“Running is spiritual” Doug Pagitt argued during his six minute, forty second Pecha Kucha talk at the Emergent gathering last weekend. For such a short talk, it has stuck with me more than any part of the hour long lectures. It stuck because it resonated deeply—it said what I’ve also been experiencing.
Pagitt gave the presentation wearing a can’t-miss-it orange Nike shirt that said in big letters “Running Sucks.” He then told the story of how he started running, like most of us, because he wanted to get healthy, to lose some weight. And running did suck, it felt unnatural, it was painful. But then he read Born to Run and he began to learn the skill of running. He changed his form and with time and practice running became easier. He was drawn to longer and longer distances, running marathons and now training for a 50 mile race. “Running sucks,” he said, “and if you’re not careful it might just suck you in.”
Running is spiritual; both in the very act but also in the ways it illuminates our other spiritual practices. For me running has been both a way to pray and a metaphor for prayer. When I run, especially long trail runs, my body and mind and soul all come together into a kind of integration—a calm away from the divided self that seems to get pulled apart into mind, body, and spirit. When I run all of these things come together and I am just me.
But to get there, to get to that integration I have to get out the door, which is always a challenge. I have a baby that hates to sleep through the night, I have a lot of work and activities and obligations—it is easy to just fiddle around on Facebook or check email. It is hard to get dressed, get my shoes on and go. I need a training plan—I need a race I have to be ready for.
But then, I get out the door, run a mile down the road, and get started on the trails. I feel primal and alive. I feel like I could just keep going and going and so I do. I’d rather race a 50k than a 5k because I want this feeling, this kind of zen integration to last as long as my body will let it.
Prayer for me has been the same. I have tried to sit in silence, to stare at icons, to fumble over Rosary beads. It is hard for me to start, hard to “get out the door” and pray. But once I get into it, once I sit in silence for a while, I begin to settle into the flow of the prayer. I feel, sometimes, like I could listen for ever. But I have to force myself to sit, to start. I set an alarm and won’t let myself rise until it beeps. Some days I feel distracted the whole time, but I know that I have to keep with it. That it won’t get easier without training.
And what am I training for—what’s the race at the end of prayer? It is love. To love those I don’t like loving; to love my neighbor, to love God. A long time ago I realized that I am not good at love—that I need to learn it and take it on from someone who has mastered it, someone who embodies it. And so I pray, and so I run—getting on the shoes, getting out the door and going. I always the simple prayers of dependence on my lips, “Lord have mercy,” “Lord help.”