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Do you ever think about the pathways in your life? Those you’ve chosen, those that have been chosen for you, those leading to safety, or those that are unknown or newly discovered?

During a recent session of a 2-year spiritual formation academy, I started thinking about pathways and the role they play in our lives. I believe one of our first discussions was centered on the pathway to spiritual formation, and I suppose that was in my subconscious as I began to reflect on the subject. And, as is typical with many things I write about, it will continue to surface until I explore it further and get it in writing.

In January, there had been record-breaking cold temperatures before I arrived in the hills of Alabama excitedly expecting a life-changing week ahead of me. I was determined not to let my recent foot issues affect the week or my ability to participate in any way. And I was relieved that my cabin was centrally located between the meeting spaces. As I eagerly bounded up the pathway to the meeting room my first morning, I quickly realized as the cold wind took my breath away that this path was uphill and there were patches of ice. I slowed my steps a little and decided to be more careful, wishing I hadn’t carried two of the larger books in my bag. Now, if someone reads this who has walked this same path, they will probably chuckle at my struggle with the “hill” on the pathway from the cabins. But each day, determined as I was, my foot and ankle barked more and more along that slowly-ascending path. I tried to maintain good posture and a pleasant, relaxed expression on my face as I noticed others approach the meeting hall with a quick and steady gait. I told myself I will not let this get the best of me, and I WILL enjoy every step I have the ability to take. After all, many would love to be in my shoes and have this opportunity, and many are unable to walk at all for various reasons. Ah, gratitude. That is the “guilt kicker” that got me back and forth for 6 days. However, I did accept kind invitations for rides to the chapel each evening.

It is natural that these quarterly sessions would occur during the different seasons of the year. Most of the time, we don’t pay close attention to our surroundings and the many changes that take place in each season. But one of the benefits of this quarterly event and walking “my” path has been really noticing life and nature along the way. To take my mind off the embarrassing fact that I am out of breath and my calves are burning, I look to the right and left and occasionally stop to look up along the way. In January, the early-morning frost on the ground decorated the tree roots, and the pine needles and leaves which had fallen months before. Everything is so quiet in the winter months - even the wildlife seem to not want to expend the energy to belt out a song or squawk. At times, my footsteps seemed to be so loud that they echoed through the bare trees lining the path. A squirrel enjoying a newly-discovered treat quickly jumped off the pathway as I approached. I broke the cold silence by saying, “Good morning, squirrel!”

I’ve started calling “my path” the path of anticipation as I approach not only new discoveries along the walkway, but also the many things I am about to learn that God will show me through the words and thoughts of others that day. It becomes a path of reflection as I return on the path back to my cabin, with a quicker step since it is mostly downhill. This time of silence brings to mind all of the insights and revelations I’ve received, and an even greater appreciation for this beautiful space.

During the second session in the springtime my foot was no longer bothering me and I had been walking more frequently, so I decided to try a “new” path through the woods to a waterfall. This path was much rougher and harder to manage because of the roots and rocks. I still was confident that I could do this because I was “in shape” now. Well, less than halfway there, I considered that I may have made a big mistake and should turn around and go back as it seemed the remaining trek was even more challenging. A young man I met during the first discussion recognized my fear and anxiety and asked a couple of times if he could help me. Of course, I said no. I didn’t want to be that person that needed to be taken care of or who couldn’t finish what she started. But I soon decided I REALLY needed some help if I was going to continue. He was so kind and gracious (he probably felt as if he were helping his grandmother); and he went ahead of me pointing out the worst roots and jagged rocks, offering an outreached hand when it was particularly steep or slick from the rains. I quickly got over my embarrassment and clutched his hand like it was my lifeline. I hated having to accept the reality that I was no longer adept at the things I formerly wouldn't have thought twice about, but I was taught another, larger lesson on this rocky path. I don’t have to do this all alone when life gets rough and I’m unsteady, and I can’t always remain on a smooth, uncomplicated path.

That spring session of walking the path brought new wonders to observe and hear. I saw the flowers beginning to bloom, and heard the birds singing and calling to their mama birds for their next meal. This new familiarity with the paths I encountered was comforting, even though I occasionally tried to hide the fact that I was out of breath as I entered the meeting room.

Our summer session had new challenges for walking the paths: rain, heat, humidity, rain, and more rain. And the occasional lightning and thunder, when I would count between the flashes and loud rumbles to determine the distance so that I could forgo the use of my metal lightning rod…umbrella. These times were beautiful, too, as I watched the raindrops bounce off the bright green leaves and branches. I even love the sound the large drops of water make as they hit the stretched umbrella fabric over my head, like a tiny percussion band rhythmically leading my way.

I’ve often mentioned my favorite path to walk near my home. It is near the river and a small waterfall and pond. It winds through the woods, but is very well established and easy to walk. I have walked there so many times, through so many seasons, I probably could walk it in my sleep. It is a source of comfort - a constant that is available to guide me and support my feet safely through the surrounding beauty and back to my car to return home. I never have to doubt that it will be there; and I can let my mind wander and my prayers and tears flow, and write stories in my head. Occasionally, my eyes wander just off the path and notice a bee enjoying some nectar from a wildflower, a new flowering shrub, or hundreds of tiny ants finishing off the re

mainder of a child’s popsicle. I have even encountered a snake behind a nearby rock, mostly because the person who noticed it first almost knocked me over as they ran off in the other direction. I was reminded that we are often unaware of what is just beyond our range of vision on our usual, comfortable paths; or the things we may not notice because we are only looking in one direction and not at what might be just to our right or left.

It is certainly important to be able to trust the pathway on which we’re headed. But sometimes we need to leave that comfort and steadiness and the well-known. Sometimes it helps to step “out of bounds” and see another view, causing us to work a little harder or think a little more, maybe even encounter a little fear. Because all of the paths we take have a lesson for us to learn.

One of the reasons walking a labyrinth is so soothing and brings an atmosphere and attitude of reverence and prayer is because you only have to look down and follow the marked, well-indicated path to the center. You don’t have to worry about deciding which direction to go - you can just keep your mind focused on your thoughts and prayers. We long to be led, to arrive at the center - of knowing, of healing, of being. We long to be led to answers. But as we often realize, the answers are usually found in the journeys along our pathways rather than the final destinations.

Pathway journeys remind me that if I choose to avoid something that is scary or unpredictable, or that may be a negative experience, I will most likely miss some of the greatest blessings and delights that God has waiting for me to discover and experience. That’s reason enough to stumble a bit, grab a hand, or even end up a little breathless.

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