The Small Act

O long life! O painful life! O life that is not lived! Oh, what lonely solitude, how incurable! What remedy do you provide for one who finds so little on earth that might give some rest apart from you?" ~ St. Theresa of Avila

Heather KingFor a long time I thought spiritual progress, when and if it came, would be elevated, loud, cataclysmic. I thought my duty was to save the entire continent of Africa, or become a swami. As I continued to attend Mass, pray the Psalms, and read the Gospels, however, the more I came to believe in the value of the small, the quiet, the anonymous (although not that anonymous, I guess, or I wouldn't be writing this). The more I craved to be recognized, the more I seemed to spend many hours a day doing things nobody knew about or could see.

I am pretty sure if everyone did a few simple things—observed an hour of silence, prayed for an hour, looked, really looked, for an hour each day—the world would be transformed. The problem is that though such a way of life sounds simple, it is actually very hard to sustain. It requires being either independently rich or willing to live in a certain amount of financial precarity ("Still Poor, still Dirty," a friend once observed after visiting William Blake); it requires either living alone or with someone who, if not in solidarity, is at least in sympathy with this somewhat odd bent; and it requires wanting to live in some sense apart from the world, having the kind of nervous system that craves solitude, quiet, routine.

Hardly anything has more solitude, quiet, and routine built into it, of course, than writing: the reflection and mental preparation that precede it, the writing itself and, in my case, what increasingly came after: a long, solitary walk. Walking has the attributes of all the truly great gifts: it's ordinary, simple and free. It's good exercise, probably the optimum speed at which human beings should move, and perfect for thinking and observing. Walking, I figure things out and process things and calm myself down, and even though I'd explored just about every street within a 3-mile radius of my Koreatown, Los Angeles, apartment, for years I usually ended up taking one of two favorite walks each day. One was up and down the streets in Hancock Park, a wealthy neighborhood of graceful mansions and stately trees a short drive from my apartment, and the other was east, through the insanity of Western Avenue and on to the quiet of Windsor Square and back.

Taking the same walk each day soothed me, and I came to think of the things I saw and smelled along the way as friends. I had favorite flowers: the riot of sweet peas on Norton Avenue, the passion flower twining through the chain link fence of an abandoned lot near Plymouth and 8th Street. I had a favorite tree: a sycamore near Lucerne, the branches of which spread the whole length of a French-windowed brick sleeping porch. I had a favorite house: my friend Judy's on Van Ness, with the English cottage garden in back, and the Japanese maple in front, and the white sweetheart roses cascading over the pergola. I had streets I loved because of the light, or the hushed quiet, and streets I avoided, because of dogs, or construction, or puddles of standing water.

If St. Gregory's Church over on Bronson was open, I sometimes stopped in to pray, or more often, just kneel, so happy to be in an old neighborhood Catholic church, with its scarred wooden pews, its fussy altar, its smell of furniture polish and faded flowers. I always happened upon a few other folks: an elderly Korean lady fretfully fingering a rosary (They never come visit!), a delicate-looking young man, head buried in hands (I got my girlfriend pregnant! Help!). Sometimes I think the whole reason I converted to Catholicism is because its churches are open all day. My career in the bars was at bottom a search to belong, and I have always had a sense of almost abject gratitude for open doors, spots to rest, the opportunity to sit quietly near people without having to talk to them.

Back out in the open air walking, I learned to observe, admire, praise. I began to see that spirituality is not elevated, it's as simple as bread—so simple we don't recognize it: a leaf on the sidewalk, the shadow cast by a roof. I started to see that life is a series of small choices: the choice between moving towards yourself or towards other people, towards God. I started to see that the "spiritual" person isn't the one in the white robe: it's the one who smiles back, who lets you get through the intersection before gunning the car, who tends his or her front yard and makes the street beautiful for everyone. I started to believe that the movement away from self, no matter how small, has infinite effects.