Trail Running with Benedict – Learning Humility
The quarter mile is kind of out of fashion. We run 400 meters races now, but in junior high school I became a quarter-miler.
It was a track meet against at our rival school’s track, that I first discovered a run that mattered. We were tied with East Holmes Academy, I was last leg in the mile relay. My faithless coach told me to run my own race and be content just as our rival team took a hand-off in the mile relay right behind our third leg. He kept the race close. We had a two foot lead as Doug handed me the baton, and I took off full speed. I was sprinting as I went around the first curve, and my older brother joined the coach in yelling for me to slow down.
*Slow down*? What kind of coaching was that? I was in first, and my name could have been Orville; I was discovering flight. I won. I really won and broke the school age record for the quarter-mile. I discovered that the race was a sprint and not a run, and I could sprint. All of those lonely miles in forests and fields had given me the endurance to run flat out for longer distances than others.
When we moved to Tennessee and Arizona I continued to run through a couple of minor football injuries and much bigger competition, and I won a few races. My senior year in Arizona, I was set up coming into track season to be one of the top five quarter milers in the state. I wasn’t going to win it all. I had realized that there were at least two runners with a whole set of gears beyond mine, but I was the best at Ironwood High School, team captain, and secure that I would be going to State with a shot at placing.
I started the season with a mildly sore achilles tendon, so coach wanted me to run an easy race in a small meet on our track, loose dirt, to set a time for the next major meet coming up a week later. I was supposed to come out easy and set up for a strong finish, maybe a 80% effort.
Coming off the first corner, I was first and shifted from the forward-lean of a true sprint to a laid-back long-reaching stride I had used the last two years when I felt a Charlie Horse in my right hamstring. As the muscle knotted up, the natural kick forward of each stride pulled the knot apart. I could feel my hamstring tearing, and I went down on the side of the track for the last time as a competitive runner. I cursed. I yelled at the trainer.
I had torn my right hamstring. A doctor explained that I had torn three of the four major muscles of the hamstring at 75, 80, and 40%. I was given cutting edge treatment, but we never considered surgery. My running career was over.
It was a humbling experience. I don’t mean that I was some sort of Icarus flying too close to the sun. I wasn’t overly puffed up with pride. I wasn’t some punk kid. I was a team captain and a Christian who had given my life to ministry for Jesus the summer before. I thought of others. I led warm-ups and stretching and prayers at school and church. I worked with younger runners.
No, it was humbling because I got re-planted in the earth, reconnected with my ground of being. I look back now at that high school kid and see the way I would come off the track with my head pounding and my muscles complaining and my focus on myself. I see the weakness at the core that I never addressed despite my coaches admonitions, and the terrible form that I had deduced from bad logic and led to my over-reaching stride. I see the brokennesses that would become patterns, habits, addictions in later adulthood. But it is not really humility to see your weaknesses only and name them. Humility is being grounded in a knowledge, an ethic, a life that is bigger than your own capacity. It is giving up the will to self.
As for self-will,
we are forbidden to do our own will
by the Scripture, which says to us,
“Turn away from your own will” (Eccles. 18:30),
and likewise by the prayer in which we ask God
that His will be done in us.
And rightly are we taught not to do our own will
when we take heed to the warning of Scripture:
“There are ways which seem right,
but the ends of them plunge into the depths of hell” (Prov. 16:25);
and also when we tremble at what is said of the careless:
“They are corrupt and have become abominable in their will.”
from Chapter 7 of the Rule of Benedict, osb.org
Self-will moves us away from humility. When I discovered that I knew better what I was capable of than my coaches, that was a truth, but it was also a seed of arrogance that would grow like a vine in me, setting roots into the mortar of my character, and eroding my very foundation. I could see my strengths clearly, but I was unaware of the seriousness of my weaknesses.
How do we turn away from self-will? Submission. How do we begin to truly learn from others? Submission. How do we become a part of something larger than ourselves? Submission.
Now submission is not popular. We think of submission as something forced on someone else, but submission is the willing giving up of our self-will to another.
Seven years after my high school track career destroyed my hamstring, I started to rebuild it (and the rest of my self) when I submitted my physical life to the teachings of a Hindu guru named Swami Sivananda. Someone had given a complete set of his books in English to the graduate school library, and I found them looking up Bede Griffiths for a model of ecumenism.
My life was in shambles as I studied to become a priest in the church. It was clear that I had no idea how to take care of myself, so I just did was the Swami said about practicing yoga, breathing, walking, and eating. I gave up my will to those little battered paperbacks. I ate simply and did yoga daily for six months. I lost well over fifty pounds and got my mind back together.
The irony is that I am not and was not Hindu. Submission is what I needed, and I was so broken down that almost any truth applied consistently was bound to do some good. The Swami was really wise and good for me, and I still apply some of his teachings. But he also gave me back the Ten Commandments, not as rules but as precepts, taking them from a set of laws to be kept or broken to being a way of life that flows directly into Jesus’ Beatitudes in ways I had not seen before.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” Matthew 5:3.
Humility leads to blessedness. Submission is one of the keys to humility, according to the Gospels and to Saint Benedict.
If I had submitted to my track coaches twenty-five years ago, I would not have been injured. Even just strengthening my core would have been enough. But if I had really submitted in learning running form and only going out at 80%, I would have finished my senior year running and set myself up for a much less heavy college career.
Submission is giving up our self-will to the will of another. Now I still have plenty of self-will left. I am still getting grounded year by year. I still get self-focussed when my blood gets to pounding and my efforts are over-reaching my capacity.
Running helps. When I started to run again seriously in my late twenties, I submitted to a running plan from a beginner’s book and running form from Danny Dreyer’s book *Chi Running*. I started over and stopped exalting myself.
From there I actually grew and today I am stronger and more healthy than I have ever been. By exalting my own ideas about myself and my running, I destroyed my running career. By humbling myself I have learned how to be really strong and to keep running safely year after year.
Today I stay grounded by submitting to running plans and workouts from actual experts, the coaches of adult life. I submit to my wife and to my bishop. I submit to committees and boards, to the community at the church where I serve, to my true guru Jesus of Nazareth, and to God’s dream in the Scriptures.
Submission has its balance of course. This is not a plea for some sort of Masochism or weird sexual practices. I think abuse is just abuse.
Humility is grounded in truth. I am humble enough to know my weaknesses, but I am also humble enough to know my strengths honestly and use them mostly without arrogance. I am humble enough to know the value that I have as God’s child in Christ and defend my dignity with love as I do others. You must not tolerate self-destruction in Christ anymore than destruction of others.
So I am a mid-pack runner these days, when I (very rarely) run with a pack. I still have a visible gap in my right hamstring after all these years. And every spring I get the itch to run in circles until I fall over.
I am not a great runner, but I still love to fly. There is a moment that I love on long runs when the trail pitches over narrow ridges or along the close hug of the forest when my feet go sailing behind me with the wind on my face and my body floating over the good earth, and I toss myself into the care of God.
Ultimately I submit to others because in doing so I submit to God. And I submit to God because I have come to know that God always catches me up into a web of love that, when I trust it, keeps me on my feet, limping and sailing along the Way through fields of gold where the wheat bends bowing in the winds of the Spirit.
That harvest that will someday feed the world is my hope. I submit because I know that God is able to do more than I can and often with those I don’t suspect of belonging to Christ. God’s dream has always been carried by those who like Abraham and Mary and Benedict submit to God’s will. Greatness in winning races is nothing compared to that belonging found when someone bows to you to wash your trail-worn feet or you wash theirs and find between you that doorway home into the Household of God.