The spiritual practice of walking the dog

A writer challenges herself to take a few minutes every day for peace, quiet, and spiritual connection on her evening stroll. The pooch loves it too.

Thomas Pyttel | Getty Images

The sun hangs low, bathing the black-eyed Susans and the tall grass golden. A rare stillness drapes the landscape, the air heavy and dense with August humidity, the silence interrupted by a single, piercing bird call—a red-winged blackbird, hidden amid the cattails.

I am walking my dog, something I’ve done nearly every evening since we adopted her three years ago. Ferocious wind, sub-zero temperatures, searing Nebraska heat, stinging snow—no matter what the weather, after the dinner dishes are stacked in the dishwasher and the counters are wiped clean, I slip on my sneakers, grab the purple leash from the hook by the back door, and call for Josie.

I thought I’d dread this part of dog ownership. Before we’d adopted Josie, I’d ranked dog-walking with cleaning up the yard and clipping paw nails. I never expected my daily dog walk would become one of my most cherished spiritual disciplines.

How a short-legged pooch made me shift my focus

Josie’s not a fast walker. Part beagle, part Corgi, she has squat legs and a hound’s nose. The first few months of our daily walks I was irritated by how often she stopped to snuffle in the weeds and wildflowers. I was accustomed to walking with a mission, intent on burning as many calories in as short a period as possible. But Josie does not allow that, and so, reluctantly, I’ve learned to slow my pace.

Last November, I also added another element to our daily walks—a small thing, really: I decided to stop and sit on a park bench for five minutes. Five minutes without movement or distraction. Five minutes without texting, scrolling, or talking. Five minutes of quiet stillness.

The first day I sat on the bench, I looked at my watch after two minutes and then again after four.

The following day I was a little better. I took a cue from Josie, who sat still, ears pricked, nose quivering. I tried to copy her: I looked at what she looked at; I tried to smell what she smelled. I’d assumed she’d be puzzled or restless by our stopping. I thought she’d pull at the leash or whine to keep moving. But she seemed content, sitting and waiting, observing and absorbing her surroundings.

Almost immediately I also noticed that I felt oddly and unexpectedly vulnerable to be sitting on a bench, right there in the open alongside the path, doing nothing but staring into space.

I noticed the oak trees—the fact that their leaves still clung, stubborn and tenacious, to their branches when all the other trees around them were bare. When the breeze blew, the rustling oak leaves sounded like sausage sizzling in a hot pan.

Almost immediately I also noticed that I felt oddly and unexpectedly vulnerable to be sitting on a bench, right there in the open alongside the path, doing nothing but staring into space, feeling the slippery softness of the pine needles under my feet, sniffing the air for who knows what, listening to the leaves.

This is what our busyness does to us—it distracts us from our own vulnerability. It shields us from our own thoughts, our own selves. Our frantic pace allows us to skate through our days on autopilot, too distracted to prod at whatever lies beneath.

We must make space—we must “open up the margins”—to allow God to connect with us

It’s easy to lose the essence of ourselves in this day and age. We fill every bit of margin with noise, distraction, and technology. We rush from task to task, place to place, errand to errand. We forget to breathe. We don’t allow ourselves to sit and stare into space, even for a few moments. We don’t allow time for quiet. We skate by on bits of shallow connection—an email, a Facebook comment, a string of texts, a Voxer message. We don’t linger with our people. We don’t soak in the details of our places. We don’t allow our deepest selves the space to surface.

And then, we wonder why we feel fragmented, empty, restless. We wonder why we find ourselves thinking, What’s the point? Where’s the meaning? Is this all there is?

I believe God desires to connect with us personally and intimately. I believe he yearns to be with us. But in our frenetic, technology-dependent lives, we rarely allow the time and space for that to happen. We are vaguely aware that something is amiss. The restless agitation we feel simmering just under the surface hints that we are missing something important, that our souls are yearning for more, but we don’t allow ourselves the silence and space to figure out what that something is.

“Constant noise, interruption and feeling driven to be more productive cut us off or at least interrupt the direct experience of God and other human beings, and this is more isolating than we realize,” observes Ruth Haley Barton in Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. “Because we are experiencing less meaningful human and divine connection, we are emptier in our relationships, and we try harder and harder to fill that loneliness with even more noise and stimulation.”

That “something” we are missing is relationship: with others, with our own selves, and with God.

“Let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him,” the apostle Paul urged the Hebrews. Paul knew something that I, in my busyness and distraction, had forgotten. The way into the presence of God is open to all of us, all the time—twenty-four/seven, seven days a week, 365 days a year, forever. God is always available to us, but we have to choose to connect with him. We have to take a step, to “go right into” his presence.

For me, that step happens when I walk my dog in the quiet of the evening, when I sit still on a bench and simply be. The truth is, nothing stands between us and God except our own distracted lives and our own distracted selves. Walking my dog and sitting still on a park bench has helped me see exactly that.

What small, ordinary action helps you better connect with the world, and God? Tell us in the comments below!

Michelle DeRusha
Michelle DeRusha
A Massachusetts native, Michelle DeRusha moved to Nebraska in 2001, where she discovered the Great Plains, grasshoppers the size of Cornish hens … and God. She is the author of "Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith" and "50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Heroines of the Faith." Her newest book, "Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk," comes out in January 2017. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with her husband and their two boys.

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