Brother Justin Gilligan runs up the trail leading to Mount Angel Abbey. The Benedictine monk begins every morning with a run around the town nestled below his hilltop home. Running gives Brother Justin a challenge and a chance to be alone with God. (Courtesy Mount Angel Abbey)
Brother Justin Gilligan runs up the trail leading to Mount Angel Abbey. The Benedictine monk begins every morning with a run around the town nestled below his hilltop home. Running gives Brother Justin a challenge and a chance to be alone with God. (Courtesy Mount Angel Abbey)

MOUNT ANGEL — Darkness covers the pathway leading away from Mount Angel Abbey. It’s 3 a.m. Not much is happening in town yet. But Benedictine Brother Justin Gilligan is awake. He runs down the abbey trail and into Mount Angel, collecting several miles before he begins his day as a monk. Brother Justin doesn’t run with music.

“It’s my time to think and be with God in a different way.”

The time alone with God gives Brother Justin the opportunity to think — to think about his failings, his worries, his family, his friends — and the opportunity to clear his head.

The monk played sports growing up — football, wrestling, golf— but never ran cross country. He didn’t begin running until he came the seminary at Mount Angel seven years ago.

“When I didn’t run or exercise, I could see it in my spiritual life, too.”

Now, his morning runs present a challenge. Sometimes it’s freezing rain. Often it’s just rain.

“I realized that I do it because it’s hard, not because it’s fun,” Brother Justin says. The discipline to wake up and run every morning at 3 a.m. helps him be disciplined in the rest of his day.

“You have to do something hard and challenge yourself.”

Brother Thomas Buttrick, a fellow Benedictine monk at Mount Angel, also takes time to run along the abbey’s trails. He covers a couple of miles three times per week.

“It’s a convenient way for me to schedule cardio exercise,” said Brother Thomas, adding it’s a kind of exercise that requires no special equipment. Still, he prefers sports to running.

“I don’t run for sport. I run for exercise,” said the monk, adding that balance in life is part of the Benedictine vocation. “We need to be actively cultivating our bodies.”

The time Brother Thomas spends running in the evening before vespers gives him time alone, which can be valuable.

“Time spent running can be time in meditation,” he said. It offers a chance to look back on the day.

“I see it as something that is good for me but also a challenge to my natural inclinations.”

This is part of the Benedictine way. “We have to do things that require some self-control and some effort,” said Brother Thomas, comparing the practice with the practice of remaining silent.

Father Sean Weeks, pastor of St. Pius X Parish, got his start running before religious life. The monk-turned-diocesan priest even ran the Los Angeles Marathon. Since then, however, he’s had to face down some minor injuries and has changed his fitness philosophy. He doesn’t run long distances anymore. Now he runs in intervals — jogging and then sprinting— up to three miles a few times each week.

Father Weeks recognizes how running clears the mind.

“I find that when I’m coming down after a run and my heart rate comes down, my mind is so much more creative,” he says. “One of my favorite times to go for a run is Saturday mornings to get my mind right for the weekend homilies.”

Father Weeks also finds running useful if he has a meeting or presentation he might be anxious about.

“Running is the best technique to calm the soul,” says the priest.

Holy Cross Father John Donato was 20 when he saw his seminary rector go out for a run.

“He looked so relaxed,” said Father Donato. “I got into running because of his inspiration.”

The priest, who serves as Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Portland, still runs 25 years later. It’s three to four miles, three times a week for him. He’s completed a half marathon and the Run for the Roses as well, but prefers his current regimen.

“There’s nothing like going outside and running — getting in touch with nature,” said Father Donato. “It’s forces you to breath deeper.”

Nature and breathing deeply are elements that open up his prayer life and help his spiritual connection.

“After a mile, you’re hitting your stride and feeling good,” says Father Donato. “That rhythm is almost like the rosary. You start to let go of so much.”

Father Donato runs for his health but also to relieve stress and find inspiration. He runs through problems — the bigger the problems, the longer the runs.

“From a theological perspective, our experience is incarnational. We don’t know God outside of our human body. It’s the instrument in which our mind and body is wrapped up,” says Father Donato. “The body is an instrument to be in touch with God and pray.”

Father Todd Molinari is vicar of clergy for the Archdiocese of Portland. The priest has been athletic his entire life, including playing soccer and skiing at La Salle Prep. His first few years after ordination, he fell away from fitness. But during his first pastoral assignment at St. Francis Parish in Roy, Father Molinari decided to start a routine of daily running. He would run in parks, on trails and on the country roads.

“It’s very good spirituality for me as a priest,” said Father Molinari. There’s the “contrast to being indoors with ecclesial life and being in touch with God and nature outdoors.”

There’s a liturgical natural sensibility, he said.

In the ever changing Northwest weather, Father Molinari found another spiritual tie.

Running in all conditions sensitized the priest to the seasons. “Being able to experience the different weather conditions but still be committed to running — not just in optimal conditions— was an important spiritual lesson,” said Father Molinari.

The priest still runs, even with his busy schedule as vicar of clergy. Now, however, he takes some of his runs in the gym — allowing him to run when he doesn’t finish his work until evening.

Father Molinari views his runs as contemplative.

“For me, it’s a time to empty the body and soul and be with God in the quietude of my thoughts.

“It plays into my need to be doing something and give into that energy but in a way that I’m in my body and breath and having time to disconnect and reconnect with the Lord.”

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org