Swerves of Gratitude and Grace

My usual Saturday run yesterday involved an unexpected detour. I generally run along the Iron Horse Trail, aptly named because it follows the route of a former train track. At the point at which the trail crosses a local creek, a barrier was up. A former rail bridge is now removed, and a new bridge is not yet in place. So, a detour was in the offing.

Fortunately, there is a “Y” in the road at that point, and by following to the right I was able to enter Victoria Park, complete with a larger than life statue of its namesake. The park is replete with paths, some encircling a little lake that the local swans call home for the summer.

Yesterday, however, I didn’t see many swans but I did see a park full of people walking about with their faces in their devices. This, of course, is normal at the university where I work, but the number of people doing this on Saturday was astronomically high. Since this is Thanksgiving Weekend in Canada, and we are right in the middle of Oktoberfest in Kitchener-Waterloo, I surmise that what I saw was some sort of virtual scavenger hunt.

Running in the midst of this was a bit tenuous. I generally find that people walk without much thought to what, or who, is behind them. I suppose I do the same myself. But when you’re running – especially on a narrow path – a walker’s casual swerve to one side or the other can be a bit of a disaster to a runner trying to negotiate a safe path for a pass. This problem was simply racheted up by the fact that these walkers were deeply invested in their devices. I avoided crashes by giving them wide berth, which is reasonably easy in a park.

As I made my way out of the park I thought a bit about our walking patterns in particular and thought about how travel becomes a metaphor for our journey from cradle to gravel. John Malloy, one of our professors spoke a bit to that theme in chapel this last Wednesday. As we travel, he invited us to make gratitude a pattern for our journey from cradle to grave, noting its especially important place for Canadians in the midst of a national election. He noted that gratitude is a firm tonic against cynicism. It is no accident that one of the foci of Christian worship is the Eucharist, coming from the Greek word for “thanks,” which itself contains the Greek word for grace in its root. Cynicism is countered by gratitude, which is grounded in grace.

I was very grateful for my run today; to be able to enjoy the fresh air, the beautiful colouring of trees, the joy of movement and the surprise of detours. When the journey is the destination, however, it seems a bit odd to speak of detours. Perhaps my journey in the park wasn’t so much a detour as small, and so remarkable kind of adventure reminding me that a certain capacity to be fleet of foot is beneficial when you set out on a journey.

I wish such a journey for each of you, no matter your mode of transportation and regardless of your destination. Let yourself be carried away by gratitude, and I can assure you that you will travel far, wide, and deeply.

The Gift that Life is

Today I ran my first race since I was in high school, some 40 years ago. It was the 10 km MEC Trail Race at the Laurel Creek Conservation Area in Waterloo, ON. It isn’t the case that this is my first foray into running since high school since I have been a regular runner most of my life. I have always enjoyed jogging and tell people that running is meditative for me, giving me space to settle into my soul and enter into a kind of harmony with all about me. I experience running as prayer on legs.

So, why would I turn something seemingly sacred and scar it with competition and such? I can’t really say that I did this because I was hungry for a running community, although in this short venture into a competitive event revealed how people connect through a shared experience. I can’t really say I did this because I needed a goal to motivate my daily running. Running is a kind of gift onto itself for me, and so I have no need of external motivation to run. I can’t really say I did this because I have my eyes on qualifying for anything since I have no dreams of grandeur. Why then? There is something about a competition that invites one to transcend the self with others. In fact, the etymology of the word “compete” suggests that it means to seek, or go after (petere) with (com) others. In the company of others, I struggle with myself to become something more. The bible uses this motif to get at the life of faith when the author to Hebrews writes:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1,2 NRSV

Interestingly, the word for “race” in the Greek text is agon; sometimes translated as race, and at other times as contest, struggle etc. The word agon makes its way into English in the word agony. Agony, then, is a kind of contest in which we have occasion to try to find a way to best ourselves. But besting ourselves for the sake of bettering ourselves sometimes calls for others to aid us. I found that to be true this morning as my fellow racers prodded me to run a little harder, to be in the moment a little more clearly, and to breathe deeply into the joy of moving. Bettering ourselves isn’t only about shaving seconds off a lap time, but also about seeing movement, and breath, and oxygen as pure gift.

I find running to be an experience of transcendence. I suspect others find other activities with like consequence. This morning I found racing to be an experience of sacred agony. I suspect other have other ways into this holy gift. In either event, “laying aside every weight” is a call to lean into the moment with clarity, and conviction, and amazement at the gift that life is.

Running the Faith

Yesterday I entertained a luxuriously long run. I’ve been slowly working up to longer distances after 6 weeks away from jogging while on my most recent jaunt to Switzerland, and then India. I am happy to be working my way back up to my pre-travel fitness level. I walked as much as I could while away, and did a few exercises – a push-up here, a sit-up there – but now is the time to do a little catch-up.

I find running to be relaxing. I know that not everyone has this experience. But I find that I sometimes enter a Zen-like zone on the trail, something I’ve written about elsewhere. Jogging is pretty much meditation for me. I have a profound sense of God’s presence when I am running. I’m not at all surprised that the apostle uses a running metaphor to describe the spiritual life in 1 Cor. 9, although the idea of running to gain a prize isn’t altogether intriguing for me. Running is the prize, in my experience.

While on my most recent run I started thinking about running a marathon. Once upon a time, I was asked if I would ever do this, and I said no. At that time, I think the idea of the physical and time demand was a bit overwhelming. But now I find that I crave this time on the trail. I get lost in my thoughts, or perhaps my lack of thoughts. The idea of a marathon intrigues me because it will demand of me the sweet discipline of clocking in a significant number of kilometres each week in preparation. And so the idea of running a marathon marries the discipline of training and the experience of spiritual communion. I suppose it becomes, then, a spiritual discipline.

Spiritual disciplines are notoriously hard to define. It is easy to point to prayer, scripture, worship attendance etc. But I like an expansive definition, and readily include art, and conversation with friends, and walking, and baking, and running, etc. A spiritual discipline is an activity that promises a more intense awareness of God’s presence, although sometimes in the modality of a delayed gratification. There are so many ways in which I experience a more acute sense of the presence of God. To think that running has this benefit, as well as the joy of increasing one’s physical, emotion, and mental health too, is an amazing thing. But that is true, too, for other spiritual disciplines.

I am not absolutely certain that I will run a marathon this summer, but a seed has been planted. Perhaps the plant will be a surprise, but that’s the nature of grace, ever giving me joy in new and wonderous ways.

Running Like a Fish

It has been an unusually mild winter in our parts – not much snow nor sun. These winters are utterly unlike those I remember as a child. This isn’t altogether surprising since I lived far west and north of my current location: now Southwestern Ontario, and then Central Alberta. I miss the sun but not the cold, although I find the weather feels warmer when there is snow on the ground.

While I haven’t been so fond of the weather, the upside is that it has made running outside quite easy. I have done a number of longer runs over the last little while, all around 10 km. My run starts with a bit of an uphill climb for the first 5 minutes or so. If you were to drive my pathway, you would have no idea that the path is uphill. In fact, when walking I would only attend to the grade for the last 100 metres or so of the first 500 metres. But running, like cycling, makes one intensely aware of grade, and wind, and temperature.

My pathway mostly involves a hiking/running path. It is well protected, which is nice when the predominantly northwest winds are blowing hard. The run is largely uphill on the way to my 5 km turn around. The trip home tends to be downhill, with the wind behind me most days. The trip home seems to be the part of the run where I manage to experience the “runner’s high.” This makes the run doubly rich.

The euphoria of these moments – not experienced with every run – are really quite remarkable, and give a kind of gravitas to the idea that the journey is the destination. The race itself is the prize, it seems. Many times, as I’ve run, I’ve thought about the marvel of being able to move, something I most often take for granted. When I’m in the right head and heart space, it strikes me as an utter marvel that I can slip across physical space like a fish through water. As I do so, I feel badly for people in cars, too often seemingly stressed and sometimes racing to make lights etc. When my lungs and legs are in harmony, my spirit soars and I have no desire to give up that feeling of being alive for the comfort of the car.

Last week I was speaking with a senior friend at church who ran regularly throughout his adult life. He spoke eloquently of the joy of the sport. He, unlike me, ran competitively. I have not run in a race proper since I was a youngster. One day I might try it again, but for now I revel in the experience of knowing that my knees can still sustain my joy, and my heart can yet propel a hope that humanity will find the collective will to ensure that the air for all is fresh.

My friend no longer runs but he remains an avid walker. One day my running days will be over, but as long as I’m able, I keep on the move, thankful for movement in whatever way I can manage – recalling all the while that it in God that we live and move and have our being.

On Good Friday Last,

I ran through a wood;
silva bathed in silver.
And in the lesser light
with shades crossing my path,
my laboured breath could not
but gasp at upended
trees. Prostrate trunks
and exposed roots
reminded me
that these giants
too cross over, in
the bosom of their
kin, in the ken that they
are never alone.

On Good Friday last,
on the forest floor,
I discovered that when
trees fall, they
sing, whether I am
there to hear them,
or not.

Public and Private Transit

I generally exercise at the Athletic Centre at the university where I work. I find fitness breaks really need to be convenient, or they are quickly sidelined by this pressing need or that persistent email. Having a gym ready at hand is so very helpful. An added bonus is that my weekday runs are on a treadmill, which I understand to be easier on the knees.

On the weekends, however, I like to do an outside run. It is really a rather different experience in that I use some alternate muscles when running on the ground. Yet other important differences obtain. I have to pay more attention as I run. Traffic patterns, and sidewalk and road hazards warrant attention, as well as the especial need to negotiate people who are travelling in the same direction as me.

Last Saturday I was running down Weber Street, and crossed Franklin, at which point I usually turn left and run a couple of blocks before ducking into a cemetery, a soothing stretch in my run. As I ran toward my intersection, I saw the light go green in my favour, with a walk light to boot. I looked ahead and saw a woman in the right (turning) lane coming toward me. I have learned that you want to ensure you make eye contact in such cases. She saw me, and I kept an eye on her as I sprinted across the street. She glared at me. I suspect it was because I was slowing down her turn. Unfortunately, I understand her impatience. I experience it when I drive.

There is something about getting in a car that ratchets up my hurry-up gene. I have told colleagues that when I drive to work, I arrive with my shoulders tight, my brain a little frazzled, and my blood pressure seemingly raised. But when I catch a ride, take the bus, or walk I arrive relaxed and ready to begin (or end) the day with more equanimity. I experience myself differently in a vehicle. I am often uptight, anxious and impatient – having experienced anything and everything in my way as a hazard and/or an annoyance. In the middle of winter, when I have to wait for pedestrians, I have to remind myself that I am safely ensconced in a few thousand pounds of protection that is temperature controlled, and the poor shmuck on the street is navigating puddles, or snow-banks, or howling winds with a few layers of protection. I have to remind myself that I can afford to take a deep breath and show a little kindness.

There have been news stories this last while about sidewalk-free neighbourhoods protesting the planned implementation of walk-friendly streets. At one level, I can understand this. Walkers can be erratic, and some are even in-your-face bold. But a refusal to address the fact that most of us will one day necessarily need to be able to walk to public transport seems naïve at best, and willfully belligerent at worst. This refusal, at a deeper level, bespeaks a deliberate rejection of empathy; an unwillingness to experience the street in the shoes of people on the street; knowing what it means to be the little guy in the fight.

Drivers, it might be said, are an individual manifestation of the cult of efficiency run amok. The person before me no longer represents a relationship to be negotiated, but a problem to be solved. Of course, I am really transferring my shallowness and impatience onto other drivers, whom I only know from a glance or two (or worse yet from no glances) in my direction. For all I know, their driving might be attributed to a hard hospital visit, or a troubling performance review, or a fight with their partner, etc. But then again, such factors are really an argument in favour of a broader access to public transit – an argument, alas, which may well fall on deaf ears since many of us, I think, prefer the private character of our cars to the “public” of public transit.

I suppose both the private car and the public transit represent seemingly innocent answers to the innocent question: how do we get around? But we cannot afford to ignore that this seemingly benign question is sometimes answered in a malign modality that shape us in ways unaware. At the end of the day, cars more often than not enforce a self-enclosed subject who engages his or her surroundings via the mediating power of a car, while a walker or jogger, or such has a more intimate relationship with her or his environs.

There may be a life lesson in this. I’ll leave that to others, but I want to make the simple observation that no one can opine on this increasing question with impunity. We all have some skin in the game. I, for the sake of the environment – which includes me, look forward to the day when buses and streetcars outnumber cars on our roads. In the interim, I’ll try hard to smile at passing motorists, and patiently wave walkers across the road.