Trail Running with Benedict: Shoes

So one time I got stung by a scorpion on a trail run wearing sandals. It reached over the edge as I got my revenge.  Or maybe it was the other way around, as I did interrupt his morning constitutional with sudden death from above.

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15 NRSV) This is what God told the serpent, but it ran through my head as I stared down at the flattened brown corpse of my enemy and wondered if it were the kind that I should be worried about.

And then I thought about the sass I would get about running in the desert in sandals. If it was good enough for Jesus, then it is good enough for me. I always think that to myself, and I then I left again, eager to get back into the flow of the run, even with the throb of my right foot just beginning to crawl up my leg.

People feel it necessary to tell me how stupid it is to run in sandals or barefoot because we can safely assume enmity between us and nature. We know that the world is out to get us and that Satan and his minions go around flinging hypodermic needles and broken glass everywhere we might step. Hypodermic needles, glass, and scorpions.

What happened between God telling whoever was listening that the creation was good (and with us it was very good) and our putting on shoes in the morning? Did the world fall when humanity took its first bite of forbidden fruit?

There are solid, smart Christian thinkers who think so. We live in a fallen world in which God has walked but is not yet restored. There are those who see creation or nature as innocent and humanity as the evil force. It’s been hard to argue with that idea since Silent Spring.

I waver between the two, but I run in sandals. Except when I run in overbuilt trail shoes. I would run barefoot, but the world is not yet there.

The creation is good, but it is also marred by generations of fallen humility. Plato complained that the trees of Athens were all cut down, and the prophets are full of images of nature and its wreckage before the sins of humanity. We long for a day in the mountains or at the shore, but then we have to be careful to survive either one.

We assume a lot in our language about nature, and it shows in our decisions about shoes.

The Biblical narrative begins with humanity separated from intimacy with God and also cut off from the Garden of Eden. The ease of the relationship is replaced with toil and resistance, subjugation and rebellion. The Tree of Life is removed from our reach, but we get to keep the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

We now put on shoes to protect ourselves from the renegade land and conquer what we were made to care for and love. We cannot live forever, we know how to spot evil, but no longer walk easily with God.

In Christ, we are supposed to be restored as human beings as intended by God. Men and women who can walk with their Abba in the cool of the evening among the trees of paradise, but we live in this not yet place.

We can know God, but most of us spend our time confessing and begging because we know how far short we are of his dream for us and how far short the world is from paradise. We are given intimacy but long for restoration of something none of us has ever really known: peace.

I don’t know what you dream about when you dream about peace, but I imagine that we can go barefoot. I won’t even need my sandals when all things are made new.

It makes you wonder that Moses and Joshua were both told to take off their shoes on holy ground. Somehow in those close moments of call they were back on original, unstained ground and did not need to protect their soles.

In many cultures we take off our shoes as we enter a home or house of worship. In these domesticated places where we have imposed some order in the chaos of the world you can be as you were intended: unguarded, safe.

You can really only run barefoot in a few places safely, but more places than you would imagine. I happen to live where it would be unpleasant at best.  And I don’t blame Satan for the needles and the scorpions.

The needles are ours, another sign of our lost humanity and numbing attempts to deal with the distance between peace and our lives. The scorpions, I imagine, are evolved for a world that has been estranged from peace for millennia or longer. We have been enemies for a long time.

The crazy thing about being a follower of Christ is that we are called to live in the world as if we were already in the Reign of God again, back in fellowship, taking walks in the evening, and part of a restored humanity that deserves unguarded love, forgiveness, and dignity.  That world is true in Christ, but it is also not yet here.

We live in hope for things unseen. We love knowing that it will cost us something and may cost us everything. We run barefoot in the desert.  Maybe not physically, but someday.

Imagine a world without needles and scorpions, a world without the fear of death, without good and evil, but only the knowledge of God because he walks among us again like the Garden.  Imagine a world without shoes. I think this is what we see promised in the last chapters of Revelation.

I am not anti-shoe, but they are a measure of how we have to get by in the world. They represent our need to protect ourselves in a thousand ways in this world that is not yet safe. So I wear shoes and take them off when I can.

It is heroic then to walk in the world open-hearted and unshod. We buried a firefighter recently who was also an active soldier. He was heroic, but not for these things, as worthy as they were. For me his heroism was his sitting to eat his leftovers with homeless people and going back to help people off the clock and out of sight. He lived without fear of other people. He was spiritually barefoot, and sometimes he turned the ground under his feet into holy ground.

I have a really great pair of trail shoes that I run in with strong puncture proof sides and toes. They make me feel safe. But my favorite shoes are sandals because they get me a little closer to that someday, even if occasionally I get stung.

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Trail Running at 110 degrees

There is a trail that leads from the asphalt in my neighborhood to mountain peaks scattered from Phoenix to Scottsdale and comes within a half mile of my work. It is brutal, dusty, and rocky. I can climb and drop a thousand feet in a run and not peak anything. I have dodged rattlesnakes and been trailed by coyotes along this trail. It eats “rough trail” running shoes like M&M’s.

I love it, and I run it every week. Sometimes I enter from other neighborhoods or take other loops than my own regular turns. Sometimes I run the whole way, and sometimes I walk more than I run. Sometimes I heave.  I have broken several toes and right after moving here got stung by a scorpion running in sandals.

It is my happy place, this little brutal stretch of desert. It is sand and rock, slate and sandstone, and broken concrete. It is endless sky, creosote, palo verde, and saguaro, barrel and cholla. It is where my soul goes for deep cleaning.

Sometimes the only time I can run is in the afternoon. Extra electrolytes, caped hat, long sleeves, and patience. When you live in certain parts of town you can watch the rescue helicopters pluck the stupid off the mountains. I have watched them pick people up while I was waiting for my GPS to pick up a signal before a run.

There is a purity to the hot run, a humility that is life and death. You cannot abide pride, or it will kill you. You have to admit and know your limits. You have to ignore what your habits are and still have good habits. It is not too much to say that these things are fatal.

So why run in the heat?

There is a part of every life that is hollow without the experience of the Real. The Real is that which actually matters. The movie Fight Club is an absurdist masculine search for the experience of the Real that matters, but it involves real violence and sex. And it shows the dangers of making a religion or a cult out of its pursuit.

I want to think that everyone wants to experience something Real, something that truly matters, but I am not sure. I know that many people do not seem to experience the Real very often. Take religious life. It can be a honest stripping of everything false that leads us to the Truth, and it can be a true-sounding reinforcement of the lies that lie between us and the Real.

Does everyone want an experience of the Real? There is an elitist view of the world that many of my favorite modernist writers held that basically said no, not everyone wants to or can experience the absolute.

E. E. Cummings is my favorite example. From his Introduction to New Poems (1938):

The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople– it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. You and I are human beings;mostpeople are snobs. Take the matter of being born. What does being born mean to mostpeople? Catastrophe unmitigated. Socialrevolution.

I love the sentiments in this introduction about the courage to live a real life, but the other side of that is a snobbery (I know, irony.) That snobbery is directly related to how every human being relates to the world. On one hand there is a direct engagement with life and on the other is a writing off of every else. The Real which should be humbling and the real arrogance of pretense.

Pretense is one of the ways that we try to control our lives. We ignore, eliminate, or deny the existence of people that do not fit our needs or desires. It seems like courage to break away from the crowd and fly as an ubermensch of one type or another, but the reality is that break from most of humanity is the moment the feathers start to drop from your wings.

Every human being. As a Christian, we proclaim with the Bible that the cross is salvation for the world. As a Christ-less Christian, we proclaim that we are separate from some of the people in the world by virtue of their  . . . (we could really insert all sorts of things here). But I have come to see that there is no separation in Christ. The cross is for all, or we don’t trust the God proclaimed in the incarnation of Jesus.

This sets us in an interesting place in the world, between a world that is riven by separations and anxieties and a God who loves the people in that world. We are called to be ambassadors to a suffering and struggling humanity, but instead we pull away to feel safe. Cummings says later in the same piece quoted above, “Mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness.” Afraid to suffer, most people never get born again.

Maybe I run on some level so that I suffer in manageable ways, because otherwise I am a pretty blessed little dilettante in ministry to secure, safe, but still scared and separated people, and if I am not careful I can become a part of not-humanity, the false humanity of any one group.

Thomas Merton, that wonderful monastic genius of the religio-spiritual life, offers us a pretty full exploration of the difference between the false man and true man, or false human being and true human being, as we would put it today. The false human is the one I create around myself: the stories I tell of me, the lies I imply of me, the secure happy Instagram self I portray to the world. The false self is a lie, but one that I believe, so it is or becomes indistinguishable from me.

The true human being is the one beneath all of that. He, in my case, suffers and has joy, tells the truth or lies, prays and is. But we mostly ignore that true self until something touches us that strips away the lies. AA calls it “hitting rock bottom,” but the bottom here is the bedrock of truth, the moment you see your true self. It could be a divorce or lie that collapses relationships or simply a religious experience or the wilderness. It can be awesome but most of the time it feels like Icarus falling.

Staying with the truth is hard, even when we have experienced it. It is hard because when we are false, we don’t feel as immediately and don’t share deep truth, so we are less vulnerable to hurt or other people. We are not actually present to the pain, suffering, and death of life because we are not actually present at all. We may prop all of this up with alcohol or simply self-righteous judgement. But the distance between the false self and the real feels like a blanket of comfort.

The other reality of that distance is that people feel the disconnect. They know without always knowing why that the real is not present, but the false self is often more desirable or useful or agreeable to deal with. It is certainly less threatening. So we live this fundamental lie that is the sum and source of most deception, even though we feel fine about it because it is inseparable from “me.”

In groups we justify and prop us the false selves around us. We encourage them because that is easier than dealing with a bunch of true selves that might call me to truth and the Real of my life. We need the collective lie to feel safe in our lies. We need this to feel safe even when our collective lie includes fear of the other, xenophobia, mimetic violence, and depravation. It sounds terrible written out, but in reality it all feels pretty good. That’s why we keep tuning in. We love the lie.

So when I run, there is no one to lie to. There is no one to impress. There is only me and the rocks and God. I run because it puts me naked before God and my true self without temptation to be anything other that what I am, which in the context of nature is not much. Running keeps me honest.

Running for me, and maybe especially because I am not a competitor, is humiliation at its best. It is fasting and prayer and focus and a crazy pursuit of holiness. And it is more pure at higher temperatures, like so many things in life.

If I am going to embody God’s mercy and grace and love, I have to do so at the level of the Real, so that it can be trusted. “Christians either contemplate or they manipulate” was Ted Wueste’s interpretation of a quote this last week at a retreat. It is so true it hurts.

The real danger for me on the trails is not dying from heat exposure. It is lying. You have to be honest out at the edges of life. You have to be humble. So that you can return to the soft middle of things and not die all the time.

Running makes me a better human being, a e.e. cummings live person, but it also makes me more than that, it makes me a humble person, grounded in the humanity of every person. We all suffer. We all do what we can. And we all screw it up.

The cross and Christ’s suffering was not to separate out some group to save from all the rest, but rather to set aside some to save all. We are called to work of the cross, suffering with and not in spite, but in love for all.

Well . . . it’s been a long time

The problem with having a family and a real job is that you have to care for them more than for the nebulous crowd of readers in my imagination, but spreadsheets are complete, budgets are filled in, and things are humming.  At work.  Still working out that whole being a good husband and dad thing.

I figure it’s like sitting in lotus when I was doing yoga a decade ago. For some this looks easy, but you gotta give me a few decades.