When engineers and programmers first tried to create a robotic machine that would ‘walk’ like a human being, they had a great deal of trouble… I remember as a young girl, watching the TV documentary, Horizon or Tomorrow’s World or some similar programme, in which they were attempting unsuccessfully to recreate the twolegged motion.
For a long time, machines that ‘walked upright’, performed a strange, marionette-like strut: lifting first one leg in front and then the other, with knees bent: The sort of motion that a human might use to climb steep stairs, but not to walk. Then came a breakthrough…
Analysing human motion carefully with sensors, scientists and engineers realised that incredibly, walking required human beings to actually overbalance… to fall… step after step!
The key was not, as they first thought, down to timing nor a complicated bending of joints, but in learning to fall forward, step after briefly balanced step. You can see this when a child learns to walk, they often run first, not catching their balance for long enough to go slowly, and stopping only by crashing into parents or furniture.
I was thinking this evening, as we were about to sing the Psalms, about what it means to ask God to guide our steps, or ask that we may walk in his steps (see for example Psalm 85 or 17).
In this process of priestly formation, of Christian discipleship; we are each called to seek out determinedly the way that God would have us go; but this process of discernment is not so much a case of spiritual orienteering: thoroughly taking bearings and then plotting a course… as simply praying and putting our trust in God, and then ‘stepping out in faith’.
As Christians pray, and begin to discern God’s will for them, it is much like learning to walk… sometimes, inspired with sudden courage, we can break into an uncontrolled run, like a little child, not sure how to balance our steps or stop… we can trip up or crash into obstacles.
But the more we grow in prayer and discipline, the more we are able to pace ourselves, every step is still a step of faith -falling forward onto untested ground, and trusting that God will make our footing sure, and help us keep our balance… but the strides are lengthened and the walk less frantic and uncontrolled.
There is a lovely morning prayer in the Anglican Prayerbook which captures something of this metaphor: I think it was originally written by Thomas Cranmer.
Almighty and everlasting God,
we thank you that you have brought us safely
to the beginning of this day.
Keep us from falling into sin
or running into danger,
order us in all our doings
and guide us to do always
what is righteous in your sight;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
With prayer, and discipline, and faith in the love of God; the Christian walk can become a pilgrimage that continues steadily throughout all the difficulties of life; a walk that takes us to exciting places far beyond our own horizons.
Without prayer, we do not know how to follow God’s guidance, and though we may trust in his love; we can also find ourselves accidently in all sorts of difficulty, or suddenly lost and out of sight in sin, like the wandering sheep in the parable. Without discipline our meandering footsteps can be so variable and unsteady that we continually risk being overbalanced. And without faith… we would come to a standstill -paralysed with fear and unable to take a step. Unless we keep daring to move outside our own self-centred gravity and trust that God who loves us will catch our next footfall.