Friday, April 15, 2011

A Running Confession

     I worry that I should be taking my running to confession. Laugh. Go ahead. I know it's funny.
Running ought to be its own ascesis. Exercise is good. Not enough Americans do it. For me, it’s the difference between feeling healthy and feeling very very sick. I have some girlfriends who would love to have older children and the freedom I enjoy, to get up and run daily. Sometimes, while my heels slam the pavement, I feel guilty that I get this and they don’t, but that’s not why I want to confess my running addiction. I want to confess because it can feel like feasting, or justify not fasting.

     Now, when I tell you that I run or walk 50-70 miles a week, it’s easier to see what I mean. To many, that’s a heap of miles, not mention time. I’m not the fastest or slowest runner out there. To athletes, like I’ve become this is normal, even modest. Why do I think it might be a confess-able sin? I plan my running like a daily movable feast- arranging my days, weeks, travel, phone calls, meals, to achieve my daily schedule. I've even refueled on fasting days because of my walk or run.

     Yet at the same time, my run, especially in the spring, is one of the most productive times of reflection and contemplation. For instance, during yesterday’s run, it occurred to me that Great Lent falls at just the right time of year. It ends the bitterest of my seasons- winter. In winter, I hole up. I hibernate, sleeping and eating, forgetting to call friends. I feel like I’m sloughing through cold dark days. The isolation knots up my gut. When I get out and run first thing, the intestines unwind. I feel geared up, like I have more productive days.

      After four years on the mountain, I anticipated this winter back in Indiana. It was supposed to be the usual cold, grey, snowless dullness. Instead it turned out to be more like our Northeastern Pennsylvania winters. Snowy, icy, precipitous. I ate like I usually run, gobbling up calories like miles. I have battled some mysterious digestive malady for nearly a decade now, so my gut knotted up like a serpent. My limbs swelled. I tried offsetting it, running and walking longer on the treadmill, but I learned this year that a treadmill raises the heart rate about a third less. The body no longer responds to uneven changes in the landscape and becomes lax with the unchanging tread. I don’t know how or why, but my gut knows this and winds up.

      Two days ago, my protestant uncle asked me what Orthodox Christians give up for Great Lent. You mean besides meat, cheese, wine, olive oil? I thought. I don't eat meat, can't do dairy, so I explained that I gave up the NPR news I digest for two hours each morning during my run. I love listening to the stories, but when I picked up the signal, I dropped the prayers I made in the early hours. I used to run a circuit that hemmed my friends’ homes. I’d say a prayer as I passed their streets and homes. Mid-Lent I realized that if I was going to run, I’d have to fuel. If I wasn’t giving up the running and the fueling for long Wednesday and Friday fasts, then I had to find a sacrificial ascesis. I shut off the radio. I returned to my musical runs and let the prayers flow again. Funny but the serpent in my gut is unwinding. It seems to be crawling off its rock and sliding away. The obsession with eating is unraveling. It took five weeks of Lent but I found the mental and spiritual will to fast.

     I realized during the run, that it was about getting back to a kind of balance and I thought of Abba Anthony’s spiritual battles. St. Athanasius tells us that Abba Anthony fought demons in his solitary ascetical struggles. Recently I read of his vision. Concerned that he was spending too  much time weaving baskets, Abba Anthony prayed. God sent an angel. The saint saw the angel first weaving, then stopping to pray, then returning to weave. Abba Anthony supported himself by weaving, trading his baskets for his meager provisions. To him, this vision was a clear direction that he should balance his life between activity and prayer. It was balance, not elimination of the needful things.

     Great Lent falling behind the weary battles of winter is a blessed spiritual battle, which when undertaken, God used to re-orient me to the balance between activity and prayer. I’ve been the first to tell friends that my spiritual state is requires such balance. Good days should include time focused upon my family, with productive work, Scripture reading, prayer, a long run, contact with friends or a chance at hospitality and a bit of written reflection.  Thank God through the wisdom of His Church, that I have this fast to whip my soul back into awareness of this needful balance of all good things. 
This is a whole lot of epiphany for the last day of Lent. Is it required to confess running now?

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