A few months ago I took up running. I’d tried running several times in my twenties, but each time ended with shin splints and sore knees. I wanted to give it one more try, though. This time around, I watched some YouTube videos and read some articles for beginner runners. They all said the same thing: start slowly, build slowly, run slowly. As you might guess, slow is not my normal approach, but this time I followed the advice. I’ve gradually built up my endurance, distance, and speed. It’s been about two months. So far, no shin splints and no sore knees.
Recently, our new postulant Marc came with me for my long run. We drove out early (6am on our Sabbath) to a beautiful trail that runs through open fields at the foot of Mohonk Mountain. Over the course of an hour we ran just over six miles, uphill and down, with only one short rest. It may have been the endorphins, but I was amazed. The week before I’d run that trail on my own and had to walk almost every uphill stretch. This time, I’d run them all. The difference, other than the humidity? Marc. We encouraged one another, not with words, but with the very fact of our presence.
We have another fairly new addition to the Monastery who has a similar encouraging effect in my life. Br. Ephrem is constantly amazed by the beauty of our area. It’s almost become a joke among the whole community. “Y’all!” he’ll start. And we’ll chime in “it’s so beautiful!” Witnessing his gratitude and joy at the landscape and the life we live here has rekindled my own appreciation for my home. I am seeing with new eyes, with wonder, with love. Ephrem also has a gentle temperament. He’s never catty, never grumbles. Unlike yours truly. He encourages charity and gentleness and generosity in me, without ever using words.
Novelty helps to break us out of our routines, I find. It can snap whatever binds us and allow us the freedom to see and to do and to be differently. I’ve found this with running, which helps challenge a story I picked up a long time ago: I am not athletic. Two weeks ago, Marc helped me see that I can run up big hills. Almost daily, Ephrem reminds me of the beauty that lies just outside our doors.
Benedict realizes this when he reminds the monastic community that often the voice of wisdom comes from the newest members of the community. He also encourages the community to listen to the suggestions of visiting monks. The outsider and the newcomer often show us possibilities that we couldn’t have seen otherwise. They can also hold up ways of being that we’d somehow forgotten about. At the least, they show us that the burdens that seem so inevitable to us may actually be ours by choice.
A memoir I recently read pointed out that the word paraclete, which we use as a name of the Holy Spirit, means more generally one who encourages and supports us. It derives from the Latin advocatus, or advocate (another name for the Holy Spirit) that originally meant something like a lawyer. Lately, in my brothers, in you dear readers, in the plants that hog the widows outside my cell the Paraclete is showing her face in many other paracletes.
The result is a critical mass of reminders that I want to be better than I am–gentler, more generous, more aware of possibility, more grateful for the beauty that surrounds me. I want to cultivate kindness and compassion instead of bitterness. I want to remain open to the possibility that I and others can change and grow.
I remember a bumper sticker that hung in the sacristy of the church I grew up in. It read “Grace happens.” Yes, it does, at least as much as that other thing. And with encouragement I can choose grace and generosity and possibility.