Running for My Life


This post was written on Thursday, October 21, 2010 at Airlie House, Warrenton, Virginia.

Today is proof that running is not about running.

After leaving three friends who were embarking on a 5-mile run,  I jogged down the hill to meet another friend for a more civilized early morning 3-mile walk/run.  No friend.  Oh well, do I walk or do I run?  I decided to run.  As I was leaving the main house at Airlie in the rear view, I realized that for a few weeks now, I’ve been struggling with hills – both up and down – and punishing my knees as a result.  As I was mounting the hill immediately leaving the property I started to think about this.  A hill is just a hill, right . . . every hill has an up and a down slope so what’s the big deal?  If you run down, you have to run up and vice versa.  All pretty obvious stuff.

Well the more I started to “think” about hills, the more I ran and the more I ran the more thoughts came to me about this dilemma.  As the Airlie house came into view after having run up and down hills for 3 miles, it all came to me.  Running is really not about running . . . it’s a pretty decent metaphor for a lot of life.  Not an original thought, but a good one for me to remember.  For example, running down hill makes me feel alive, vibrant, ready to attack challenges vigorously so I run joyfully and quickly down them . . . running uphill makes me feel cranky, irritated, life is burdensome so I plod up them and sometimes I stop.  The bottom line is they are just upslopes and downslopes and that’s all.

Meanwhile, there is the sun starting to crawl above the trees to my left.  There are the swans on the pond calling to me as I pad on by.  Oh my, I startled a doe as I ran past the abandoned landscaping truck rusted out by the side of the road.  Is that a rabbit that is crossing the path in front of me?  I wonder if I’ll catch up to that walker ahead of me . . . I’ve finished this run and I feel like I’ve barely started.

All of this insight and I didn’t have to pay a cent and I got the exercise I wanted.   I think I’ll keep running . . . with thanks to Haruki Murakami for getting me started on “thinking” about running.  http://www.amazon.com/What-Talk-About-When-Running/dp/0307269191

 

Signature 2

Restless in Berryville


God shops at Costco! He has the same tupperware cereal containers here at Berryville that I am using at home. It’s a sign . . . I am forgiven.

I have never actually witnessed the movement of wind through trees until this weekend. I first heard something on Friday night. It was as if someone was moving through the brush. I caught a sense that something was happening, but turned towards the source and only then was I treated to the full breathy, expansive fullness of the sound. Yesterday, the same experience, however, I wondered why I’ve never felt that before. Such a common phenomenon . . . On my way back from Compline, I felt the same thrill. Why was this such a new thing?

This morning I have been restless since 3 am. I was sorely tempted to go to Vigils at 3:30 am but rolled over instead. I tossed and turned but not at all unpleasantly until the clock glowed 6:30am. With that, I realized it was time to emerge from my cocoon. I stripped the bed — this was our last day at Holy Cross Abbey — as requested in the ‘dear friends’ note on the desk, balling up the sheets and shoving them into the pillow case. I pulled off my pseudo-pajamas — running shorts and a t-shirt — and traded them for a white pants skirt and a black polo. I took one more minute to brush my teeth and grab a sweatshirt, even summers in Berryville are chilly, and headed off for Lauds.

The chapel is about a half-mile from the retreat house. The road is paved, but the adventurous may take shortcuts through the unfenced fields. Leaving the premises, a modest yellow brick building that houses 16 rooms, kitchen, dining room, foyer, library, and chapel, I am greeted by two cats. There are several that inhabit the grounds, but are not allowed inside. The fat yellow tabby that is queen of the brood is nowhere to be found. Instead her lord and maiden have come to greet me and are glad for the gentle touch of my hand. They, too, appear to have been roused recently from sleep, but are not at all unhappy about it. In fact, we all seem quite content and pleased with ourselves to be up before most of the others. There is no hum in the air, no buzz of activity as I round the garden of zinnias and sunflowers — the bees and butterflies have not yet woken. There is a slight chill in the air and I am glad that I have worn the West Loudoun Vikings hoodie I purchased on Friday.

The road winds past the pasture. There are cows grazing, but nowhere near the number that were parked on this plot of land last evening. Lupe was so entranced by them she took pictures of every one of them that would come to the fence. They were as curious about us as we were delighted to meet them. Most were black with tags in either or both of their ears. We assumed they were beef cows, but again someone who reads this will confirm or deny the fact. Today, none of them are even close to the pathway. Having satisfied whatever curiosity they had, they have moved on. So have I.

The next patch of road is a straight stretch that passes the monastery gift shop. This is my favorite part of the walk. It is bordered by the cow pasture on one side and farmland on the other. I love the wire fences, the random trees, the abandoned stumps, the hay ricks, etc. I wonder if I came for a week would I see a whirlwind of activity? Would I be waving to farmers on tractors? Would there be threshers and irrigation machines? There must be some activity on these lands.

Regardless, I am content to walk on the road between the fields. As I approach the trees that have entertained me morning, noon, and night, there is no sound. Perhaps they will not talk to me today. I am not unhappy but curious about where the sound is made and why I have only been allowed to hear it so richly in my 52nd year. I pass the copse and move on to the gift shop corner.

Cool Spring Mansion

There is a sign as I round the corner that points the route to the retreat house, the chapel, and announces my arrival at the gift shop. The sign is gray — painted wood with black calligraphy. I wonder, do the monks create and maintain all of these signs? There must be a hundred of them on the property. If they do this is there anything they don’t do? Do they mow? Do they weed? Do they mop? Do they sort socks? Do they clean bathrooms?

Fr. Mark and Ruth

These thoughts preoccupy me as I head towards the Cool Spring mansion house. It was once a residence, but now serves as a meeting place and houses Brother James’ collection of prehistoric arrowheads and civil war artifacts found on the property. How can they maintain all of his? Their numbers are dwindling. This summer they lost Father Mark to complications after surgery and Brother Michael to a massive stroke. I will count them again this morning, hoping that overnight their ranks will have swollen to accommodate several hearty-looking thirty-somethings. There were four of them in a back pew last night — maybe they were the four new recruits reporting to duty. I will look for them.

I am thinking this as I mount the stairs to the chapel. I am alone. None of my fellow retreatants are visible on the path behind me. I will have the monks to myself. I am happy. I take my seat in the first pew behind the velvet cord that announces the separation between the monks’ worship quarters and the cheap seats. I am not put off by this restriction. To pass beyond that rope is to swear fealty to a life of unlimited otherness and I know that I am not ready for that. It is 6:50 am and the chapel is dark. I am alone.

A bell tolls and a monk appears in a walker. I wonder if, he too, rose at 3:30 am for Vigils or if like me, his first appearance before God is now. This thought is designed to make me feel better, but I know the truth. He was here even though he had to physically struggle to do so. I am humbled by this fact. This is a good sign. I am in their realm — humility is one of the virtues they preach. The work on me is already starting and the office has yet to begin.

More monks file in — there are four on the left, one in the front pew (Brother Vincent from the gift shop) who has a cold, four on the right plus one young man in street clothes. One of the new recruits, perhaps? None of the others from last night are with him. I can’t help myself; I contemplate the recruiting statistics — one out of four. Not bad, but at this rate the place will be in ruins before long. We need more troops, God.

Finally, my fellow retreatants appear. There are now four of us behind the cord. More bells. No more monks. Lauds is to begin.

Knock.
Knock.
Knock.

The abbot has signaled that it is time to start. The cantor begins. His voice is strong and beautiful. His colleagues join him and the sound surges towards the middle of the chapel. Facing each other in two pews, their voices entwine naturally and lift us all. The music hangs in the rafters — yes, there are rafters. The crucifix and statue of the blessed Virgin Mary seem to glow. The light is sparse and I realize belatedly no one has turned on the lights in our section. In fact, we’ve been sitting in the dark all weekend. I never noticed until now.

The service continues and I wonder how long these rituals will continue. I pray they will last forever. Everyone should have the opportunity to worship like this. The simplicity of the words, the purity of the emotion, and the basic adequacy of the surroundings amount to a glorious experience. The service is over quickly. We are out of the chapel by 7:20 am. I do not feel cheated. I have received more than I ever expected and am grateful that I pushed myself out of bed. I remember reading that Thomas Merton observed privately these liturgical offices for many years before being claimed by the Cistercians. The rhythm and discipline of it are appealing. Starting one’s day with a heart full of gratitude is the most attractive part.

I am the leader of the pack. I pull ahead of my fellow worshippers so as to avoid conversation. The path from the retreat house to the chapel and back is open for quiet talk. I want none of it this morning. I am actively engaged in worry about the size of this monastic community. We need these men and we need all that they bring to our world.

Prayer Trail

Then I felt it.

The hair on the back of my neck rose as I drew parallel with the stand of trees on the corner of the path. There was movement and my body sensed it. I turned to the trees and I could hear them. I could hear them brushing gently against one another — the breeze was light. I heard their trunks creaking and I could see the leaves clapping each other as if to provide applause for the sudden rush of wind. Suddenly, I was a part of it. I could feel the air on my cheeks, my bare legs. It was a beautiful moment . . . one that I’ve waited 52 11/12 years to experience.

But then again what should I expect? When have I ever really stopped to see, feel, and hear the magnificence I witnessed this Sunday morning? I am reminded of this quote from Haruki Murakami.

It doesn’t matter how old I get, but as long as I continue to live I’ll always discover something new about myself.  No matter how long you stand there examining yourself naked before a mirror, you’ll never see reflected what’s inside.

Daniel, I thank you for all you’ve taught me about myself this weekend. The retreat house at Holy Cross Abbey is in good hands — your hands. I wish you well, my new friend.

This is the final in a series of three meditations written at Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville, VA. This entry was written on Sunday, August 15, 2010.

Who’s in the Mood for a Prayer Request?


Lunch . . . I think I have given Daniel a bad rap.  Maybe all of his careful instructions before Friday night’s opening meal were required listening.  Maybe I needed that preamble to allow me to work the verbosity out of my system.  Maybe his voice and the reciting of the code of conduct was God working through him as a way to get my attention away from the mind-numbing nattering in my own head.

Ding a ling a ling!
Ding a ling ling!
Ding a ling a ling!
Ding a ling ling!

Once again, we are summoned to a simple meal in the dining room. I filed in to find my seat. Would I take the same seat I had yesterday? Would my friends join me? Should I branch out and take a new seat in another location? This was all useless chatter as the decision was made for me. Someone took the seat I had last evening. In response, I did not stray too far taking the seat next to my old one where Rosa had sat the night before. This set off a chain reaction of seating changes. Rosa moved one seat down, but next to me. There was now no room for Ruth so she moved across the room on the other side of the u-shaped arrangement. Lupe, who came in late, had to fend for herself finding a non-descript corner seat. The seating ritual was settled.

Next, the water pitchers were fetched by two well-meaning women. They poured water for all of us even responding as new people entered, well after Daniel’s ringing of the chimes. Glasses were filled. Places were assumed. Daniel entered from the kitchen with a sheaf of papers in his hand.

“We have assumed a new practice here at Holy Cross. If you would like, the monks and I will pray for you specifically. All you have to do is complete one of these prayer request forms and leave it on my chair in the hallway.”

Hrrrmmmppph! We have a prayer team at Commonwealth Baptist which does a more than adequate job of taking care of my unspoken needs. What more do I need? But the idea of being prayed for by a monk-in-training (Daniel) and the remaining monks of Holy Cross is very appealing. So what should I do? Stealthily pick up a form, take it to my room, write out my request and sneak it back to his chair? Do I sign it or just leave that detail out — God knows who I am, doesn’t He? Or, maybe I should just “let it all hang out” as we used to say in the 70s? And does this whole line of thinking brand me as shallow or just plain ridiculous? I can’t worry about this right now as the chow line has started and I am the fourth chair in line for a square of lasagna, garlic bread, and salad.

As we progress through the line, Daniel starts where he left off.

“Simplicity is not asceticism. Asceticism is the practice of doing without things. Simplicity is the practice of using all that you have in practical, non-ostentations ways.”

I had never thought of that before. Nor had I wondered whether or not God had an opinion about Costco, but now I do. I think He’d love it if we used all that we acquired at their warehouse prices. I bet He’d hate the mindless spinning I do down every aisle looking for something I don’t need at a price I can’t refuse. Think of all the shopping carts he’s tracking right now at Target, T.J. Maxx, Steinmart, Macy’s, Barnes & Noble, etc. (Oh please, God, don’t put look-outs at Steinmart and Barnes & Noble . . . they’re my favorites!) Or, just think about the internet! Imagine God or one of those angels like Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life earning his or her wings by reporting what earthlings have on their wishlists or in their carts. I can hear them chortling now, “Guess who’s going to have a hard time getting through that eye of the needle!”

Or, maybe, just maybe, he’s not thinking about any of this. Instead, what if he’s pondering new ways to get my attention so that I quit filling my shopping basket mindlessly? What if he’s betting ON me and not AGAINST me making it through the eye of that needle. Maybe just maybe he wants all of us to make it through. After all, isn’t heaven supposed to be infinite? If it is, what difference does it make if me and the rest of humanity end up there? If you think like that, why should we even spend one iota of energy fearing we won’t make the cut? Why not focus on the fact that we might make it? What’s wrong with aspiring to that end? And by the way, while we’re on this subject, what’s wrong with failing — stumbling and then getting back up again? Isn’t that how any activity is perfected — walking, riding a bike, swimming, playing an instrument? Or are we just so dominated by fear that we fail to attempt anything?

Fear is the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Failing to live up to our parents’ expectations. Failure to achieve success that will feed our families and bring honor to ourselves. Failure to enjoy life to the fullest. Failure, failure, failure . . . at every turn. But! What if we don’t have to be committed to that? What if we trained ourselves in the discipline of wanting to be what God wants us to be? What if I personally worked on that more than anything else? What if failure then became a necessary byproduct of striving to obtain a grace that is more immense and forgiving than anything I’ve ever imagined?

The reading is over. The plates are cleared. My place is reset.

Daniel — one. Marcia — zero. The new guest master is winning and I’m glad. Berryville is working its magic even without a prayer request on file.

This is the second in a series of three meditations written at Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville, VA. This entry was written on Saturday, August 14, 2010.

The New Guest Master Has Arrived!


Retreat House

Ding a ling a ling!
Ding a ling a ling!
Ding a ling a ling!

The insistent ring of the dinner bell said it all.  Daniel, the new retreat leader for Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia was audibly signally regime change.  Silently, all sixteen retreatants followed him to the serviceable dining room.  Taking our places behind our straight-backed chairs, the retreat had begun.  Ruth, Marcia, Lupe, and Rosa — the divas of Del Ray had come on a pilgrimage of surrender.  And, surrender we would or Daniel would have something to say about that.  Mild-mannered, sweet, and obviously well-intentioned, he was determined to break the discipline of silence at every turn.  Just at the moment when I could feel myself sliding gracefully into silent obedience, the voice of Daniel interrupted me to explain the rules.  Pray.  Eat.  Read. Enjoy contemplative music.  Clean-up.  You’re on your own.  He droned on until I thought I was going to lose my mind.  I fumed. 

Silently, we filed up to serve ourselves the evening repast — chicken and rice soup, salad, and gargantuan hunks of cheese.   This was modest comfort food designed to mimic the monk’s simple meals prepared and shared together.   In the early days of monasticism, the brothers were given one cup of gruel per meal in a cup that had handles on either side.  I bought one on my last visit.  I used it religiously for months as a reminder of my visit. 

Settling in with my simple fare, the silence was once again broken by Daniel.

“Tonight, I’ll be reading from Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.  Let me read you what others have written about this book.”

I looked at Rosa and she mimed the word, “chatty,” with her fingers.  Yeah, baby, chatty is right.  His name ought to be Cathy, a reference only my boomer readers will understand.  As I ate my dinner, I realized that this retreat was going to be completely different than the last time and the time before that and I was not happy about that.  So much for peace and quiet.  One saving grace is that I did not bring my iPod so I will not be distracted by my own devices while I’m here.

“Is there one of the spiritual disciplines about which you’d like me to read?” Daniel asked earnestly.

Lupe didn’t skip a beat.  “Solitude,” she answered. 

Amen, sister.  Indeed, our retreat had begun.  I am in good company.

First in a series of meditations written at Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville, VA. This was written Friday, August 13, 2010.