Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Desire to Please You

Last September, two weeks after accepting a new job and putting in my notice at my old job, I packed up my car and drove more than 1,200 miles south along IH-35.  I literally knew one person in my new city: my boss, whom I'd only met once, at my interview. 

This was a quite relevant prayer for me at that time (and still is):

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following
your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. 


(Thomas Merton)

Before and during my move, I prayed that God would help me be open to new people and situations, and help me have the relationships He wanted for me.  In that spirit, the day I moved into my new apartment, I went to a group run.  Many of the people I met at that first run have become good friends.  And through those friends, I have made other close friends.  These relationships have led me places I never could have imagined just a few months ago: running my first ultramarathons, including a 50-mile race; winning age group awards (don't get too excited -- there just weren't many people running those races); running at night in the Hill Country wilderness by the light of headlamps; paddleboarding in Austin; signing up for my first 100-mile race; and camping in exotic places like Burnet and Smithville, TX.  God has blessed me with happiness, friendship, and peace -- largely through the instrument of running.

Since we don't know where the road ahead will take us, all we can do is place our trust in God.  My experience these last seven months has shown me that if we are open to His will and His Holy Spirit, and trustingly take those first steps onto the path ahead, He will lead us and will never abandon us.  

Come, Holy Spirit!  

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Living in the "Now Footstep"

A few years ago, a friend gave me a book of collected talks and essays by Fulton J. Sheen, called From the Angel's Blackboard.  At the time, I knew nothing about Sheen or his work.  Out of respect for my friend -- and so I'd be able to honestly respond in the event that he ever asked me how I liked the book -- I picked it up, and the very first piece struck me so much that I've continued to reflect on it ever since.  In this essay, Sheen (technically the Venerable and Most Reverend Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, but let's go with "Sheen" for the sake of brevity) offers reflections on the issue of anxiety.  I've found his reflections to be helpful in life in general, and particularly in my running.

Sheen comments that of all God's creatures, we humans are the only ones who have an understanding of time, an understanding which can lead to worry and anxiety.  Whereas other animals can feel fear and pain, we are the only creatures who feel persistent anxieties, due to the fact that we can anticipate the future and reflect on the past.  Instead of just thinking, "Ouch, that hurts," we have a tendency to think, "Ouch, that hurts -- What if this pain persists?  What if it keeps hurting, and even gets worse? Will I have this pain for the rest of my life? What does this mean for my vacation plans next week?"  Our understanding of the concept of past time can also lead to worries; in the case of emotional suffering, for instance, we might feel regret, thinking, "I really should have handled that situation differently.  I could have prevented all this heartache." 

We know the Bible tells us repeatedly to be not afraid or anxious (Matthew 6:25-34 is just one example), but that's easier said than done. How do we go about shedding our anxieties? Sheen's message is that, by entrusting our past and future totally to God and simply living in the "now moment," we can live a life without worry.  Because, generally, the "now moment" is okay.  In this "now moment," I'm fine.  I'm not in pain, I'm at a comfortable temperature, and I'm even experiencing a nice sense of productivity as I sit on my couch typing this.  I might feel a tendency to worry about whether I'll have time to get all my work done on Monday, or whether I ought to have said something different to a friend yesterday, but that's all in the future or the past.  It's out of my hands anyway, so I can give all that up to God; I can trust my past to His Divine Mercy (thank God!) and I can trust my future to His Divine Providence (again, thank God!) and just live in the now moment, offering praise and thanksgiving for every now moment.  Every time I reflect on Sheen's ideas, I feel the weight of anxiety lifted from my shoulders, as I'm reminded that I really don't need to worry -- over anything!

So how does this translate to running?  I'll use my most recent race as an example.  Around mile 8 I was hopping over a creek when I slipped on a wet rock.  I came down hard, landing on my knees and chin.  My running buddy would tell you that's no surprise.  I'm a faller.  In fact, the bigger story would be if I ran a trail and didn't fall.  But right away I knew there was something wrong with my left knee.  It really hurt to bend or straighten it.  I have never DNF'd ("did not finish"), and I wasn't about to then, so I massaged it for a few seconds and then began running again.  For the next 18 miles or so, I ran in pain.  The only thing that kept me going was focusing on the "now" footstep.  I asked Bishop Sheen to intercede on my behalf -- not that God would quell the pain, but that God would help me live in the "now" footstep, offering Him praise and thanksgiving for every footstep He was allowing me to take.  That kept me from wasting energy worrying about the past -- that if only I had been more careful going over that darn creek, I wouldn't be feeling this pain -- or worrying about the future -- that maybe I wouldn't be able to finish the race, and maybe this would affect my future running, if I had really damaged my knee.  Somehow through these prayers, I was able to finish, and even do pretty well. 

I should note that I'm not a physician, and it's likely that a doctor would advise against running through persistent pain.  I should also note that I'm not a trained theologian, so you can take my reflections as you will.  All I can say is that for me, Bishop Sheen's words are a big help in running the race of life -- which is definitely an ultramarathon.  And as ultra-runners say, "If the bone's not showin', just keep goin."  

Monday, May 6, 2013

St. Sebastian, please be my DJ

This was one of my prayers during the Pandora's Box of Rocks Trail Marathon on Saturday.  I have to say, I feel like I'm pretty tight with St. Sebastian.  A few years ago when I began running, I learned from my friend L that Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes.  Since then, I've come to ask him to intercede for me and my fellow runners approximately a million times. 

Here is a sampling of my requests/comments to St. Sebastian over the years:
  • Please help my every footstep to be a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God.  (What a great prayer!  If you take about 33,000 footsteps in a marathon -- and according to the first link from my Google search, which is the extent of my research on this question, it is -- then that's 33,000 prayers of praise and thanksgiving to God.  Not bad!  And in a 50 mile race, almost 66,000 prayers.  You get the idea.)
  • Please help me offer up any sufferings to God.  (And as the ultra-marathon saying goes, If you ever start feeling good during an ultra, don't worry -- you'll get over it.  There will be suffering.)
  • Please help that poor runner over there -- s/he doesn't look so good!
  • Please help me -- I don't look so good!
  • Please help me finish strong.
  • Please help me not to jostle anyone or be jostled. (If you've ever done organized races with water stops, you'll know what I mean by this.)
  • (After a race), Please bless my meeting with my loved ones. (This never fails -- even in races with 30,000 runners, we always find one another and have the perfect timing.)
  • Please be my pacer.
  • Please be my DJ.  (Seriously, he is the best DJ.  I use a Shuffle, and I always get the perfect music for the moment.  It's like he knows when "I'm Walking on Sunshine" will pick me up or when I need "Edge of Glory" to drive me to the finish line.)
You'll notice I'm very polite in my prayers.  I always say "please" and "thank you."

This popular depiction of St. Sebastian shows arrows failing to kill him due to his physical strength and endurance.
If he could survive being shot by arrows, I guess I can survive blisters and an inflamed IT band.

The Venerable Bishop Fulton J. Sheen is another great intercessor for runners, but that's a blog for another day. . . .

For more information on Saint Sebastian, click here.

What are your prayers during a run? Tell me in the Comments section.