By Jon Berry
“HOW OLD IS THAT KID?” We were four miles into the Leatherman’s Loop trail race Sunday, running through a woods in Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in Westchester County, NY, when the guy next to me asked the question. “Good question,” I replied, and turned back to ask. “Hey, how old are you?”
And in an instant – just as our tow-headed, skinny, young friend chirped “11!” and we marveled back “Wow!” “Nice job!” – it happened. My left foot hooked under a tree root and I toppled forward like a felled tree – knees, chest, elbows, hands – in the first of what turned out to be three full-frontal face-plants. Luckily, I had an all-dirt landing; no rocks. I got up, made a joke (“Well, that’s out of the way”), and started anew.
Rule #1 of trail running says you never, ever take your eye off the trail in front of you. But in 6.2 miles fording up-to-your-chest stream crossings, crossing suck-your-shoes-off mud flats, scrambling up and down hills, and hopping over more fallen trees, rocks and roots than you could imagine, at some point, inevitably, you forget.
Falling is part of the experience. It wasn’t the first time recently that I heard that idea. A week before, going to church with my dad and brother in Indiana, we heard it in the Easter Sunday sermon. An “unwillingness to fall” is normal, the pastor said; no one likes to fall. But falling is “the central truth of the Christian gospel”: “Life springs from death,” not only in the Christian belief in resurrection but from “the many little deaths” of life. My friend Bill, who is Jewish, says the larger spiritual lesson of death-and-rebirth has made Easter his favorite Christian holiday.
In falling, we come face-to-face with our smallness. And that’s OK. We gain humility (I love that "humble" and "humus" -- dirt -- have the same root). We learn. We move forward.
In his new book, In the Valley of the Shadows, Biblical scholar James Kugel calls this recognition of smallness the starting point of belief. “Religion is first of all about fitting into the world.” We may think we're masters of our destiny. But we’re still subject to forces we can’t really conceive. And, in our “modern, clumsy” way, we moderns are in some ways less adept at relating to those forces than people in ancient times. Faced with the unexpected (as Kugel was, with a cancer diagnosis that, fortunately, he survived), we realize like the author of Psalm 102 that “all things tatter and fade like a garment” in the face of a power that stays “the same,” whose “years never end.”
There’s always something larger. As the singer-songwriter Steve Earle says in the song that seems the centerpiece of his new album, “God ain’t me.” It’s not an easy concept to grasp in New York, where people can seem so big and the world so small. It’s one reason I go back to the farm country in Indiana where my family's from; you can almost feel history unpeel there, today’s sights and sounds giving way to the Great Depression and my Dad and his brothers damming the nearby stream to go swimming; travelers on the Civil War-era underground railroad stealing their way to freedom across these fields to the Quaker safe houses in New Garden; and hundreds of years earlier, Native Americans coming to the swampy woods here to hunt. Sometimes it all seems to be alive at once -- a feeling that is as awe-inspiring as any I know.
Being small means surrendering, at least once in a while. Try as we may, we can’t control everything. "We're not in the outcomes business," as a friend says. That pretty much describes Sunday's face-plant #2. Coming down the last little slope of the race, I carefully put my foot down into gloppy, black mud – and the foot just slid back and I went down with a plop. I laughed again, and looked around. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day. The mud felt all right.
So we try with our might but remember above all to enjoy the day (hello again, Ecclesiastes). That essentially seemed to be the message before the race from Danny Martin, the former Catholic priest who is the Leatherman’s spiritual director. He urged the runners to look on the day as an exercise in sustainability: All the environmental good works we do will mean nothing if we don't take the wonder of the earth into our hearts. It was a fitting preamble to the Irish/Navajo blessing he then led us in, that there is beauty before us, behind us, below us, above us, and within us.
An hour later, arriving at the last, largest, deepest stream crossing, aka the “Splashdown,” just short of the finish line, it seemed only right, then, to end the day not with a ginger wading-across but -- why not?! -- to instead stretch my arms high, let out a "whoop!" and take a big, arcing water-face-planting dive forward…
For more on the Leatherman’s Loop, click here. Coverage of this year's race, including photos, are on the site. The Navajo/Irish blessing is in the FAQ section. Or go back to my Feb. 27 post, "A Spring-Seeking Blessing" which quotes it (amazing how this year's endless winter did turn to spring); click here.
To read the full transcript of "Our Own Resurrection," the Easter Sunday message at West Richmond Friends (IN) Meeting, delivered by Kelly Burk, director of religious life at Earlham College, click here. The quotation she cited is from the book Leaving Church, by Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor.
For more on James Kugel’s In the Valley of the Shadows, or to buy a copy, click here.