Trail Running with Saint Benedict

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.

from OSB.ORG

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[131]: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[131]:2).

Hence, brethren,
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,
we must
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.

Benedictine Vision and Pastoral Leadership

This blog was started as a place to explore a simple question: What does it mean to follow Christ in the way of Benedict?  Today, I just wanted to look at one area of my life where it means being accountable to others as a leader.

Pastoral Leadership sounds really specialized, but there are tens of thousands of pastors, leaders, and servants in the church, ordained and not ordained.  In applying Benedictine thought to our position, what comes into focus?

A few years ago now, the parish congregation I serve was given three-quarters of a million dollars in a bequest from a beloved local saint.  As the functional CEO of the group I had a list that needed that money.  I also knew the main other priorities that should arise from our saint’s legacy, other leaders, and the general thoughts of our community at large.  In our tradition, fiscal decisions are made by our elected church board of laity called the vestry.  The vestry meets monthly, and this bequest was the issue for several months, understandable as it equaled about a year’s worth of total budget.  We were on sound financial ground, but this could really open doors for us to take on some maintenance delayed for decades, extend our ministries, more than double our small foundation.  We felt the pressure to make quick and sound decisions, but we had also worked for a couple of years on being led by the Spirit rather than just our best intentions.

So, I have this habit of taking books with me into the meeting.  I put them in front of me, sometimes to read from, but sometimes just to be reminded of something that they represent.  Usually those books include the Rule of Benedict.  On this one particular night it was Joan Chittister’s commentary on the rule called A Spirituality for the 21st Century.   Benedict’s face was staring at me as a particular member began to report on the current plan for the bequest.  I was tired of waiting for a decision and getting fidgety, but I was trying at the same time to be coolly “pastoral.”  Another member began to say that he thought we ought to have an intentional method that encouraged every member to give their suggestions for how the money should be allocated.  Now, understand we had been taking written suggestions from the eager for two months already. I was frustrated bordering on angry, but that wasn’t on my face yet.  I was being cool, but I was about to get really directive when I looked down to see Benedict looking at me coolly, pastorally.

And I was reminded of the beginning of Benedict’s Chapter 3,

As often as anything important is to be done in the monastery, the abbot shall call the whole community together and himself explain what the business is; and after hearing the advice of the brothers, let him ponder it and follow what he judges the wiser course. The reason why we have said all should be called for counsel is that the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.

The Spirit spoke through Benedict, and I was corrected and just nodded, kept my mouth shut, and encouraged what turned out to be a wiser course.

The thing is that Rule expects that every member of the monastery is a monk who takes his vocation seriously.  In a community where are all are living their purpose, leadership becomes very different than in one where we expect that we, however we define “we”, are leading them, however we define “them”.   I cannot cede my responsibility, but I also cannot take away theirs, not if I want them to be healthy members of the community.

Leadership in the Benedictine community vision is servanthood from the front.   The abbot has a role to play.  He calls the community.  He explains the business. He hears the advice.  He makes the decision.   Taking the rest of the Rule into account, he also listens to God in the process and encourages the proper function of the community by being accountable to the Rule and holding others accountable as well.  The monks come together, offer their advice “humbly”, and let the abbot decide without second guessing once the decision is made, but trusting in God to work through each monk’s vocation, even the abbot.

Servants serve the household.  In the church that means we serve God in the community of the faithful.  We all have roles in God’s household.  And yes, of course, every role is important, but leaders serve by leading.  We call, explain, listen, and make decisions.  Surely you have been in a community or business where a leader didn’t listen; you have probably also been in a community or business where a leader didn’t make decisions.

It is often easy to recognize leadership in the decisive person, but being decisive does not make for a whole leader in Benedict’s view.  It is clear that abbots have near absolute authority in the monastery, but their decisiveness is not what counts, but rather their accountability.   As a leader, holding others accountable is tough, uncomfortable work in an age where every self is worshiped as a god.  It feels sacrilegious to say, You are not . . . have not  . . . did not . . . Whether or not such a statement is based in fact or well attested, it is often taken as a wrong statement because it goes against the religion of the day.  But the Rule of Benedict is clear that accountability is the defining virtue of the holy community, and that accountability is ultimately standing before God at the end of all hours.

Accountability is tough in today’s churches.  It is easier with a staff because they are hired and directed.  But churches are basically voluntary associations for most Christians.  When someone stops coming, there is really no consequence because there are so many options, including the option of no church, since salvation is unrelated to the community anyway, being individualized.  None of this makes any sense in Benedict’s Rule or most of history.  Because we can always leave, we rarely take the opportunity to become mature and wise.

I have become convinced that the ailments of our age are mostly due to immaturity.  Spiritual, religious, social, even moral immaturity is not only rampant, it is supported and encouraged by our idolization of the individual.  Maturity demands that we are accountable to others.  It is a simple fact that no one lives and survives alone.  The Bible never indicates that we can be saved alone or that our salvation is ultimately for our own self.  To be saved is to be set free to live in God’ house as a child, an heir, with all the benefits and responsibilities of keeping the house.  Freedom in the Scriptures is accountability to the right household rule, not to no rule.  Being accountable to God’s rule, of which the Rule of Benedict is simply a translation or restatement, is freedom and maturity, wisdom.  When we are mature, wise, able to understand and live by God’s rule, all rules fade into the background, and the focus shifts to relationships with God and others.  We cannot skip the rules or ignore them until we are so formed by them that they are our own rule.  Then we are wise and can sing Psalm 119 with joy and peace.

A major part of healthy leadership is becoming mature, wise; and if we are to become wise, we have to be accountable to something larger than ourselves.  Abbots need the Rule as much as the novice.  We, pastors and leaders, have to submit to God’s Rule in one form or another.  I have found that I am incapable of keeping myself accountable to much of anything, honestly.  I need a community that includes my wife, colleagues, bishop, vestry, prayer group, spiritual director, friends, even a centuries old saint from Italy.  But with God’s help and a whole community I am finding myself shaped to God’s Rule and tasting the freedom and joy of being a child of God.

Who are you accountable to for the various areas of your life? Is there an area where you are not accountable to anyone else? What would it mean to adopt a Rule outside yourself? Have you?