Riding the bus as spiritual discipline

Riding the bus as spiritual discipline

by Esther Epp-Tiessen

Ottawa bus. Photo by Esther Epp-Tiessen

I have always struggled with the traditional spiritual disciplines – contemplative prayer, disciplined scripture reading, meditation, fasting. I have tried them all many times, and fallen away every time. I have often felt like a failure.

But I’ve come to realize that there are many more spiritual disciplines than the traditional ones. And for me, personally, what has become an important way of encountering the Spirit is through the very mundane act of riding the bus to work.

Initially, my commitment to riding the bus was about reducing my carbon footprint. I knew that if I wanted governments and corporations to address climate change, I also had to do my part. Supporting ecological justice meant leaving the car at home and taking public transit. This continues to be an important reason for riding the bus – and cycling – to work.

But over the years, I realized there were more reasons to ride the bus. I could simply sit and unwind after a stressful day. I could do a Sudoku puzzle. Or I could read – the news or a novel or even the poetry posted on the upper walls of the bus. Whoever had the brilliant idea of posting poetry on a bus?

I learned that I could pay attention to the creation outside my window: the moments during the dark winter when the sun begins to lighten the early morning sky, when the brown and grey of last year’s vegetation is replaced by this year’s emerald green, when massive clouds herald an approaching thunderstorm.

I learned I could also pay attention to the human community riding on the bus with me:  the workers and students, the parents with children and babies in strollers, the seniors, the newcomers, the regulars – a community rich in diversity, a beautiful microcosm of my city.

And while paying attention to the people, I could witness beautiful and caring acts of compassion:  bus drivers offering kind words to their passengers, passengers paying the fare for those without, people helping those with physical or visual challenges. One day someone gently but firmly confronted another passenger for a racist remark. At my transfer point, a disheveled man stands rain or shine with a large banner that proclaims, “Jesus loves you.” All these things move me deeply.

To be sure, many sad and painful things happen on the bus. I have seen people cry or fight or yell at their kids. Sometimes buses are crowded and there is jostling and irritation. And sometimes the bus doesn’t arrive – and that can be really stressful, especially in a snowstorm or the bitter cold.

But there is much blessing in riding the bus. Each day I am reminded that riding the bus embodies the message that public transit is an essential part of city life. Riding the bus is a way of advocating for the common good and the good of the earth.

More than that, the bus ride reminds me that each person is made in God’s image, is a child of God and is deeply loved by God. Oftentimes, in the interactions between God’s children, I see God at work, extending friendship, compassion and love. Oftentimes I am moved to whisper a prayer of gratitude and praise to the One who is love.

I get off the bus, deeply blessed and my spirit nourished. If that is not a spiritual discipline, I don’t know what is.

I conclude with this poem displayed on a bus.  It is by Elisheba Johnson of Seattle.

Love didn’t know my address
So I went looking for her.
Searched far and wide and while I was looking for her
I found a letter in my heart
No return address
From myself.
That said, “You are love and it lives here.”