Praying With Our Feet

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Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”[1] Consider the pace at which we tend to do life. The temptation is to plow through – make lists for the things, do the things, stress about all the things, and then go to bed and do it all again the next day. Taylor continues, “While many of [Jesus’] present-day admirers pay close attention to what he said and did, they pay less attention to the pace at which he did it.”[2] Jesus did a lot of walking. He had a lot of time to pay attention. Every day we are running past altars – sacred moments in which we encounter the divine. I am discovering that the door into spiritual rhythm, for me, is the practice of paying attention – particularly, paying attention with my feet.

Sometimes the call to “pay attention” hits hard and fast. George Mallory, when asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, famously replied, “Because it’s there.” I will not soon forget standing in my kitchen, talking to my friend, Katy, while she and her family were on furlough from their mission base in Tanzania. My husband and I were planning to visit them in Tanzania a year or so from that kitchen conversation, when she drops this one on me: “When you guys come, are you going to climb Kilimanjaro, too, or is it just Brian who wants to do it? Because I would climb if you would climb.” I might have actually unleashed a minor emergency word, along with a laugh, and then realizing that she was serious, said, “Wait, what?”

For many years, thanks to John Barton, my husband, Brian, dreamed of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and when our friends moved to Tanzania, he immediately began dreaming and planning a visit and a climb. He grew up in the mountains of West Virginia, cut his teeth on an adventurous expedition to the Sierra Nevada’s in high school, and regularly went on weekend rock climbing trips during college.


I read a lot of books and watch a lot of Netflix. But when Katy asked me that fateful question, something deep inside my bones stirred a bit. Knowing that we needed to choose dates for our trip soon, I did what I know best – become well informed: I ordered two books about Kilimanjaro, explored mountaineering blogs, and began researching equipment. Like Hermione Granger, the over-achieving-know-it-all companion of Harry Potter who, when nervously anticipating her first flying lesson, quickly found out, “This was something you couldn’t learn by heart, out of a book, not that she hadn’t tried,” I practically memorized a detailed guidebook aptly named, Climbing Kilimanjaro. And I made the decision: I’m going to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. Maybe George Mallory was on to something, and feeling particularly brave, bearing in mind that Mallory died on Everest during his third attempt to climb, hopefully our fate would turn out differently than his. We spent the next year preparing, saving, and hiking…lots and lots of hiking.

Backpacks loaded, water bottles filled, hiking boots broken-in, we loaded into a dusty land rover to make the 4-hour drive around the base of the mountain to the starting point of our 8-day journey. Said land rover consisted of Brian and I – American Christians, Katy –  Tanzanian-resident missionary, our guide Abdi Shirazy – native Tanzanian Muslim, our assistant guide Godfrey – native Tanzanian Catholic, and Sjoerd – the randomly placed Dutch atheist who was thrown into our group last minute along with his guide, Dullah – a native Tanzanian Muslim. We had the makings of Pentecost in that bumpy car ride – 3 languages, 3 religions, 7 varied worldviews. And even more so in our camps each night where tents of yellow, orange, and red licked the earth like tongues of fire from all over the world – we met hikers from Japan, South Africa, Korea, Canada, the UK, China, Australia, India, Germany. And there she loomed before us, Kilimanjaro – that 19,341 foot altar holding space for hundreds of seekers.

For days we walked. We began in rain forest, the sounds of birds and colobus monkeys providing our soundtrack. Each day, waking with the sun and sleeping with the moon, the rhythms of the mountain demanding our utter respect and fidelity. By days three and four, the landscapes changed, and the mountain got lonelier – less vegetation, less wildlife, more silence. We walked slowly, each step deliberate, each breath labored as the elevation rose. We hiked through rocks, sat still while clouds literally brushed our faces with cold damp, and settled in each night to warm soup and warmer company. Sjoerd taught us a Dutch card game, we laughed, we talked, and each night I read to our tiny cohort of climbers from my Climbing Kilimanjaro guidebook about what to expect the next day, exactly how many kilometers we would be hiking, and what kind of elevation shifts to expect. Truthfully, nothing written could prepare us for what lay ahead each day – it could only be learned through walking.

By day 6, we were preparing for our summit bid—temperatures hovering around 15 degrees. Abdi woke us up at 10 p.m. and by 10:30 we were walking, the first group to leave the Barafu base camp. Walking this time, in the dark, the path before us lit only by our headlamps. Our rhythm: walk for 45, break for 5…over and over again for hours. I remember looking out, at one point, and watching a lightning storm several hundred feet below us. And as the night loomed on, a thin line of tiny lights in a switchback pattern making their way toward us. The only thing in front of me was Abdi’s boots and his pace, crunching white snow, leading the way forward. With my hands frozen, nose runny, breath coming hard, spirit at the breaking point, Godfrey, like a mother hen tending her chicks, unzipped my pack and applied chapstick to my numb lips, wiped my nose, and helped me take sips of water muttering soft encouragement in a mixture of broken English and Swahili.

Step – God.
Step – Help.
Step – Me.

…became my sacred refrain that night. I repeated it for hours in the dark, entering a sacred rhythm of prayerful groundedness –bumping into an altar of snow and scree with each step. Up we climbed, hundreds of searchers. We crested Kilimanjaro just as the sun was rising, and made it to the summit with tears and laughter, me clinging to Abdi’s strong arm for the last 100 yards.

St Augustine said, “solviture ambulando, – It is solved by walking.” I think I understand what he was getting at. As I walked the earth, the real, lived experience of a common humanity moving toward something more expansive and at the same time beautifully particular woke me up to the divine.

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King led a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel participated in the Selma-Mongomery march, and when Rabbi Heschel returned from Selma, he was asked by someone how he found time to pray while marching. Rabbi Heschel responded, ‘I prayed with my feet.’  As we consider what it means to practice sacred rhythms, may we learn to pay attention. May we learn to notice what gives us life and opens our eyes to the sacred. It may be a quiet time of Bible reading and prayer journaling, but it may be a walk through the woods or a march for justice – a prayer with our feet.

May God open our eyes, open our hands, and ready our feet.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 15.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 66.

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