“Let us run with perseverance the race that is before us …”
That line comes from a portion of St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. The line is oft quoted to help people move through tough times, keep their chins up and continue pushing forward. It was a line President Barack Obama invoked in his address on the Thursday following the bombings in Boston. Since that attack, I’ve been struck with how much running and spiritual practices have in common.
When we run, we are training and pushing our bodies so that the next time we run it will be just a little easier. When it gets manageable, we increase our distance or push ourselves to cover the same route faster.
I run most mornings in preparation for participating in a couple of races later this year. There is a goal in sight, and I practice so that when I’m faced with the hardship of the race, I won’t be caught off guard.
Our spiritual practices have a similar utility. We practice prayer or meditation so that when life throws us a curve, we aren’t spiritually unfit to handle it. Life is a messy and chaotic journey. It’s filled with joy, wonder and good, but last month we were reminded life contains an element of unwanted danger and we can be easily caught off guard.
Any terrible act — be it terror, a car accident or freak fall down the stairs — can have a serious impact on our existential well-being. For me, I find the best defense against the emotional traps in our lives is preparation through regular spiritual exercises.
I want to know that I have enough spiritual strength and resolve to deal with the curves. I want to have enough gas in the tank to make it up “Heartbreak Hill.” I want to feel grounded enough that, were the carpet to be pulled out from underneath me, I can trust where I might land.
This isn’t a trivial process. Developing a solid spiritual exercise regiment is not an easy task. Devoting time to a spiritual practice takes time away from our already busy days.
I use a few minutes each day to pray to God, give thanks for my day and ask for clarity on the day’s work. My Muslim friends have a five-times-a-day habit that is wonderfully nourishing for their daily rhythm. My Buddhist friends have taught the world about the gifts of daily meditation.
Every culture has a ritual of silencing the soul and inviting the divine to enter into the body. The point is to find an amount of time and a practice that allows you to engage in a daily spiritual activity without being anxious.
If being silent for 10 to 15 minutes makes you uncomfortable, then try reading a sacred text. I suggest the Bible, but that’s just the evangelical side of me speaking. If 20 minutes out of your day is too much, then start smaller. The goal is finding time to fill your spiritual tank.
In the wake of the Boston bombings, I couldn’t help but think of the poignancy of having a discipline to fall back on. It was unfathomable and terrible to witness the horror on the news.
However, I kept coming back to the running metaphor. These runners didn’t show up at the Boston Marathon, put on new shoes and head out for their first run. It requires a regimen of practice and discipline to prepare for that challenge.
Life throws all manner of curves at us, and these curves bring stress into our lives. I’m not saying that prayer can prevent tragedy. Rather, I believe that spiritual disciplines are our personal antidote to tragedy.
– The writer is the director of leadership gifts at Virginia Theological Seminary.