Today’s run wasn’t my best. That probably goes without saying considering that I was running outside in Milan in August, but the cognitive understanding that heat and humidity and heavily polluted air make running more difficult offered no comfort to my body as it labored under this three-pronged assault. After the first mile I felt more exhausted than I had felt at kilometer 7 of my last 10K (and that had been the hardest interval of the race ). I consoled myself by mentally composing a Facebook post that would be my futile revenge on this awful exertion.
Then, however, I remembered a new discipline I has planned to start this morning. The idea had come from a blog entry on prayer and stress that I had skimmed the night before (http://work4christ.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/too-much-stress/). It had offered the familiar encouragement that daily prayer is an important practice for spiritual and even physical health, advice that I know and strive inconsistently to follow. It also suggested some guidelines for the best ways to structure this daily practice, including the advice that you should NOT plan your daily prayer time at a period of the day when you are “tired and exhausted.” Well, that knocks out the very beginning and end of the day. And with the kids home all day for the summer, what does that leave me? Thankfully the post had another suggestion in passing: “perhaps time during your morning or evening walk will work well for you.” Well, the luxury of an evening walk is not something I have, but I do have my morning run 3 or 4 times a week…
And so the idea was born. Prayer first thing in the morning is usually a struggle for me, at least any version of meditation that extends beyond a whispered “thank you for this day God. Please help me to live in a way that shows your love.” Attempts to be still before my God, or to focus my mind on the four pillars of praise, confession, petition and thanksgiving, tend to dissolve into blurry-minded distraction. I’m just not alert enough in my first 30 minutes of consciousness to give God my best. One of the things I love about running, however, is how it heightens my awareness, as though the rushing of blood through my veins rinses the cobwebs out of my mind as well. The immediate aftermath of this invigorating activity could be the perfect time to focus my awareness on the Truth that is so real it can be difficult to see in the haze of everyday.
So this was my plan. I would run the half mile to the neighborhood park that is my usual destination and add a few extra twists to my circuitous laps around this urban green space to bring my total distance to about 2.5 miles. Then, rather than racing home, I could walk the return journey and use the time to calm not just the beating of my heart but also the rushing of my thoughts. It would be the perfect time to focus my mind on the glorious Creator who has blessed me with a functioning, relatively healthy body and a beautiful (if polluted) city in which to run.
That was the plan… but as I heaved my way through mile two I was feeling anything but worshipful. I was over-hot and aching and not in the mental space I wanted to be to approach the One to whom I owe everything. But, another exhortation on prayer that I read recently wouldn’t let me abandon the plan: “Prayer is a discipline before it is a joy, and remains a discipline even after it becomes a joy” (Ben Patterson, Deepening Your Conversation with God: The Life-Changing Power of Prayer, Bethany House Publishers, 1999, p. 51). Prayer has often been a joy for me, but that wasn’t a prerogative and I needed to find a way to engage in prayer when it didn’t feel joyful; to embrace the spiritual discipline even when the physical discipline intended to prepare me for it had instead done the exact opposite. And so, for the last mile or so, I prepared. I didn’t try to pray, but I intentionally rejected all the negative thoughts that were crowding into my head and screaming up from my muscles and lungs. I might not be enjoying this run, but I wasn’t going to let that steal my gratitude for it. I was going to feel each wheezing breath as a reminder that I am blessed with life, and a life that does not bear the scrutiny of complaint. Not from a Sovereign who fought for each pain-wracked breath as he pushed whip-torn skin across the splintering wood of the cross on which he hung out of love for me.
And so, I finally slowed to a walk with aching lungs and a pounding heart, but also with a well-spring of gratitude re-opened in my soul. The prayer that flowed up from this inner renewal gave me a refreshment that I hope can bless others as well.
Thank you for the summer day,
even when it breaks too early on my drowsy bed;
Thank you for the shining sun,
even when it’s sharp heat assaults my sweating head;
Thank you for the air so full,
even when its weight cloys at my gulping throat;
Thank you for the solid stones,
even when their angles try to trip my toes.
Thank you for the spinning world that slides beneath my pounding feet,
Thank you for my churning legs,
even when they tremble at the distance still to run;
Thank you for my well-shod feet,
even when they murmur protest, longing to be done;
Thank you for my heaving lungs,
even when they gasp for air and then for rest;
Thank you for my pumping heart,
even when it beats a deafening rhythm in my chest.
Thank you this struggling body that moves against inertia’s pull,
Thank you for these wakened eyes,
to see your light refracted through the dappling leaves;
Thank you for these sharpened ears,
to hear the music of your breath refilling lungs that heave;
Thank you for these softened lips,
to whisper praises so soon after tasting of complaint;
Thank you for this opened mind,
to comprehend the weight of glory witnessed by the saints.
Thank you for your Spirit’s breath again, in sense and will reborn,
Finally resting in this grateful Peace.
(And thank you also for my little runners in training – such a joy and inspiration to seek health)