An Environment of Prayer — Allyson Mills

During the pandemic, my faith life was completely upended, as everyone’s busy lives of work, school, and socializing were forced to come to a pause. As someone who values human connection greatly as part of my spiritual practice, shifting to a period of relative isolation was harrowing to say the least. After recovering from the shock of our new realities, we began to find new ways to connect with each other. My family found this through attending virtual church. Every Sunday, we’d watch a televised service after my mom and I made breakfast. To remain active in my own Madison faith community, I also attended my campus church’s online service in the afternoon.

Constant anxiety about the news, isolation from my friends, and online college as a music major got to be a lot in a house of five people. As a way to get both exercise and some alone time, I went on daily walks from 4-5 pm—after I finished class and before my mom finished work.

I remember one walk in particular: The summer air was warm and still, except for the low rustle of the trees and the occasional car or friendly dog-walker. I had recently finished reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, where she states, “it is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes; we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again.” During the pandemic, when everything felt broken, I found this feeling of wholeness (or something close to it) when I walked outside. Wauwatosa’s dense suburban neighborhoods aren’t usually what people imagine when thinking of ‘the great outdoors’. Still, I view my neighborhood as nature. We are not separate from nature; we are nature and live within nature.

As these walks became a regular part of my routine, I sought to make it part of my spiritual practice. Contemplative practices from a variety of traditions can allow us to better connect with our minds, bodies, communities, and environments. As someone with little prior mindfulness experience, I began by simply noting what existed around me: how leaves overlapped, Ms. Vickie’s garden, a rabbit, a purple-painted door. As seasons passed, I became much more aware of the changes within the natural spaces I occupy. I saw the exact day when the leaves began to fall. I saw the transitory nature of the trees as summer turned to winter. I even became more attuned to the changes in weather.

This increased awareness from walking through a place daily allowed my mind to separate from all of my worries—my mother’s cancer treatment, keeping up with online classes, missing my friends, helping care for my younger sister, and of course the universal fear of Covid-19 and the dangers it posed to my immunocompromised family. These fears had a tight grip on me. However, when I’d walk through the neighborhoods into our local nature preserve, the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson came to mind: “In the woods we return to reason and faith.” My mind did become much clearer in those woods.

In my faith tradition, I have always felt most connected to the Holy Spirit, filling us, the earth, our relationships, and our work with God’s spirit. For me, the Holy Spirit represents wisdom, understanding, fortitude, discernment, and many other spiritual gifts that I greatly appreciated amidst the pandemic. In my experience, the Holy Spirit has a quiet voice often difficult to hear amidst the commotion of everyday life. However, on my prayer walks, my own thoughts and the Holy Spirit’s voice became clearer.

Today, prayer walks are still an integral part of my spiritual practice. As a student, it can be difficult to find time to pray and be mindful. However, one activity we all have in our day is walking. We walk to class, back home, to the store, to our friend’s apartments… At least for me, I walk pretty much everywhere I go on campus. Because of this, I find prayer walks to be a deeply centering practice that helps me stay grounded through the ups and downs of my life as a college student.