personal energy moves in other directions. So, after reading Every Step a Prayer, I hope they will experiment with walking as well as other physical, kinesthetic activities as ways to create a rhythm of the spirit that is just as centering and generative as sitting quietly and breathing deeply. I hope my book encourages people to try more active, kinesthetic approaches like walking as doorways into a deeper relationship with God.