Like many others I often feel the meaning of Christmas is lost. Well, I may have been looking for it in the wrong place. The culture seems to say that the world around me gives me meaning. The marketplace tells me incessantly that having things or taking part in some event can add value and meaning to my life. Even in the tradition of Christmas -getting nice things, being charitable, visiting family- suggest that the meaning of Christmas comes to me from the world outside. Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk, mystic, poet, scholar, activist, suggests instead that it is we who give meaning to the world, not the world to us. It is not that charitable donation adds meaning to my life, but rather it is I who give meaning to charity. A spirit of love in me creates charity, makes charity possible; I have to find meaning, charity in this example, within myself. Malls, Santas, reindeers, expensive gifts, aren’t to be blamed for the loss of Christmas. Christmas is in me, or it isn’t.
I decided to take a walk that would separate me from the obligation and business of life around me, the external world, a walk that would help me look to my inner life, to do what I needed to prepare my self for the holiday season. I planned a walk along the west shore of Toronto beginning at a headland at the mouth of the Humber River. A pedestrian bridge crosses the river mouth, and natural parkland extends along the shore. The end of the walk would be another footbridge that crosses back into the city streets at Roncesvalles Ave. I invited others to join me. They were quite excited with the idea. The walk was not highly structured. It would be mostly in silence. Anyone from the group could offer a reading or thought, song or prayer along the way during the silence. We would look out onto the lake. In the end many had been excited to come wrote back to cancel; some activity had come up. As it turned out, I walked alone.
I drove on slushy roads along with impatient commuter traffic, feeling anxious, on edge, annoyed driving in traffic all the cars bent on fighting their way home as fast as possible. I was anxious to get to the parking lotat Humber Bay Park on time where the walk would begin, in case someone happened to show up and was wondering if it was the right night. I arrived a few minutes early. I could see by the light of the tall yellowy light standards that the only track in the snow from the lot down to the bridge was of a bike. There was no one else to worry about. I would be on my own. I felt glad for that.
Despite the bright lights around the bridge, the headland off to the side was dark. I began there. Huge boulders are all about, some inscribed as memorials, others holding back the eroding effect of the lake waters. Alone among the rocks and boulders in the semi-darkness, I felt strangely secure. The view of Toronto city centre way in the distance was obscured in a fog. The ground around me was covered with a soft white snow. I walked about, slowly, the slope of the ground or the boulders guiding my path in the low light. My meandering was marked in the snow. As I looked back over the tracks, none was a straight line, but my way was many gentle curves crossing over each other, lines in the snow disappearing, and reappearing at the edge of the darkness. “That is me, all those tracks, walking about” I thought seeing the tracks behind as evidence of my being there.
I wasn’t sure how to get ready for the walk along the lake, how to attune my mind and body. I could see the bridge illuminated in bright lights. I had said in my plan for the walk that the bridge would be the starting point, a metaphor for crossing over from attending to the world into attending to one’s inner life. The walk was my attempt to get away from the ordinary and routine way of seeing life. Well, I arrived at the bridge from the parking lot. Crossing the bridge didn’t feel to be all that special. I held back for a minute, uncertain. I tried breathing deeply, forcing out thoughts from my mind about getting things, arranging things, doing things. Lighting a candle helped. I had a lantern with a little tea light. I got it out of my pack along with a box of matches. I put the lantern on a flat rock, opened the glass door, struck the match and lit the candle. It came alive. The flame focussed my thought. The act seemed peculiar, should anyone have seen me, alone as I was, off in the dark, on a winter night, lighting a candle, a bit odd, and that sense of another judging me peculiar, took me to another place. I was my own person. Not conforming to what others thought. Choosing this for myself. I felt ready to go. It was past the time. I picked up my lantern to walk off the headland. I was still a little unsure of my beginning. I reached out and pressed my hand into the last boulder before the path began, a boulder much taller than I, as thick as an old growth redwood. I held my hand on the boulder with some vague notion of grounding myself in the earth and rock. I tried to think how old the rock was, how long it had taken the earth to make the rock. I walked up to the bridge. Like at a starting line I waited momentarily, and then took the first step. The bridge seemed quite long to get to the other side. I took my time, took pleasure in each step, allowed myself the pleasure of crossing the bridge.
It struck me that the walk is a very personal activity. The preparation was to engage my inner conversation. If a group of us were to walk together it would be important to allow each person to get ready in whatever way that person needed. One’s own way might seem ridiculous to the others. It would be important to respect each person’s way to prepare for the walk, let each person do as he or she needed. That would take time patience. James Roose-Evans, theatre director and spiritual guide, in writing about pilgrimage, says that each one of us has to set out on our journey alone. Even if we are together, we have to be alone. Each person has their own journey unlike anyone else’s.
As I walked lantern in hand, I felt happy. I had given myself an hour and a half for the walk. Plenty of time. Unencumbered time. It was my own time. Safe time, safe from interference of the outside world. And realizing that gave me great pleasure. The Lakeshore Road traffic was noisy, but it was over there, some distance away. It had nothing to do with me.
Satish Kumar, who spoke at a wholistic educator’s conference I had attended earlier in the fall, is famous for his two-and-a-half year walk to all the nuclear capitals of the world, taking a message of peace to each destination. inches keynote address, he described how walking is the act of putting one foot down ahead of the other. It is an act of self-propulsion. He pointed out that walking is direct contact with the ground. You, yourself, are walking on the earth. He went on. The earth is enchanted, he said, and walking on it enchants us. James Roose-Evans says that while we set out alone on our life pilgrimage, we meet others along the way, and through this discover gradually that we are part of a community, a world. We put out feet on the ground, feel the earth beneath us and find as we walk others along the way, a community. I met some people along the path. The first was a jogger who smiled and greeted me warmly as he passed. I felt good for that. I thought, isn’t that the way we should be with each other? I met a biker, a courier in a downtown office tower who lives at Islington and Lakeshore. He had stopped. He asked me about my light. He said he had seen it from a long way back. He talked about the lights on his bike. He talked about how healthy he felt for riding, how he wanted to give up smoking, the one thing he didn’t like about himself. He had given up drinking, lost the taste for it. Drink had taken over his life; he had reclaimed his life for himself; he was talking about his work making his life his own. He was speaking to me about his life. He was helping me with my life. He continued his way home. He was getting hungry. As we journey we meet others and gradually realize we are part of a community of people.
Mine was a short walk. I wasn’t expecting a lot from it, just to focus my thoughts for Christmas. There’s something about choosing a journey or pilgrimage, in fact, something known to be true for thousands of years. The act of journey is transforming. It would be wrong to plan on some transformation, great insight, vision, but as is often the case, when one least expects it, one is touched by truth. I was surprised with a simple thought as I passed by dried grasses and wintering sumac. What is Christmas but peace, harmony, joy. I thought how much my experience of Christmas conspires against that, how all the kerfuffle takes away from my peace and joy. What a simple thought- Christmas is joy! Wow! – but I wouldn’t have had that thought without my walk, my separation. It came to me really, not so much as a mindful thought, but as a realization in my body. Joy. We see and hear that word everywhere at Christmas. Here I was walking alone among the dried grasses. Christmas is Joy. Wow! It’s hard to believe how little joy Christmas was for me, and how I came to know that. My next thought was I want to feel joy at Christmas. The thought following that was how can I do that, how can I have joy. And really the Christmas holiday is but a touchstone. The real question is how can I have joy in my life? How can joy be more important than anything else? And I thought back to the first man who greeted me, how pleasant greetings make joy. And I thought of the second fellow, that joy is not momentary gratification; it is a journey with bumps. And in thinking of the two people I met, I realized life has to do with our life with other people, the way we are with others, how they are with us.
Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that nothing is more wrong-headed than calling meaning a mental activity. He would say, meaning is not a state in my consciousness, but the physical and social interaction of me with the world around me.
The last stop on my walk is just before a second bridge that crosses back into the city. At the far side of the bridge are bright lights of a fast food restaurant. My world again. All along the way I had walked by the water, on the beach, near the shore. Swans, ducks and geese live there. I listened to all the sounds they make. I sang to myself verses of O Come, O Come Immanuel, as in the ancient Celtic tradition. I stood on the edge of the lake in silence and listened to the waves gently lift and fall to the shore, rhythmically, soothingly. Now I was turning to cross the bridge over the highways back to the city streets. I looked back into the darkness of the lake. For a moment, I didn’t want to let it go. I hesitated to leave the comfort of the darkness for the cacophony on the other side of the bridge. As I crossed over the bridge, I felt better for having taken the walk. It had been an idea that came to me during a quiet time. I nearly didn’t take the walk. I had to sacrifice my weekly hockey game, which wasn’t easy for me to do. It’s hard to believe that a moment of transformation can come so easily, yet so easily could not have happened at all.
I continued along Queen St., past the many antique and used furniture shops dispersed among bars and restaurants. There weren’t many people in the restaurants, but I’d look through the window and see at least one table with people sitting around it, talking, laughing. One bar was busier. I thought how I wanted to be in there, in the warmth, chatting with friends. I thought how good that would be. I thought of the Christmas parties these last weeks, and in the week to come. How do I make Christmas joy with the people I’m with? How do we find joy in what we do? How do we make joy stronger in our lives than negativity and nastiness, bitterness and unhappiness?
Nearing Sorauren where I turn up to go home, I glanced into the window of the last antique shop on the street. What I saw struck a small fear into me. Maybe the Buddhists are right about everything connecting, nothing being random. It scared me. On top of an old twig table in the shop window were three children’s wooden letter blocks as I had when I was a little boy. They had been arranged to spell out the word JOY. I guess this is real, I said. Hanging from a wire strung behind the little twig table was an old Victorian Christmas card. I took out paper and pencil and wrote down the Christmas wish on the card which I pass on to you, and with it a wish for you, for your journey, this Christmas and this new year.
The fire is ablaze
and the candles are lit
and a chair has been placed
where we want you to sit.
Come visit us this Christmas.
Peace and joy.