The Prayer Walk

Cedar Springs, Sumas Washington, January 11, 2005

What is it about being the first to tread on recently fallen snow? It’s an arbitrary honor. Serendipity for sure. It’s like winning a door prize: SOMEBODY is going to win it…it’s inevitable…but when it turns out to be YOU…you feel special. But that’s stupid. It’s just chance. It’s not like you DID anything. But people feel compelled to applaud you anyway. They watch you as you awkwardly weave between the folding chairs to the front of the room to receive your $20 gift certificate and shake the hand of the Master of Ceremonies as the cheap P.A. system feeds back.

Silly, but fun. And even though you know better…you still feel special.

It felt like that when I came around a bend in the trail and saw the relatively large expanse of “virgin” snow. No crappy P.A. or paltry applause…but I felt like I had won something: The opportunity to be the first to tread here.

Earlier, while quickly scanning a photocopied “map” of the retreat center grounds, I noted that in this area was a largish pond and a trail around it’s entire circumference which was labeled “Prayer Walk”. As  I paused to contemplate the large white blanket of snow before me, I spied the pond and the only visible human tracks I had seen that day. They defined, I thought to myself, what must be the path of the “Prayer Walk”. I trudged down a mild slope toward the point where the footprints intersected with the shore of the frozen pond, and began their journey around it.

I enjoyed the sensation of the dry, powdery snow compressing beneath my feet (a rare sensation for a North Westerner like myself, because even when it DOES snow around here, the sound it usually makes under one’s feet is more akin to a Slurrpyä being plopped into the bottom of a plastic cup.)

Without really thinking about it, I paused when I came up to the footprints. I looked down at them, and tried to discern whatever information I could about the person who left them…some sort of little intellectual game that my mind chose to engage in without first consulting my will.

Based on what I could see, I concluded that it was likely a man who left the prints. Probably of roughly average height and weight. I bent down and carefully felt the texture of the snow at the margin of one of the foot prints. Unlike the snow around it, it was hard and crusty, indicating that it had re-frozen after melting slightly when it was first made. This told me the tracks were not made within the last couple of hours…but earlier. Since it was mid-morning, I guessed that someone might have gone on a very early morning walk…or perhaps even an evening stroll last-night…but they were probably not nearby anymore.

I stood up and scanned the path of the prints as far as I could see in either direction. They came from the opposite direction I had arrived at the Prayer Walk, from over a small rise, and turned directly on to the path around the pond.

After another brief pause, my spirit this time chose to act (again, without consulting my will which was beginning to feel altogether left out of this little adventure) and caused me to carefully place my left foot perfectly within the left footprint which marked the beginning of the Prayer Walk. I then gingerly turned myself  so that I could place my right foot in the next foot print, and after doing so, I paused again to consider the idea that I was now poised exactly like some other person had recently been, in this exact position.

I looked up and behind me to consider the path this person had walked to get here.  I then turned and looked forward to see the course he had taken from this point, and I began to move in step with him. I carefully placed each foot, as perfectly as I could within the boundary of the existing footprints. I felt compelled to avoid disturbing the snow around the footprints if I could. After a dozen or so steps, I found that my stride was not too different from my predecessor’s…it was not at all un-comfortable to match his stride step-for-step.

In a moment, I had fallen into a comfortable, strolling rhythm with my head down, concentrating on matching my steps to the prints, when my spirit acted again. I looked up to see the footprints stretching before me and I stopped.

I recalled the words of Jim, the elderly caretaker who had let me in to the retreat center the night before. HE had told me that there were three large church groups scheduled to be at this place during this time…but all three had cancelled due to the predicted blizzard (which finally amounted only to an addition of an inch of snow to the two or three inches already on the ground). He told me, “You’ve got the whole place to yourself….”

380 acres of forest trails and gardens….accommodations for 120 people, a full kitchen, meeting rooms, a chapel. recreational equipment…and I’m alone in this place.

So…in whose footprints was I walking?

They came from the opposite direction of Jim’s quarters. Besides he told me that he and his wife were leaving this morning for stricken Indonesia. Jim must be close to 80 years old, and he’s heading back out on the mission field! Maybe he took a “last walk” around the grounds this morning before departing on a last great adventure for God. Maybe he was praying for the trip, for his wife’s health, for the people he would be serving in Indonesia.  I didn’t know.

These footprints could be anyone’s I supposed. Other retreat center staff, a neighbor who enjoyed the setting every now and again….who knows. But one thing is for sure: whoever it was, he walked right to THIS place, this prayer walk…and he traveled it. This path was a destination for him.

Now, in a sense, I am traveling it with him.

As I began to move forward again, I began to cry as a rush of awareness came over me:  I was not walking alone at all.

With each step, I felt something…but nothing “particular”. I was not having a vision, or establishing some psychic or even spiritual connection to another person. It was more like God was in this experience. He orchestrated this. I felt a little like a puppet on a string, but it was a pleasant sensation. Perhaps more like a child being danced on top of daddy’s feet than a puppet.

I continued to weep as I walked, imagining Jim’s prayers (whether these were his footprints or not…I was sure he had been praying about his trip) and realizing that because of this little dance God had arranged, I could be unified with him in his prayers, in a way that I would otherwise have not. My mind raced along to thoughts of other un-known people whose prayers I might be strolling through. I became truly overwhelmed when that thought occurred to me.

I imagined with each step that I “stirred up” the prayers of the person before me. Like stirring up dust which has settled on a summer-dry path, or the fragrance from a field of still, spring flowers. Then I imagined all the footsteps which had traveled this path over it’s whole existence…hundred’s certainly, maybe thousands! Very quickly my mind swam with the image of a fast “zoom” up and  away from my solitary place in NW Washington, higher and higher, so that more and more of the surrounding geography was visible. As the view grew higher, and more and more was visible, the sound of many prayers began to grow, until as the entire earth came into view, the din of the voices was an impossible roar.

I closed my eyes hard, and put my hands over my cold ears.

As the earth continued to shrink away in my mind’s eye, the prayers of the past were now added to the deafening chorus. There were the prayers of pilgrims, who like me, followed  the footsteps of another down the Via De LaRosa. The prayers of Paul as he penned his epistles…back…back…back to Isaiah, to Job…Louder they became, more overwhelming for me to consider, faster and faster my mind raced away from the earth, more and more voices, faster and faster….

And there was a sudden stillness, and so I stopped walking, my feet poised awkwardly in the footprints, which by their position, beckoned me to continue. But I didn’t.

In the stillness, as I felt the tears on my face growing cold, I saw before me a new set of tracks. Deer tracks. Crossing the path I had been following at an acute angle, and continuing up a hill through some brush to my right.

My spirit chose to act once again, and I turned off the Prayer Path to follow the tracks of the deer.

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