A nun on the run, part 2: More lessons from running and prayer
I was recently approved to profess my first vows as a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa. The act of public commitment to God in the context of community is both ineffable and concrete: It's sign and symbol and lived reality all wrapped up in one.
That's a lot to take in! As I prepare, I again turn to a familiar subject for insight: running and prayer. More than just a helpful metaphor, running is a spiritual practice for me. It's what I'll call a "point of intersection" — a place where embodiment meets transcendence, where prayer naturally begins.
Running is my point of intersection; what's yours? I invite you to consider the following reflections in light of your own experience.
Presence, faithfulness, and finding my flow
When I run, all my energy is focused in one direction. I don't listen to music and rarely keep track of the time. I just run. I focus on the road ahead. I watch the sky — I've witnessed many a sunrise and sunset this way. I listen to my breathing. I feel the air on my face and the energy coursing through my limbs.
Many days I settle easily into my pace. Everything seems to fit, the flow is there, and I'm utterly present. It's on these runs that I do my best thinking . . . and my best praying.
Some days it's harder. I'm distracted, tired, and I can't find my rhythm. I hit a wall; runner's high eludes me. These are the days when I'm most tempted to quit, yet they lay the foundation for the good days. As a friend from running group likes to say, "When it's hard, that means you're getting better!"
When it comes to running and prayer, I've learned that I can't afford to lose the bigger picture. I often think of Blessed (soon-to-be-Saint) Mother Teresa's years of emptiness and desolation in her prayer life. Amid what must have been an overpowering desire to quit, she remained faithful, and her life bore great fruit. She reminds me that my day-to-day successes and failures matter little compared to my overall faithfulness.
There will be hills (so you might as well train for them)
A prudent runner intentionally selects a hilly course from time to time to build endurance. If only one hill is available, she uses it repeatedly. To an outsider, this must look ridiculous! Why would a person intentionally run up the same hill over and over?
I must admit, I've mastered the art of avoiding hill workouts. But the thing is: They work. One hill can make or break a race, depending on how well you've prepared. I'm reminded of this each time I return to my community's motherhouse, which sits on the highest point of Grant County in the hilly Driftless region of Southwest Wisconsin. Each run means a dramatic incline on the return route and leaves me cursing my penchant for flat courses.
Isn't it the same in our spiritual lives? The flat course is so much more appealing than the apparent folly of climbing the same hill over and over. Yet there is value in the painfully repetitive trudge up the hill. We're gaining the strength we'll need to surmount it eventually, and the endurance to approach future hills.
Embracing our bodiliness
Despite its more puritanical periods, the Catholic tradition is rich with celebrations of embodiment. Just look at our liturgy and ritual: Motion, symbol, and sacrament are all designed to illustrate the tangible indwelling of God in our lives.
The Dominican order itself was born in response to the Albigensian belief in the dualism of spirit and matter. Dominic, whose legacy I now follow, simply couldn't abide a belief that denied the goodness of created things! As Timothy Radcliffe, OP, writes, "It is our corporeality that is blessed and made holy in the Incarnation. If we are to be preachers of the Word become flesh, then we cannot deny or forget what we are."
What I am is embodied spirit. What I am is human: imperfect, striving, sexual, celibate. The physicality of running reminds me of this; it keeps my prayer honest, grounded, raw, and real.
Expanding horizons; companions on the journey
I'm notoriously directionally challenged. I have also moved to a new city annually for the last four years. Needless to say, this is a challenging combination. Running is my preferred way to get my bearings, allowing me to enjoy the scenery and decreasing my chance of getting lost (though it's still probable).
Whether I'm busy getting lost or tracing a familiar route, I love that I never know what I'll encounter on a run . . . or in a moment of prayer. They both expand my horizon, if I'm open to the possibility.
Connecting with the local running group has helped me begin to feel at home in each new city. Not only do my companions help me learn my way around, they have become part of my network of support. As I prepare for vows, I realize that I'm blessed with relational abundance and the words of my dear Sister Kaye Ashe touch me more deeply than ever:
The search –
for God –
is strenuous and unending.
We need good companions
in order to persevere in it.
In good company,
in a community of conviction,
the quest never loses its relevance,
or its savor.
Living in intergenerational community with sisters 50, 60, 70 years my senior has made me more aware of human fragility (and resilience!) than your average 28-year-old. Among other things, it has taught me that every run is a gift. There will come a day when I won't be able to run, and that day may arrive sooner than I'd like. I can prepare for this future reality by being grateful in the present.
Sometimes when I run, gratitude overwhelms me with surprising force. How blessed I am to run the shores of Lake Michigan, to greet a sunrise, to experience God's grace in this particular way! I don't know how long I'll be able to run, but as long as I can, I plan to do it with gusto and gratitude.
[Christin Tomy is a novice with the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. She has lived and worked in Central and South America and has a background in Spanish and social work. She is passionate about social justice, good hugs, Iowa and most outdoor activities. She also writes for her community’s blog at catherinescafe.blogspot.com.]