When a colleague recently announced that his infant son had begun to crawl, I shared his delight. It took me back to the time when my own now towering teenage son was still a baby.
A first child, he was a contented little soul and such a committed sleeper that I began to wonder what everyone had been talking about when they’d warned us of the enormous disruption that parenthood would bring to our lives. Far from the desperate, sleep-deprived existence I had been preparing myself for—that would come later—those early weeks and months seemed to pass in a blissful state of gurgling, cooing, mutual adoration.
But just as I was naively, and prematurely, congratulating myself on having nailed this parenting caper, everything changed.
I had left my son one afternoon happily lying on a mat in the living room as I went to answer the phone, but returned to find him gone. No one else was at home and he was still months from being ready to crawl, so my surprise quickly turned to panic. Leaping to what seemed (to my anxious new mother’s way of thinking) the only plausible conclusion—that he’d been abducted by an intruder—I was about to call the police when I heard a faint, plaintive cry coming from way back beneath the sofa. My clever boy had learnt to roll. He was on the move, and life would never be the same.
There is a reason we celebrate our children’s first movements, wildly applauding as they wave, crawl, sit up, bum-shuffle, take their first steps and set off on their first wobbly bike rides. We are comforted that they are growing and developing as we hope they will; that they’ll eventually be able to make their own way in the world.
But on that afternoon almost 18 years ago, it dawned on me that mobility isn’t without its risks—a realisation I’m still coming to grips with as that same boy prepares to take his driving test. Movement brings freedom and opportunity, but it also carries with it an unnerving element of unpredictability, as anyone who has supervised small children at the beach or near a busy road will tell you.
While we might rightly celebrate the ability to run and dance and cartwheel, to embrace loved ones and explore the world, we can also move in unhelpful ways, aimlessly wandering, straying into danger, hitting out in anger, running away in fear or shame.
Our movements can be awkward, hesitant, clumsy, but they can also be exhilarating—transcendent even. When we describe someone as graceful, we are usually thinking about the way they move. Watching a great dancer or a moment of outstanding athleticism, what impresses us—and makes us gasp—is not just the technique or skill being displayed but a beauty that can transport us momentarily beyond the here and now.
In his essay ‘Roger Federer as religious experience’, the late American novelist David Foster Wallace acknowledged that while beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, high-level sports are nevertheless ‘a prime venue for the expression of human beauty’. What we are seeing when we watch someone like Federer play is a kind of ‘kinetic beauty’, he says. ‘Its power and appeal are universal … What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.’
When we witness someone move with grace, or do so ourselves, we are experiencing physical movement as a gift, one that both affirms the goodness of the bodies we have been given and that points beyond itself to the giver.
Jesus was himself someone who knew the joys and challenges of physical movement. He was constantly travelling from place to place, mostly on foot, sometimes by boat or donkey, connecting with people and transforming the world about him as he moved from town to town, and from remote location to family home to crowded city.
When he called his first disciples to ‘Come, follow me’ (Matthew 4:19), they too were invited into a life of movement, as are we. The Great Commission—Christ’s instruction to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19)—set the Church in motion, launching it on an outward trajectory of loving encounter.
As St Paul told the people of Athens, in Christ, we ‘live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). Tellingly, he sandwiches our experience of movement between two of the most essential aspects of our existence: life and being.
It’s a connection that permeates our language and ways of looking at the world. A vigorous, healthy person is ‘alive and kicking’; we describe some of our profoundest moments—our encounters with grief or experiences of being deeply loved—as ‘moving’; and as already noted, a moment of great beauty can ‘transport’ us.
But where are we being transported? Where is all this movement taking us?
St Augustine—a notorious wanderer throughout much of his life—famously observed that our souls are restless until they find their rest in God. The itch to be on the move is a universal human experience. It can overwhelm or confuse us, or it can propel us forward in our search for something better, more meaningful, truer than what we currently know and experience.
We are a pilgrim Church, a people on the move, but the pilgrim’s journey is ultimately a journey home, a quest for a place where all our movements find their fulfilment and where we might experience what it is to be fully and truly alive—not alive and kicking, perhaps, but alive and finally at rest.
Christian Bergmann15 August 2023
Christian Bergmann06 June 2023