Two of my favorite outdoor pastimes are running and hiking. Because I like to spread the word when I’ve found something good (a hidden trail, a new burger place, an obscure saint), I tend to talk about them a lot. But when my pastor, Father George, suggested that I slow down and try walking (that being more his speed, I think), I said to myself: “Self, it’s a good idea to do what your pastor tells you!”
So the next weekend, I left my usual trail shoes in the car, put on a relaxed pair of sandals, threw some beef jerky and cookies in my pack and took a stroll on the lovely old Orchard Trail to the middle of Briones Regional Park. It was sometimes shaded, sometimes sunny, and at this time of year was filled with lovely things to see, smell, and hear. I enjoyed the tiny purple vetch flowers in their curly companionship with the flamboyantly golden California poppy; I followed a crying hawk’s flight across a meadow; I hung off inviting tree branches and sank my toes into the mud below them; and I discovered a charming labyrinth that a couple I met told me has been there for ages. I added my own tread to the well-worn path, and enjoyed a drink of water and a snack at the center before heading back out.
I am certain that I probably would have missed out on most of those experiences had I been running or hiking instead of taking it slowly, as Father George had suggested.
I think the word I would use for this particular kind of travel is “saunter.” I sauntered through the trails that day, and I liked it!
In “The Mountain Trail and Its Message,” Albert W. Palmer tells about a conversation he allegedly had with the great naturalist John Muir, in which Muir suggests:
“[The word ‘saunter’ is] a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers.”
It turns out I also enjoy a good saunter — although in this case, my destination isn’t “the” Holy Land but rather to be fully in the presence of all the holy creation around me. It’s so refreshing to take a wandering and meditative walk through wherever I happen to be with the experience itself as its end. It’s when sauntering that solutions to problems materialize, creativity flows, and my soul is inspired.
Now, let’s apply this to life. Those who “run” or “hike” through life rush along a marked trail or path they’ve appointed to themselves, measuring success or failure by the metaphorical split times and mileage of money or accomplishments or gratified appetites. There is always a goal, and often objective success or failure.
How much better to make time to saunter! How much more rewarding to slow down and measure life not by accomplishments and achievements but instead by goodness, love, and all things generously gifted to us by our Lord – to slow down and let the beauty of a flowering friendship arrest our soul, to listen to the whisper of the trees and the songs of our people, to gather the fragrant little flowers of life and love and goodness, and carry them with us.
As Jesus said, “blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear” (Mt 13:16). Or, in the words of our friend Palmer, “These are the peculiar rewards of the man who has learned the secret of the saunterer!”
Originally published June 20, 2022.