Religion can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. The key to religion is simplicity.
It’s not about beliefs, those constructs of the imagination which help us to pretend we know all the answers.
It’s not about belonging to the right religion, or reciting the creeds…or affirmation…it’s not about memorizing the best poems or quoting Emerson and Thoreau…
Those are just the clothes we’re wearing at the time – tuxedo, evening gown or sweat suit.
Simplicity is like the naked innocence of the new-born encountering the world…encountering mother, father and others. There’s something sacred about that level of simplicity – to realize it, to see it, to name it…that’s religion at its best.
Simplicity is not to be confused with being simplistic! Shallow. Naïve.
Going for a walk is simple — my morning walks with me help me to be in touch with that simple religious element.
Thoreau wrote a book about walking – he titled his little book Walking, Thoreau said:
“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean…”
“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure…”
(Some etymologists suggest that the word saunter is from s’aventurer – to take risks.)
Most every morning I saunter at Compo beach by myself.
I walk for exercise, of course, but not only the exercise of the body, but to exercise my freedom — my independence.
I’ve spent most of my time, so far, interacting with and relating to other people – one of a family of eight children; then as a high school teacher, paying attention to hundreds of students and other faculty and administrators. Then as a minister, paying attention to hundreds of people I signed up to serve.
My morning walks help me to keep my balance in the midst of the topsy-turvy world of ‘other people.’
My morning walks with me serve the same purpose that the Buddha’s time sitting under the Bodhi tree served for him…
Traditional religious mythology is filled with examples of the need for time alone.
One of my favorite stories is about Lao Tzu, considered to be the founder of Taoism.
The legend says that Lao Tzu “…became frustrated with the wrongheadedness of people in China, especially the leaders, so he vowed to leave. He rode across the desert on a water buffalo and reached the border crossing. The border guard recognized him as a sage and pleaded with him not to leave China. Lao Tzu insisted he was leaving.”
“The guard convinced him to at least write down his ideas before he left, so that future generations could benefit from them. He finally agreed to this and, a day or two later, returned to the border crossing with a small sheaf of papers on which he’d written his ideas, which he handed to the guard. The sage crossed the border out of China and disappeared forever. The sheaf of papers eventually became the Tao Te Ching, the most important book in Taoism.”
“This legend captures the simplicity and humility of Taoism and its founder, whether or not he actually lived historically. He did not ride in a fancy carriage or on a majestic horse; instead, he rode a common work animal. He had no concerns for leaving a ‘legacy’ or for bolstering his reputation as a sage, and had to be convinced to even write his ideas down for others to see.”
It’s a story about simplicity.
It’s a story about humility.
It’s a story about what it means to be human – to be engaged in the world and to balance that engagement with detachment…to balance the need for meaningful, nurturing relationships with the need for solitude or separateness.
My walk is a meditation. It’s also an opportunity to experience Nature, which I like to spell with a capital N — another name for God. The word Nature looks noble with a capital N.
My morning helps me to think creatively about what I want to say in my next sermon.
But most of my walking time is spent simply paying attention to what’s happening around me – to be in the moment, freed for a time from the responsibility to pay attention to and to respond to other people, at home and at work.
I pay special attention to the sun – the bright red ball emerging from the water in the East, throwing its rays to paint the clouds red and orange.
The sea gulls demand that attention be paid to them, to their persistent squawking and crying, and fighting over morsels gathered at the shore, below the high tide mark.
(I must confess that the gulls sometimes remind me of the persistent squawking, crying and fighting we easily see around us – or read about in the NY Times.)
I watch the gulls fly up high enough to drop a clam, mussel, oyster or crab onto the pavement to break it open. (How did they learn to do that? When did they learn it? Do the elder gulls teach it to their offspring?)
Sea gulls demand my attention!
The sparrow is another thing altogether – I watch them flitting nervously along the walkway, satisfied with the smallest crumb — as I approach they escape to the safety of trees and bushes.
I take note of the pigeons — they are neither nervous nor noisy — merely cautious.
I’ve watched the permanent population of Canada Geese who fly in formation, ignoring immigration rules. They feed on the tiny seeded sprouts of grass, bobbing their heads up and down like one of those drinking birds that mimic the motions of a bird drinking from a glass of water – the Canada Geese pluck away at the tiny seeded sprouts and I’m surprised that it provides enough nutrition to sustain those big bodies.
Of course I have to pay careful attention to the mess they leave along the walk. (Metaphors abound at the shore!)
Then there’s the exotic green parroquits who fly in a flock, landing together to take refuge in the same tree. Why are there so many green parroquits at Compo beach? I suspect someone released a pair of them and, like Adam and Eve, obeying God’s command, they ‘went forth and multiplied.’
The egrets are elegant. They stand so still at the edge of the water they look like statues, but we know they are stealthily fishing—patiently waiting and hoping, reminding this morning walker to be patient…to wait, hoping to be nourished by some morsel insight!
The ducks gather in large groups, then move together in pairs, mostly, scouting for food, tipping upside down with their back ends sticking up straight as they munch on underwater snacks, and the cormorants diving down underwater in a quick motion of determination, and then come up again thirty feet away – I try to guess how long they will stay under and where they will re-emerge.
Sometimes there are swans swimming gracefully, seeming so much at peace, and white heron posing statue-like as they watch and wait for breakfast.
There’s even a great blue heron who visits from time to time. According to Native American tradition, the Blue Heron brings messages of self-determination and self-reliance, a good reminder of the lessons available in my morning walks with me – the big bird with those long, thin legs stands strong, like a symbol of stability.
On the other end of the bird-spectrum is the occasional hummingbird hovering over a nectar-filled flower, darting that long beak in and out, reminding me of Mary Oliver’s poem Messenger: “Here the sun flower, there the hummingbird, equal seekers of sweetness.”
As I walk along Compo beach during hunting season I hear the intrusive, disturbing explosion of double-barreled shotguns in the distance: bang-pause-bang! It’s an angry sound – it’s a disturbing sound that interrupts the meditation.
I smile as I take note of the ducks who are hiding out at Compo beach, away from the hunting zones, swimming in huge flocks along Compo Beach, waiting like refugees for hunting season to end so they can safely return home like military veterans coming back from the war zone.
There’s so much to notice on a simple morning walk – it’s a reminder that ‘this is life,’ and not just a ‘dress rehearsal,’ as they say. So I notice. The dogs make more contact with one another than the people walkers.
I notice the dog walkers as well as their dogs; I notice the couples walking together, or two or three friends walking in pairs or groups. Like the dogs, we humans make contact, mostly with the eyes, but we usually greet one another.
Whitman has a little poem he calls To You.
“Stranger! if you, passing me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?”
We who are regular walkers speak, but it’s almost always without stopping, so we can’t say much: “Mornin’. Or, bit nippy. Stay dry. Keep warm.”
There’s so much to notice – in addition to the wildlife, and the tamed human life, there are the big houses, and the houses being torn down so even bigger houses can be built – one of my favorites was torn down just last week. Is bigger really better?
If you pay attention, you’ll notice the memorial park-benches with plaques engraved with the names of loved ones…over thirty of them…and I’ve read them all. Each of them represents a life – some whose life was short, eleven, sixteen, twenty two – as I read the memorial plague I can’t help but wonder about the cause of death of these young ones; and I wonder, too, about the life lived by the older ones, those who died in their late 80’s or 90’s.
There’s a big old wooden bench without a plaque – the names Thomas Boylan and Maureen Carroll Boylan are carefully carved with a heart beside each of their names.
Then there are these:
“In memory of Maggie Rogers 1921 – 2002 She raised a brood of sun bunnies on this sand. From her loving family”
“Ann Appleday – she felt at home by the water.”
A bench facing to the west: “In loving memory of Martin Crouse 12/30/48 – 6/10/11 Meet you at sunset”
“Ashley Lauren Fontaine 1982 – 2004 (only 22 years old, inscribed) ‘in our hearts forever.’”
“In memory of Merna Wexler, from family and friends”
“In loving memory of Robert David Feder”
“In loving memory of Marion Frazier who loved Compo beach.”
“In loving memory of Bob Kipperman, who loved Westport, from family and friends”
“In memory of Ann and Ed Karazin Sr. Eddie and Ann They loved the sea, the sun and the sand, deeply missed by the Karazin family”
“In loving memory of Kurt A. Friedlander”
“In loving memory of Rick Cunningham, my brother and my friend, forever in our hearts”
“In loving memory of Jack Kiermaier, 1922 – 2009” (A long-time member of our congregation at whose memorial service I officiated)
“Sheldon (Shelly) Leighton, August 15, 1929 – April 27, 2005 Beloved husband of Joy, loving and proud father of Stephanie and Ronald” (at whose memorial service I officiated.)
“2008 In loving memory of Andy Pettee You will always have a special place in our hearts Prudential Co. Realty”
“In memory of Andrea Coscia June 27, 1967 February 3, 2000” (just 33 years old)
“In memory of Heddy Halpert 1951 – 2002 Sunbeams, moonbeams, sparkling and dancing on the sea, reminds me of thee”
“Carol Berkley and August Frees, in celebration”
“Jonathan Ross Dubrow Forever in our hearts”
“Jeannette and Bill Torno Parents and Teachers, with love, Diane Dick and the kids”
“In sweet and loving memory of Virginia Wilson Wright 1901 – 2001 Ann, Ginny and Tommy”
“Sue Wilhelm 1957 – 2008 Beloved colleague and friend, the Curriculum Center”
“In memory of Alfred Eiseman 10/08/18 – 10/1/02 Who loved the sea and the beach From his family”
“In loving memory of Bess Rosenfeld 6/14/79 – 2/28/09” (just 30 years old)
“In memory of Mary Esposito”
“In celebration of Fran Pastorelli ‘This is the beautiful part’”
Then there’s the bench with no name, like the tomb of the unknown soldier, inscribed: with a famous line from Robert Browning: “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.”
I’m not sure about turning the Compo walk into the great adventure Thoreau suggests every walk can be, but a walk, even a simple walk along Compo beach can become a pilgrimage – ‘a journey of important spiritual significance a sacred destination.’
I’m reminded of the wonderful film, The Way, starring Martin Sheen, written by his son, Emilio Esteves. It’s about a walk, a pilgrimage – a walk with a sacred destination.
Martin Sheen tells the background story that led to the film, how he got the idea of walking ‘the way’ to Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James the Apostle are said to be buried beneath the altar of the cathedral.
(Note the name: Compo-stela. Compo Beach, named by the Native Americans who originally settled the region, means bear’s fishing ground.
Pilgrims have walked along ‘the way’ for a thousand years. Martin Sheen’s ancestors are from Galicia in Northern Spain, destination of ‘the way.’
While the background story is based on actual experience, the story is fictional. It’s not the kind of film that would be ruined if you are told the story line, like a who-dun-it, but I’ll be a little careful with my comments for those who haven’t yet seen the film.
Sheen’s character, Tom, starts out alone – following the trail as best he can, but sometimes straying off the right path and getting help to get back on track. He meets others along the way…companions, of sorts.
He meets characters reminiscent of a Scarecrow, a Cowardly Lion and Tin Man…the characters that Dorothy met on her way to Oz, following the yellow brick road – traveling to Emerald City to find help in getting home…pilgrimage…in search of ‘the way home,’ with companions in search of courage, heart and brains…as we all are.
Like Dorothy, Tom is ‘knocked over’ by a storm of grief – he needs to come to terms with his son’s death. He’s a little reluctant to hook up with those he meets on ‘the way.’ There’s a woman determined to quit smoking – or is she? There’s a man who says he wants to lose weight so he can fit into his old suit for his brother’s wedding, and a writer whose head is filled with straw – he has writer’s block – he needs to get his brain back in gear. Tom’s companions are modern day travelers in search of courage, heart and brains…like the traveler’s before them.
The story of pilgrimage is as old as story telling, because it digs into the heart of the human experience…being alive and needing to form companionships: “Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections.”
A personal pilgrimage can happen on a simple walk, like my morning walks with me; a walk is turned into a pilgrimage when you get deeper inside; it’s about the inner journey—the way to the spiritual place; we have to find a way that works for us, a way that helps us to feel at home in the world, to feel ‘at home’ in one’s self.
The film takes advantage of the beautiful scenery – the mountains, the dramatic sky, and the ancient architecture. It makes you want to walk ‘the way.’ It inspires you to touch that inner place of wonder, the source of spirituality which arrives when you feel ‘at home’ in the world.
We’ll close with some lines from Whitman’s walking poem, Song of the Open Road, Walt Whitman
AFOOT and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.
O highway I travel, do you say to me ‘Do not leave me?’
Do you say ‘Venture not- if you leave me you are lost?’
Do you say ‘I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?’
O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me I would do the same to you…
Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof…
Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
maggie and millie and molly and may, e e cummings
maggie and millie and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day )
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and
millie befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
It’s always ourselves we find in the sea.