Friday, June 7, 2013

Sacrificial Running

In one installment of Father Robert Barron's Catholicism series, he describes St. Patrick's Purgatory, an ancient pilgrimage site located on an island in a lake in Ireland.  Modern-day pilgrims to the site arrive on a boat, and spend three days in prayer, barefoot, sometimes crawling across jagged rocks on their knees.  They are accompanied by attendants who ensure they stay awake all through the first night, and they are allowed to consume only toast, oatcakes, and black tea or coffee during their stay.

To some, this type of behavior might seem masochistic and/or pointless.  One might ask, why would people put themselves through such pain?  Do such acts actually carry any significance? The Catechism of the Catholic church answers these questions, noting that "Jesus' call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, 'sackcloth and ashes,' fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance" (1430). 

These "visible signs" and "works of penance" would seem to include the actions taken by pilgrims to St. Patrick's Purgatory, as well as other common works such as abstaining from meat on Fridays, fasting, making a sacrificial donation to a charitable cause, etc.  For me, not only do these acts mirror internal conversion, but they help continue the process of conversion -- turning our hearts toward God.  The Catechism teaches that "Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one's life, with hope in God's mercy and trust in the help of his grace" (1431).  If our offerings of acts of penance reflect our interior conversion, then they are not "sterile and false," but fruitful and blessed.

Recently I've been wondering if running could also be considered a work of penance.  After all, running does involve a great amount of suffering -- aches and pains, frustration, exhaustion, blisters (and here in Texas, sotol scratches up and down your legs).  I've recently taken to ultra-marathon running, and I enjoy the adage, "If you ever start to feel good during an ultra, don't worry; you'll get over it."  I can't imagine that anyone who has run a 30-, 50-, or 100-mile race has ever done so without a certain amount of pain and suffering.


Texas Sotol Plant -- Beautiful, unless it covers the trail. Ouch!
Running also involves sacrifice.  To train for a marathon or ultra-marathon distance involves sacrificing time -- perhaps upwards of 10 hours a week.  It involves investing money, as well, for proper shoes and gear, for race entries, and unfortunately, sometimes for medical bills.  And it involves opportunity costs, like not being able to spend a late night with friends Friday so that you can get some rest before a 5am long run on Saturday.

The question is, what is the purpose of these sacrifices?  What is my goal for running these ultramarathons? If it's purely a self-centered desire to do my best, have fun, beat my previous record, or achieve some kind of recognition, then it certainly wouldn't fit the definition of penance.  But what if I run for God?  What if I run because He's given me this body that can run 50 miles of trails so that I can do just that, and offer it up to Him?  What if my runs are prayers to God -- prayers of adoration, atonement, thanksgiving, and petition?

Sister Madonna Buder, commonly known as the Iron Nun for her participation in numerous races including the Ironman triathlon series, asserts in her autobiography that running is a type of prayer posture.  I agree with her, but I also believe that running can be prayer itself -- a type of prayer that uses our bodies as well as our minds and hearts.  Each footstep can be a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.  Each painful step, each weary breath, each sotol scratch can be offered up to God.  As I run, I can meditate on the many blessings God has provided in His great mercy and divine Providence, and my running can bring me closer to God.  I believe that it can help further my interior conversion and can be a fruitful act of penance.

God, please help me keep this in mind when I'm running through the sotol tonight! :)