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Could Trail Running Be Your Church?

MacGyver, my four-year-old mutt, rides shotgun on this twenty-degree East Tennessee morning. As the mountains flash by in shadow and sunburst, I half expect him to turn to me and whisper some ancient wisdom.

He doesn’t; so I whisper to myself, “Eat your heart out, Jack London.”

We arrive at a small park off Interstate 26—three parking spaces and a bathroom. This simple Sunday picnic area is actually one of the best trail runs in the Appalachians. But no other cars join us in the parking lot on this late November morning. Mac quivers with excitement as I turn off the truck. My legs tingle in simpatico.

The Pinnacle Mountain Trail is a nine-mile out-and-back—or, more precisely, a nine-mile up-and-down. We start up the trail, and I take off Mac’s leash. Motion and silence bind us in the eternal now.

A mile, a minute, a paw, a foot, the crystals of ice and snow … everything vibrates at the same natural frequency.

At the top of the mountain, I climb up the old fire tower.

Mac looks puzzled, but lets me go. From the highest platform I survey mountains, valleys, creeks and rivers spread out below. Everything makes sense. Even the scars of pavement look like they belong.

“This is my church,” I whisper to myself. Truer words I have never felt. A poorer statement I have never uttered.

A different kind of church

In addition to being a trail runner, I am also an Episcopal priest. The two greatest sources of truth in my life are my interactions with nature and the sacraments. Yet for most of my life those two relationships have been cast at odds with one another.

When Sunday mornings roll around, most of my friends go to the mountains, while a few of us journey to church. We are two groups of people, both searching for a touch of the divine, immanent and transcendent, one breaking free of structures and the other finding peace in holy order; one announcing, “Ultrarunning is a journey to find the soul,” the other declaring, “Christ is the way, the truth and the life.”

Seven years ago I spent a summer studying Buddhism in Nepal, where I witnessed monks reading sacred texts in caves and faith communities climbing mountains to offer prayers. For those Tibetan Buddhists on the move, faith interpreted nature and nature informed faith. My hope and call ever since has been to help Christianity in North America re-discover that same kind of relationship. We need to feel small. We need to recognize we are part of something grander, and bridge the ever widening gap between a vague spirituality focused on the self, and Bible idolatry obsessed with a calcified point-of-view.

Finding connection on the trail

On an early spring morning in west Texas, I strap on a headlamp to start up Sheep Pen Canyon trail in Davis Mountains State Park. This kind of darkness and cold is unknown to the civilized world, apart from the desert and the poles.

This kind of footing…well, this kind of footing is shit; rocks one moment and sand the next. No wonder the Israelites grumbled so much. Then the switchbacks start—burning legs and frozen fingers.

Did Peter, James and John grumble too?

With the breaking dawn comes a quickening pace. The book of Exodus echoes through my head: “Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain.”

The creation story plays out in real time before me as the sun casts hues of burns and bruises, millions of years flashing by in the exposed faces of the mountains.

The trail turns hard into the rising sun and the steep sides of the plateau.

Saturated with endorphins, I find a little mystical union with those who have gone before. I am with the Hebrews as they gaze into the Promised Land where the grass shimmers like electric honey in the morning breeze. I move without fear past the well of some forgotten civilization. The trail ducks in and out of shadow and gulley, winding through juniper forests with momentary vistas of field and fold.

I follow the spur trail to Limpia Creek Vista, the highest point in the park. As I stand in the full warmth of the sun, shielding my eyes against the dazzling white of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ Indian lodge, one valley over, it occurs to me that the Transfiguration is less about the appearance of Christ and more about the vision of the witnesses—to be so enlightened as to see the love of the creator reflected in the beauty of creation, and to be so brave as to rise and follow that beauty down the mountain and through the shadow of death for the good of all illumined below. This could be our church.

To my trail running friends, maybe give religion another shot. No need to embrace the organized stuff. Instead let the great traditions add something to our experiences. Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and Christianity can provide lenses to help us interpret those mystical experiences we find on the trail.

The community and devotion are already there. Trail running could actually be our sangha, our synagogue, or our church.

To my church friends, try going outside. Go to the mountain to pray. Be driven into the wilderness by the Spirit—not metaphorically, but literally. The poet-prophet Wendell Berry wrote, “[The Bible] is a book best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better.”

Jesus spent more days on the trail than in the temple. Maybe time in the wilderness is not accidental to the Gospel?

The Rev Christian Hawley runs and serves with St Matthew’s Episcopal Church and Trail Roots, Austin, TX.  MacGyver mostly hangs out with Temple of the Dog.