After dropping off my son at school, I usually go running at the local park. This park is quite unusual in the Los Angeles area. It is covered with huge ancient oak trees, on over 30 acres nestled along the mountains. The recent much needed rain over the winter season has turned the hillsides an emerald green. Many times this year I forget that I am in Southern California and not in the Pacific Northwest. The rain has truly been a blessing. With its big size and beauty, this park allows one to enjoy the benefits of solitude.
The running trail meanders along the park through the oaks. It has a few variations in elevation but nothing that cause me to give up on the run, essentially a nice and flat trail. (I’m past the age where I want to voluntarily run up a 30 degree incline.) One loop of the park is approximately a mile and quarter. So with a few laps around the park I can get over three miles in before work.
A huge grassy open space allows an unfettered view of the hills sits in the middle of the park. This space really shows the magnificence of the scenery. The hills, the oaks and the greenery of the park are all on display. There are no high-rise buildings on the horizon.
Another trail goes up the hillside for about a half-mile. Again, it is lined with oaks but follows a creek up into the canyon. This is not a running trail and when I am with my son he loves to explore all the nooks and crannies of the small canyon. This part of the park ignites the imagination of my son. He tells me that it looks like a forest Harry Potter would run through or the one that Calvin in the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip plays in. People have spotted a mountain lion and bears in these woods on occasion, which create more adventures in his mind. I can tell when he runs up ahead of me that he savors the space and quiet it affords.
At the end of the canyon rises a 20-foot rock cropping which has turned into a waterfall. In January and February the water falling from the face of the rock fall was deafening. Now in late May it is a trickle.
My son has pointed out dead snakes, squirrels jumping from tree limb to limb, the rays of sunbeams shooting through trees and bushes, the bright greenness of the area after a rainstorm. It is really magical in that canyon and highlights God’s beauty.
One great aspect of this park is the solitude. The park is large enough that I feel alone in this great city of Los Angeles with its millions of people so close by. Going to this park early in the morning enhances the solitude. This solitude is one of the main reasons I go there to think, run and try to listen to what God wants before the day begins.
In the chaos of our personal lives we might feel overwhelmed by all our duties to our spouse, children, work, parents, friends and community. The beeps, dings, and vibrations of our electronics keep us on constant alert. As such we feel harangued by these same people, the people we love and trust. But when the pressure of these groups begins to create stress, it is not helpful to relationships or to one’s health.
How does one cope and how do we draw on our spirituality to do so? Did Jesus feel the need for solitude? Is it right to unplug or walk away from it for awhile? Well, the greatest self-help book in the history of the world has some useful insights. (It never ceases to amaze me that most of the self help books written in the 20th century are derivations of a book that has been around for over a 2,000 years and is readily available to everyone.)
And the Bible tells us that intentional solitude is one way to cope with the pressures of life.
An example is when Jesus heard from his disciples that St. John the Baptist was murdered by King Herod at the behest of his daughter. Imagine receiving the news of the gruesome beheading of a family member. The anguish you would feel, the outrage, the soul-crushing burden pressed upon your shoulders. What did Jesus do?
“When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” (Mathew 14:13)
Jesus understood that during dark times humans require solitude to talk directly to God. But Jesus did not shrink from His duties either, as He soon fed the crowd of 5,000 loaves and fish. Afterward He returned to be alone after the confinement of thousands of people rushing in upon Him:
“After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone.” (Matthew 14:23)
After Jesus cured a leper word spread and great crowds gathered around Jesus:
“but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.” (Luke 5:16)
Maybe if solitude was a way Jesus dealt with such incredible pressure it can certainly help us in our relatively small ones compared with these examples. Just as our daily routine presses upon us, Jesus felt the same way. And how did Jesus respond? By retreating to be alone and to pray for help and guidance from God.
These two quick examples of Jesus practicing solitude show that it is an important tool to help us rejuvenate and reconnect with God. Solitude allows us to push all other items from our minds to focus on God. These distractions might be small such as running errands for the kids or as heavy as a death in the family. Solitude helps us to listen to what God wants from us, no matter what we face.
Why solitude? Besides relieving the pressure from daily routines or from some unforeseen catastrophe, solitude allows one to listen.
When I run in the morning, I listen to the surroundings. Initially I hear the birds singing, the squeaking of the tree branches when the wind blows. But the deeper I run into the park sometimes silence engulfs me. In some sections of the park there are no birds chirping or squirrels chasing each other and the wind does not blow.
I continue to run and to listen and to pray. This solitude allows me to pray to God. It allows to me prepare for the day and try to listen to Him for guidance.
The Wood Carver
One morning I heard a whack whack – as if someone was chopping a tree. Sure enough, along the trail ahead of me there was an older gentleman using a hatchet to cut a branch. Annoyed, since he was disturbing my run and solitude, I asked what he was doing. In broken English with a thick Eastern European accent he said, ‘I look for old, dry branch for carving.” I said good luck and went along my way.
I saw him several more times and each time he was making a racket through the silence. I was becoming perturbed with the noise he was making, disturbing my silence. But the other day he was at his car using a hand saw cutting a piece of wood. On the hood of his car were two three-foot crucifixes that he carved. The figure of Christ was convoluted, contorted and in agony. I could see the pain on His face and was dumbfounded by this figure of Christ looking at me.
I said good morning to the older gentleman and continued to run.
Occasionally, I bring my iPod and listen to Bishop Barron’s homilies or The Word on Fire podcast. The other day a listener asked, “What is the difference between coincidence and God’s providence?” I listened with interest and tried to soak up all of Bishop Barron’s wisdom while running.
One comment of his struck me. He quoted St. Pope Paul John II as saying, “for people of faith, there are no coincidences, only aspects of God’s providence that we have not yet fully understood.” I have heard that before but while running in solitude in this peaceful setting it really hit me. We are part of God’s plan. In this solitude I contemplated that quote.
The wood carver was probably at the park for the same reason I was; seeking solitude and listening to God.
And the crucifixes? A reminder to me of Jesus’s sacrifice for us in a beautiful park that He provided.
No coincidences in life, just the unfolding of God’s plan.