A Prayer in the Running

Strong. Vital. Human.

Strong. Vital. Human.

I was wrong.  Not three weeks after I waxed nostalgic on the beauty of autumn, I found myself in Berkeley, CA for a sun-kissed gathering of young Jesuits.  Out there the sun soaks the skin, the weather softens the soul, and every day seems a reboot of summer.  Forget the changing of the seasons, and burn those nostalgia-ridden sweatshirts!  I’ll take 76-and-sunny-every-day, any day.

My one lingering question: how do people ever spend a productive minute indoors in this weather?  While in Berkeley, I wanted nothing more than to go for a run.  Rarely does that impulse hit me, so I took it as a sign to get the lead out.  With iPhone in hand, I jogged through Cal’s campus, in search of a place Google Maps had labeled ‘Panoramic Hill’. Harmless enough, right?

Not so fast.

Any new running route takes trust and plenty of time.  Trust that the Google paths are reliable and safe.  Plenty of time because – in places like mountainous California – the word ‘hill’ is a fluid concept.  I plodded up hills and wound around curves, dipping here and there, only to reclaim the lost elevation a few minutes later.  Sometimes the hills would break and I found myself on level ground, where the running came easier.

Hills or no hills, running was the perfect way to take in the beauty of that cool October day.  Tall redwoods and eucalyptus trees canopied the trail, dappling the ground with pockets of sunlight.  I think heaven must be suffused with the smell of eucalyptus — big, puffy clouds that smack of Vap-o-Rub.  There I was, heaven on earth.  I loved it.

When my spirit lagged I deployed my running mantras.  Mind over matter, Joe.  You’ve got this.  Stay focused.  It’s amazing what the mind can do when it grabs the reins for real.  My favorite mantra bubbled up between hilltopping breaths: Strong.  Vital.  Human.

As I trudged up hills and coursed down slopes, my mind ran to prayer.  Running and prayer are, I think, equal parts attractive and repulsive.  Attractive because I want to enjoy their fruits; repulsive because to commit to either means giving up some quality sloth time.  Attractive because I’ll feel better once I’m in a good rhythm; repulsive because a good rhythm is almost always a delayed return on investment.

 ***

A friend new to running once told me, “my body actually feels different now.” Well, I assure you, his body actually was different; he really thinned out.  Running makes you breathe differently, sleep better, and start to desire healthier foods.  No amount of caffeine can ape the alertness of sustained physical activity.  When you fall out of a good rhythm of running, you don’t feel the inertia seduce you – until you are lying (literally) at its feet.  For me, this looks like a lot of yawning, fatigue despite sleep, and craving salty crunchy junk food because, well, because it’s salty and crunchy.

When I fall away from running – or for that matter, from praying – I feel out of sorts and lazy; alien to my best self.  I stir from the lethargy only when I can recognize that the Good seems utterly repellent.  Ignatius was a wise man on this front, and had this to say:

I call desolation all that is contrary [to consolation], such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to things low and earthly, the unquiet of different agitations and temptations, …when one finds oneself all lazy, tepid, and sad, as if separated from his Creator and Lord.

But there’s hope to be found when we grow aware of sloth’s seduction: we’re aware that we have lost a good rhythm.  And this, St. Ignatius would say, is the first step to getting back on track.  We are fickle, vulnerable humans yes; but we’re also vital and strong.

***

Back in Berkeley, I lumbered up ‘hills’ that seemed impossible, chanting my mantra – Strong. Vital. Human. Attuned to my breathing — that vital yoke of spirit to body — I’d occasionally pause and stare back at what I had conquered. The path unspooled below me down through the hills.  The ascents appeared much gentler in hindsight than they did in the offing; a clichéd truth of perspective, but true nonetheless.

We ascend a mountain whose summit we rarely see and yet we are spurred on to each hillcrest.  Though hard to achieve and fragile, the rhythms of the body and soul remind us that we are strong.  And vital.  And human.  So very human.  Back in the autumnal midwest, I’m looking around for a eucalyptus air freshener to remind me of this run, when the memory of it — and the good rhythms of my body and soul — inevitably fades.

Reminders are helpful. The endeavor is worth the effort.  We should trust new paths and give ourselves plenty of time to savor their graces.

***

Editor’s Note: This will be Joe Simmons, SJ’s last piece as a regular blogger here at TJP. He will continue to write for and support the site in other formats. We’d like thank him for the depth of insight and humor that he brought to these pages. We look forward to welcoming a new writer, Eric Immel, SJ, in a few weeks. But for now we want to express our deep gratitude to Joe.

Thanks Joe. You had a great run!

***

The cover image, from Flickr user Daniel Parks , can be found here.

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