Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Turning a Protest into Pilgrimage, and a March into a Meditation

On the weekend of May 29th, within the Octave of Pentecost, I joined a small group for the 2nd annual 50-mile San Francisco Bay march, which ran from Point Reyes south and finished at the Golden Gate Bridge. In case you are wondering, I didn’t complete all 50 miles, but was with them for a 17-mile section on the first part of the first day, and for a barbecue at Stinson Beach, although several people did complete the 50-miles to mark the 50 days of Pentecost.

The organizer is my friend Charlie Deist, with whom I regularly record podcasts, and his description of why he started it is here at anaturalmethod.com/march. Charlie is interested in promoting health through physical exercise and nutrition, and as a Christian - he is a convert to Catholicism - is interested in finding a way to integrate them with the Christian life.

In our podcasts together, we have discussed how modern nutritional science seems to support a dietary regime that is a harmonized mix of the different approaches which individually might be considered just the latest fad diet. Charlie proposes a combination that is in harmony with the Church’s traditional cycles of fasting and feasting. He is also a qualified instructor in a form of exercise called MoveNat. I became interested in this because at age 58, I wanted some form of exercise that would allow me to stay healthy and flexible, and didn’t come with the distorted spiritual baggage that yoga brings with it.

As I talked to Charlie about this, it dawned on me that his approach to exercise and nurtition could be combined with the pattern of Christian living which I recently described inan article about beauty in the spiritual life. It works so well, I believe, firstly because it doesn’t come with any associated new age spirituality that has to be negated or redirected. Secondly, the emphasis on working with human nature allows, it transpires, for an easy (one hesitates to use the word “natural”) combination with Christian mysticism, which aims at the supernatural elevation of human nature. The regular singing of the psalms to mark the hours, Christian spiritual exercises and forms of mediation such as lectio divina, all work well with in combination with them.
This march began as a statement of freedom a year ago, at a time when society and churches were being fragmented by the lockdown and mask regulations imposed to stop the spread of Covid. We wanted something that we could do together, cheerfully, joyfully (and legally) as a statement of our desire for freedom, and especially religious freedom. The idea of a 50 miles hike came from an American tradition instituted by Theodore Roosevelt and encouraged by JFK to stop the slide of the US into a sedentary nation - you can read about the history of this in Charlie’s write up here. By coincidence, the first one was set for the weekend of Pentecost and so suggested that we make it a pilgrimage – a 50-mile March for Eternal Life. The hope is that we might be more open to the Holy Spirit in our quest for freedom and faith. Charlie offered tuition on a natural walking method to help us along - which he termed the “Golden Gait”!
We repeated it again this year; some joined for sections (like me) and those who are younger and more vigorous completed the whole distance over two days. We introduced the regular singing of the psalms on the walk. I was not sure how the crowd who came would take to it. The common connection was an interest in MoveNat, and certainly not all were Catholics. Some were other denominations and the majority of our group of about 12 were “spiritual but not religious.”
Charlie and I resolved to sing the psalms to “sanctify the day”, as the General Instruction for the Liturgy of the Hours puts it, and give individuals the opportunity to join us or to step away. In fact, all joined in. I led the group in the singing of a single psalm and some traditional hymns in the open air at each point, to mark the Hour, with passers-by listening. Charlie sang the drone and I sang the melody, and we told those who had never done this before to stand close to Charlie and sing the drone with him. This way everybody was able to join in instantly, and they did. It was a group of predominantly masculine voices, and we faced East and sang the psalms in the Gregorian modes out loud, many doing it for the first time in their lives. 
In addition to the psalms, I chose the traditional hymns for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which is in the Eastern Calendar. I wanted to connect the Christian message with the idea that the nation is a natural association of man. These are hymns that ask God to protect our country against its enemies but look for a victory whose measure is peace. 
Oh Lord save Your people and bless your inheritance. Grant victory to our country over its enemies, and preserve your community by the power of your cross.
Oh Christ our God who chose by Your free volition to be elevated upon the holy Cross, grant Your mercies to Your new people who are called by Your name; in Your power gladden the hearts of our civil authorities; strengthen them in every good deed so that Your true alliance may be for them a weapon of peace and a standard of victory.
O dread Champion who cannot be put to confusion, despise not our petitions. O Good one, all lauded Theotokos, establish the way of those who hold the orthodox faith; save those you have called to rule over us; bestow upon them victory from heaven; for You gave birth to God, O only blessed one.
Again we sang these with melody and drone, and so all were engaging with the text and not simply listening. Everyone, including a number of lapsed Catholics, commented on how much they enjoyed it and also how strong the sentiments of the psalms were. This had surprised those who had not read them before. The outdoor setting and the timing of pauses in physical activity seemed a natural association in their minds. Interestingly, one person who is a libertarian and who thought of nations and countries as artificial constructs, noticed this and asked me about it. I describe my reasons for choosing these hymns in more detail in a write-up I did prior to the march, posted here.
At the end of the day, I was asked about organizing some more pilgrimages which could be a shorter distance and on which we could do the psalms again, so we have decided to do two more in the year. We have scheduled our next pilgrimage as an 8-mile walk in which we will sing all 8 Offices for the octave of the Holy Cross, then the third will be for Epiphany. I noticed that this communal prayer did bring us together as a group. 
One of the great successes of yoga is that it at least bothers to try to make a practical connection between the physical body and the spiritual aspect of the human person by connecting physical activity and meditation. One wonders if, for all the distortion and error that is embedded into what they do, the reason that so many people are drawn to it is that the yoga studio is the only place that actually makes this connection between the physical and spiritual. Deep down, people know that there is something to it and feel better for practicing. Christians are typically happy to discuss anthropology and the unity of body and soul as an intellectual topic, but in my experience, many will compartmentalize their activity. Physical exercise and nutrition - eating for physical health - are not connected with the spiritual life in any practical way. 
What this event showed me is that all we have to do is try to make the connection as best we can using traditional Christian practices, and people respond.
As Chesterton said, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Surely we can do it at least as badly as the yoga studios around the country? This was our attempt at doing something good, even if we did it badly!

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