I have always been intrigued by liminal places. The kind of setting that is neither here nor there, one thing nor the other. Sometimes they are the border lands where people live, perhaps working in one country and supporting a nearby football team in another. In places they are the dividing line – the point of passage from one landscape to a very different terrain. I associate this with the feeling of a sea crossing to an island, or the steep ascent and dramatic drop when crossing the North York Moors. These are generally uninhabited places where a crossing can be closed suddenly in winter weather. Often they assist the sense of separation from a familiar context – a good way to mark a different place and time; something unusual.
While they may not be crossing places from one kind of setting to another, even a country walk has the power to loosen our attachment to busy thoughts. Watching the excellent BBC 4 series Winter Walks I’ve been struck by the spiritual qualities of these seemingly ordinary country rambles. Unlike so much that grabs media attention today, these are not death-defying climbs up impossible slops, nor heroic marches across vast distances. Their route and length are decidedly modest. However, winter no doubt reduces the number of people the walkers encounter, so an awareness of the adverse elements and a spirit of reflective solitude emerge.
A good example of the spiritual qualities of a walk came in the episode featuring Alasdair Campbell. He began by a Yorkshire force (waterfall) with his surroundings covered in light snow. He went on to discuss his challenges with mental health. Reading a small inscription on a bench moves him to speak about the dead and how he still feels to be in their company. Family features, as it has so often, when he recalled childhood days spent in similar landscapes growing up in Yorkshire. There is a reflection on silence and sound. Throughout these episodes brief texts appear on screen stating the distance covered and the journey to go. There are occasional reminders of how many minutes it is until sunset, providing a factual commentary that complements the hints of finitude present in the walker’s words.
There is growing evidence that this kind of walking is good for our mental health. Sadly, as it appears to be the only measure we value, this benefit is quantified as a financial saving in the provision of health and social care services. This limits the broader recognition that many kinds of walking are primarily spiritual and holistic experiences. For people interested in faith and belief it comes as no surprise that these winter walks (mini pilgrimages?) stimulate this sense of spirituality. In 1980 the Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama published his book Three Mile and Hour God. The idea of a God who goes with us at walking speed has a lot of appeal. It can feel that in Western life there is an irresistible and inexorable drive to go faster tomorrow – to use our time efficiently so that there appears to be more time. Slowing down to a walking speed, as the BBC series illustrates, effortlessly foregrounds spiritual themes.
“God walks ‘slowly’ because he is love. If he is not love he would have gone much faster. Love has its speed. It is an inner speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It is ‘slow’ yet it is lord over all other speeds since it is the speed of love”.Koyama, K. (2021). Three mile an hour God. SCM Press.
Advent is a good time to think about journeys. According to Luke’s gospel, after the annunciation, Mary hurries to a town in the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth. It doesn’t sound like an easy journey, and Mary remains in Elizabeth’s home for three months before returning. This time (we assume) well into her pregnancy, and carrying a fragile flicker of hope through the world’s darkness. Other journeys will follow – for registration in Joseph’s hometown; for shepherds from the fields; and, in due course, figures from the East putting their faith in a star. This is without mentioning the flight into Egypt and the echoes of Exodus. These were mostly slow and risky journeys by our standards.
Some journeys are inevitable. No matter how ill prepared we are, the 25th of December will come (and go). Wherever possible people will travel to be with loved ones. Sometimes those journeys begin several days before Christmas – with visits to others along the way. There can be an inevitability about the distance to be crossed and the day that will come. How we use these times is very much down to us – to simply get to our destination, or allow the journey to sift our thoughts and feelings. Reflecting that all of life is a journey – until it is not.
“This year I don’t know how to find
the way to Christmas. Instead
my mind replays memories
I’d thought to burn – the first-blows
of my youth.
And yet Christmas
and my family will come;
have already begun their journey South,
and there is solace in that …From ‘Midwinter’ by Anne Walsh