*Written and published on September 22nd, 2019 on the Union Presbyterian Seminary blog.
As someone who wrestles with anxiety, practicing the Sabbath is often a challenge. This is further exacerbated by the hurriedness that plagues our culture and the constant pressure of achievement. As a Christian, it feels like these pressures squeeze the grace and love of Christ right out of us. There is often not enough space for grace to inhabit when we live under such burdens.
I’m reminded of the mystic philosopher Simon Weil, who wrote that “grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to fill”. Anxiety leaves no space for grace when the mind oscillates between scurried thoughts and panics at the idea of inactivity or failure.
But recently I decided to do something unconventional that allowed me to fully participate in this ancient practice. The effects were life-giving, and it only involved two steps: 1) take off your shoes 2) walk.
This Sunday morning, I went for a walk—one of the few practices that I (sometimes) perform in a leisurely manner. But before I crossed the threshold of the door, I decided to remove my shoes. As I began walking, my mind was instantly flooded with the visceral sensations of the ground. I felt the grass, individual blades bow down before my feet. I heard tiny acorns crack beneath my heels. I sensed the breeze brush the insides of my toes and the cool gritty dirt separate in hundreds of micro increments as my feet pressed into the earth.
All of a sudden, I was awake. I now had to be aware of where and how I placed my feet. I immediately began to be mindful of my position and posture towards my environment. This practice, the practice of walking barefoot, had awakened my mind to a reality that I had somehow forgotten. It awakened me to my place within the world—God’s world.
It also had another profound effect; it forced me to slow down. Although I walk often, I usually rush from place to place leaving me breathless when I arrive. Walking barefoot, on the other hand, left me breathless for a different reason—breathless in awe of God’s grace and provision in the world. This forced idleness and the overflowing sensations rising from my feet centered my mind and prepared my heart for prayer and praise. It both humbled and elevated me as I saw our place within God’s world. To use the language of the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, the practice revealed the infinite within the particular, the one within the all.
After returning home with a light layer of perspiration clinging to my skin, I remained in a contemplative state for some time. It seemed that this practice of walking barefoot had stilled my mind and positioned me humbly before God and his creation. So, if you ever struggle to Sabbath, to rest and be still in God’s presence, try kicking off your shoes. It may make space for God to speak and for us to hear the “holy music” beneath our feet (Schleiermacher).