Arroyos in the Night – Fear and Refuge

There is a blue light to the desert nights that the full moon makes dancing with the sand.  You can see by it with patience and time.  You have to adjust at the beginning, and you have to run patient, letting the light you have guide your feet.  And you have to learn not to guess about the dark shadows.  Normally safe places to balance a foot on a sharp rock or let a step glide just over the surface of contours become treacherous even in the most familiar places.

Night changes the desert.  It is clarifying and haunting to go slipping through the dark blues and purples of the landscape reduced to peripheral vision and trust.  Your senses open up.  Yucca and palo verde smells and the quiet breathing of the desert under the shifting temperatures of night: things just missed in the business and quick flight of daytime runs.

I used to run through the desert in the fuller stages of the moon at night with a cap pulled low to blow block the direct light of the moon because it was like deep sea exploration, like praying a foreign country.  No flashlight, only faith in hand and trust in the movement of the body in motion and the nature’s grace.

They became a place of refuge, these nighttime runs.  I turned to desert for my closet of prayer when I couldn’t focus, when my words seemed to be too thin for the longing of my heart.  The night became a place where I was comfortable, clear, a place of focus.  Except for arroyos.

In the park where I ran there were these low places: washes, small canyons, arroyos where the water had carved the desert floor in beautiful curves only seen from up high.  Down on the floor at night they were sudden walls of darkness, cool caverns of fear where I always met my insecurity.

We all live with insecurity.  The deep seated anxiety of life, the existential fear of being naked before the Lord and mountain lions, critics and killer bees.  We live afraid, often without being conscious about it.  We live with basic fears that seem to mount as responsibilities pile up and the landscapes of our life changes.

For those who go through transition, it is a lot like running in the dark.  The landscapes we know well are suddenly different, or feel different, and the places where we skipped over obstacles and relied on the familiarity of small oppositions become traps of lost perspective and flattened depths become shallow traps.  The night changes the desert.

And then there are these arroyos that come out of the moonlight like walls of darkness, where our base insecurities become unseen lions stalking our waking minds.  Our praying trust becomes fleeing demons, a test of faith in the wilderness.

“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” the Psalmist asked, and I wondered if I would survive the darkness, my refuge of a moment ago approaching like a purple wave of doom out of the comforting blues of the desert night.

Over and over, night after night I would take one step down into the wall of darkness and discover, as the cool air rushed past, that God was there behind my questioning.  I was refreshed time again by the enveloping dark, as the dim light of grace would come into focus in this new passage through shadow, and I would come back up to the desert floor mere seconds later refreshed and almost laughing.

Fear every time would fade in steps taken into renewed faith.  I just had to keep going.

from Jesus in Matthew 10:

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.  Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

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.