Over the last seven years or so, I have been running with Saint Benedict. It started out as a casual acquaintance. I was given a statue years ago by an dying parishioner in Tucson, who insisted Benedict was for me. His raven was who I connected with at first. Bringing bread to the struggling saint was something I related too and depended on. I still see those harbingers of grace and insatiable hunger everywhere.
Some years later, John O’Donahue, my frequent companion on earphones moved away, and I began to listen to the Rule while running. Joan Chittister and Esther De Waal joined Paolo Coelho on my iPod. The Rule started to works its way into my thinking. Order and grace, compromise and demand, stability and transformation.
If you run, you know there are two kinds of runners: runners who run for accomplishment and runners who run for love. I am the latter as my empty box of accomplishments shows. I run because I love the edges of the world and the edges of my self. I love running because it has been my soul work since I was twelve. I have nearly run myself to death, and I have run myself back to life.
But with Benedict I began to understand the trail as my cell. It is where I do my work, praying and pushing and resting, working out the vision of the church and theology, and it is where I go to stop working and push the clutch on my mind. It is the container of the alchemy of my own transformation over the flame of God.
I pray a lot on the run. I listen to God, I listen for God, and I rant at God, and I beg, plead, lament, repent, confess, weep, rejoice, and give thanks. I sometimes read the readings of the week and then go run. I sometimes study and study and then go run to let it simmer into something edible for a Sunday brunch.
With Benedict, I run to find humility. The deep humility of Benedict is not self-destruction. It is honesty about my own soul and condition. It is honesty before God and my deepest self. It is abiding within the provision of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit, and letting that provision take away fear and anxiety. Humility is love of others based in nothing but trust that God provides and protects, so my ego gets to loosen its chokehold.
I run to escape my ego and befriend my inner self. Running is like journaling for me without the self-focus of my stream-of-consciousness. When I am running I have to be in this present moment, feeling what I feel, attentive to breath and body, and that somehow makes it possible to be present to God in a way that just destroys my false self, my denial of tension and pain, and my self-justification. It is like journaling while on a slack line.
In the Rule, Benedict is severe about humility, calling for this self-denial that worries the nurse and concerns the social worker. But on my runs I have found Benedict realistic, naming the false ego version that I pretend is me to deny my true self and others and defend my illusions and desires.
Even the best spiritual directors cannot do the work for you of taking down that false self. You have to show up and put in the miles. You have to have stability in practice in order to have lasting transformation. You have to keep escaping the ego and keep making friends with the you that God actually loves.
I have run my whole life. But twelve years ago I started over. I tore my hamstring in high school in a small meet my senior year. I would happily tell you why it happened. It was entirely avoidable, but it was still career ending. I wasn’t going to run in college.
For years I would run a few times and start to get serious, then I would fail. I would peter out, quit, just stop running. It was discouraging, but I mostly just denied it, told old stories of better days, and got fat. When I put myself together in seminary, I did it with ashtanga yoga (because of a Power Yoga book aimed at runners.) I started running again, but never consistently, never faithfully, and never for long.
Then five years later, I moved to Phoenix alone. I could be on a trail in less than half a mile. I wanted to do it right, and I could. I felt like an eggplant on toothpicks at first. Okay, for a couple of years. The most terrible sound I heard in the desert wasn’t coyotes or rattles. It was, “Oh, hello Father!” when I was out running in tiny little running shorts with no shirt. It was my first daylight run in months.
But I started over with a Runner’s World Beginners Running book and a Timex watch with interval timer and Chi Running, walking and running intermittently, adding minute by minute for a year, until I was running for hours at a time. I had begun again and begun with a rule. I needed a guide and companion.
My spiritual life has often followed the same pattern. I get fat, tell old stories, and get by on my occasional efforts. Benedict has called me to stability and transformation based in a humility of trust. He shows up daily with instructions and encouragement, and he often brings Joan and Esther along; and we go for a run.
Sometimes I even run in sandals, my earbud wire flapping like a rope around my waist, putting one foot in front of another, running with Benedict and Paul and the women, learning to be faithful in these days of ours. I am running the good race, I am keeping the faith, one minute, one day, one step at a time.
Chapter 7: On Humility
Jan. 25 – May 26 – Sept. 25
Holy Scripture, brethren, cries out to us, saying,
“Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled,
and he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
In saying this it shows us
that all exaltation is a kind of pride,
against which the Prophet proves himself to be on guard
when he says,
“Lord, my heart is not exalted,
nor are mine eyes lifted up;
neither have I walked in great matters,
nor in wonders above me” (Ps. 130:1)
But how has he acted?
“Rather have I been of humble mind
than exalting myself;
as a weaned child on its mother’s breast,
so You solace my soul” (Ps. 130:2).
if we wish to reach the very highest point of humility
and to arrive speedily at that heavenly exaltation
to which ascent is made through the humility of this present life,
by our ascending actions
erect the ladder Jacob saw in his dream,
on which Angels appeared to him descending and ascending.
By that descent and ascent
we must surely understand nothing else than this,
that we descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility.
And the ladder thus set up is our life in the world,
which the Lord raises up to heaven if our heart is humbled.
For we call our body and soul the sides of the ladder,
and into these sides our divine vocation has inserted
the different steps of humility and discipline we must climb.