Thinking on Your Feet

Courtesy: Kevin Burns

“It was an agonizing experience, and years later Ignatius spoke of it as ‘butchery.’”[1]

The “it” was two separate attempts at surgery on his leg after a cannon ball shattered it in 1521, during St. Ignatius of Loyola’s pre-Jesuit military career. Given the extent of this damage, I find it remarkable to read how, in the years that followed, Ignatius would push himself to such physical extremes by a) walking for days on end without shoes, and b) sneakily removing the soles of his shoes as a private discipline so that people would not notice he was, in fact, still walking with direct foot contact with the rough ground.

Given the physical challenge of a leg weakened by a cannon ball and 16th century surgery without anaesthetic, and then the huge distances he walked in his life (to Paris from Spain, for example), St. Ignatius has been in my thoughts recently, especially his multiple references to walking. In fact, “What would Ignatius think and do about this?” kept coming to mind as I read through a fascinating book, A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.

Courtesy: Verso Press

Gros does not mention Ignatius of Loyola at all in this book, in which he surveys various philosophers throughout history and what they had to say about getting around on their own two legs. Woven throughout these intriguing vignettes (which include Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Diderot, Kant, and others) is Gros’s own thoughts about what the act of walking can mean, in addition to it being “the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.”[2]

Now that I use a cane when walking I found the freedom that Gros experiences during his ever-longer treks both inspiring and challenging. Then, as I meandered my way through his intriguing book, I found myself substituting Gros’s use of the word “walk” with “pray” and “walking” with “praying.” The result was walking/thinking kind of “spiritual exercise” involving prayer and spiritual reflection, something the philosopher and author perhaps did not intend.

Walking (praying) can be boring, that’s when you apply discipline, because “discipline is the impossible conquered by the obstinate repetition of the possible,” he says. [3]

Walking (praying) is often the experience of doing nothing, “You are doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking.”[4] You do nothing when you pray, except pray.

In a chapter on pilgrimage, Gros says the pilgrim “would approach the holy shrine purified by pain and effort. For fatigue purifies, destroys pride, and renders prayer more transparent.”[5] Then he adds a twist when he says that even though the walker may feel compelled to move toward a particular destination, the essential experience of being pilgrim is, in reality, that you are “not at home” wherever you might be walking (praying) toward. Floating somewhere in the unfamiliar when you think are headed somewhere else.

Walking (praying) is “temporary ‘disconnection’ from our daily lives: escape from the web for a few days, a brief out-of-system experience wandering untrodden paths.”[6]

His chapter on solitude is an exploration of that familiar inner conversation as “even when I am alone, there is always this dialogue between the body and the soul. When the walking is continuous, I encourage, praise, and congratulate: good legs, carrying me along.” [7] That interior conversation is a recognition that “when I walk I soon become two. My body and me: a couple, an old story. Truly the soul is the body’s witness. An active vigilant witness.”[8]

Walking (praying) “liberates thought. During that continuous but automatic effort of the body, the mind is placed at one’s disposal. It is then that thought can arise, surface or take shape.”[9]

Courtesy: Penguin Books

And it is this final line about walking and the thought that arise from it that brings me back to St. Ignatius, who in his 1544 Spiritual Diary, links walking with the emergence of new ways of thinking:

“A little later as I was walking and remembering what had happened, a new interior impulse of devotion and tears.” [10]

“I continued walking with these thoughts and vested: they increased ever more, appearing to be a confirmation of what I had done, even if I received no consolation on this point.” [11]

“I knelt for a long time, then I walked, and once more knelt, arguing along many, varied different lines of thought. I felt great satisfaction.” [12]


[1] William V. Bangert, SJ, A History of the Society of Jesus (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1986), p. 5.

[2] Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking, trans. John Hare (London: Verso, 2014), p. 2.

[3] Gros, p. 158.

[4] Gros, p. 83.

[5] Gros, p. 113.

[6] Gros, p. 5.

[7] Gros, p. 56-7.

[8] Gros, p. 56-7.

[9] Gros, p. 157 (emphasis in original).

[10] “The Spiritual Diary” in Personal Writings (London: Penguin Books, 1996), p, 76.

[11] “The Spiritual Diary,” p. 84.

[12] “The Spiritual Diary,” p. 98.

Ottawa-based author and editor, Kevin Burns is a frequent contributor to igNation. His latest book, Impressively Free – Henri Nouwen as a Model for a Reformed Priesthood and co-authored with Michael W. Higgins, has just been released by Paulist Press in the United States and by Novalis in Canada.

  • Roger Yaworski, SJ
    Posted at 11:56h, 18 July Reply

    For those who might want a walking/prayer experience you still have time to sign up for the Guelph Walking Pilgrimage from Guelph to Midland August 3 to 10 2019. To register go to

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