Who knew a Jewish physical therapist could re-root my prayer life after conversations with a spiritual director, two bishops, and several priests fell flat? Granted, my discussions with them were about prayer as a narrative act, involving neatly strung-together thoughts and sentences demanding focused time and great deliberation about intercession, thanksgiving, repentance, glorification, and discernment.
My physical therapist just gave me several intense exercises that, done regularly over several weeks, healed my hip muscle so I could run again.
And when I run, I pray.
I’ve tried the whole pray the Daily Office with regularity bit, and it works for a while, until I miss four or five or twenty days, then decide I’m just not cut out for reading lovely canticles aloud for a regular prayer life. Every day. On the hour. For the frigging rest of my life.
Or I try to sound all holy and righteous as I kneel in prayer at my prie dieu (oh yes, I’m just a priest-dork enough that I have my very own at home) , plopping down before God a laundry list of all the concerns in my life, the community of my parish, the city, the state, the nation, and the world, as if God needs a reminder memo from me on all that’s not right with the world. All legitimate concerns, but not exactly the stuff of great prayer.
Great prayer is honest prayer from the person. I could also be completely full of shit, but I suspect God appreciates our honesty and truthfulness in every aspect of our lives, right down to our prayerful moments. And I’m never more honest that when I’m running a few miles.
My running prayers are deliberate and focused, because, well, I’m running. Lest you think I’m one of these runners who gets a runner’s high after a few minutes of physical torture, think again. I’m one of those runners who looks at my watch after I’m surely twenty minutes into the daily sweatfest to discover I’m actually only three minutes. Jesus Christ, why do I do this? Prayer beginning.
I have an antagonistic relationship with running. I struggle for breath; I drip sweat; and I give myself little goals. “Just run until you reach the street light. Just until the end of the block. Just one more minute. Then you can quit.” But I don’t quit, most of the time. I look for excuses not to run, like the day of the week ending in “y.” I think running develops my leg and butt muscles at the cost of spider veins and calluses on my feet. Running is not always fun, and neither is prayer.
Still, I run. One foot in front of the other, with abs and butt muscles tight. Run. Jog. Sweat. Feel. Breath. Pray.
Granted, my prayers aren’t nice, composed narrative acts. I leave that to the real professionals like Thomas Cramner and the Blessed Mother. My running prayers are feelings and emotions, raw and unedited. I began running prayers while serving as a hospital chaplain. Daily, I offered comfort and help to people suffering physically and emotionally. Drug addicts in withdrawal, heart patients with tubes and scars and monitors, young women with breasts filled with cancer, people whose only source of healing was holy death, and those who love all of these. Comfort, spiritual and otherwise, comes at a cost to those who offer such care. I absorbed some of their fear, their sadness, and their despair, taking it home as extra bags of luggage acquired on the journey of loving one another.
I had a few options, as exhibited by other ordained folk I knew. I could repress my emotional response, and let it gain energy and force until it appeared as some form of a Dark Lord in my life, twenty or so years down the road, wielding destruction and personal annihilation as I had an affair, numbed it with alcohol, acquired crushing debt, or some other nifty way to spiral out of control. I could eat my emotions to profound unhealth, always a handy tool, and a girl does love her chocolate, but not the diabetes, expanding girth, or skyrocketing cholesterol that accompanies such action.
I could process the extra baggage, giving what I couldn’t carry back to God in an offering of brutal honesty. That, however, required work and vulnerability and more work. Not the most attractive option, but the option that boded well for my emotional health long-term and my waist line. At the suggestion of Buddhist monk (don’t ever think God speaks only through Christians), I began running on a treadmill in my apartment gym, a dark hole of a place. A perfect place, actually. While I ran, I could rail at God for all the whys and hows I couldn’t answer. I could weep for those who had died or who would die. I could just be and feel and pray. When I finished my run, the angst, sadness, hopelessness, and even fury fell away as my pace and heart rate slowed and I uttered a breathless, “Amen.”
My running prayers are more often than not feelings, those things that we can’t really edit or verbally express very well. They are the immense sadness when we cry so hard we can’t even breathe or the enormous joy that explodes from us as a glorious smile or deep laugh. As I run, I feel the impact of the road and the impact of my day and the people and issues I’ve encountered.
I run among the minutia of our earth, the first courageous blades of spring grass or the first smell of autumn in the air and give thanks for the movement of time and seasons and change and pray for the courage to accept the movement and change with a minimum of whine time.
I run past and with others on their journeys. We wave or nod. Sometimes if we are ending our time, we may speak a few words. Brad tells me of his new cat, while Mary Ann is redecorating her bedroom. Perhaps we are not solving the crises of the world, but we smile at each other and wave. The world would be a better place if we smiled and waved more at others we pass on our journeys.
When the day and the run have been particularly hard, I cry. Snot dribbles from my nose, and I'm all sweaty and red-faced, so cover-girl attractive, I’m not. But neither is life for many, including me. Somewhere between gasps of breath and one more push, I give thanks, even when I’m not wholly thankful. I can run.
And I can pray.