Monday, July 13, 2015

Where our spiritual pursuits are unlike the pursuits of endurance athletes.

When Ed Ceasar, an author of a recently released book entitled Two Hours contemplated the reasons why endurance athletes like marathon runners train so hard for something that is obviously torturous and perhaps even mundane and to a certain extent masochistic, he offered a few tenable and cogent reasons for such pursuits.  He proffers that this kind of training forces one to fight distractions, that one is in a sedentary position for too many in a day, that there are a plethora of entertainments available, that in some countries even the shopping comes delivered to the door, there are too many mechanized means of transportation which make us use our legs too infrequently, and that our churches are empty.

I found it rather amusing to think that if one were to play the familiar game of ‘one of these things are not like the other’ made famous by the creators of Sesame Street, that last reason would be most likely to stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. 

But Caesar goes on to explain why he makes the connection with church attendance.  When one compares team sports with endurance sports, the differences are quite clear, and it can be evidenced in the language that is used.  In team sports, one speaks of winners and losers, of strategies, and even of campaigns.  In team sports, results are paramount.  However, Ceasar suggests that the drive and purpose of endurance sports have an unseen quieter and more spiritual register.  For instance, mountaineers speak of  “peaking” which is a blissful sensation that accompanies that arduous trek up to a summit.  He also speaks of how marathoners run in achievement of what he calls a ‘state of grace’.  Apparently, sports psychologists use this word to describe the state in which the runner performs with an unconscious ease.

Having been an avid long distance runner in my healthier days (read pre-cancer), I can fully understand what these psychologists are referring to.  Some have called it a runner’s ‘high’.  When Caesar spoke to Geoffrey Mutai, a Kenyan marathon king who clocked an amazing 2.03.02 in the 2011 Boston Marathon about his training regime, Mutai said that “the more you get the spirit, the more it gains on you”. 

The interesting thing about such endurance training or sports is that it answers the human being’s need to test ourselves and to see where our limits are.  Endurance athletes, Caesar says, are people who seek to address our identity through a narrative, which is acted out in feats of fortitude and courage.  Perhaps it is because most people have hardly been given the vocabulary that facilitates an insightful discussion of the state of our souls, that it becomes far easier to do this through the experience of this ‘state of grace’ and attaining it with the efforts that one puts in. 

As I read his article, which I chanced upon in a recent copy of the Financial Times, I couldn’t help but make the spiritual connection here.

Is the spiritual life and the quest for it something that is difficult and challenging?  Of course.  Does one have to be constant and consistent in its practice?  Most definitely.  Is it an arduous and grueling exercise at times?  As sure as the Pope is Catholic.  But spiritual masters have always cautioned that in one’s spiritual odyssey, one has to also undergo a shaping and an evolvement as far as one’s motivations are concerned.  The initial ‘grace’ that these endurance athletes seem to be constantly in search is apparently, the prime motivation for their continued pursuits.  Many are constantly going for the ‘runner’s high’.   But this is where the two pursuits differ.

Spiritual maturity and development may or may not begin with any taste of such a ‘high’, however it may be described.   If one simply goes from one spiritual retreat to another, or moves from one spiritual exercise to another in order to attain an experience that one was graced to have at some time in the past, one can well be far too concerned to get the experience of God instead of encountering the God of the experience. 

Endurance athletes are not in the training to relate to the one who gives them this ‘grace’ even though they may loosely use this spiritual term.  But I am wondering if one can ever be truly be indifferent to how this experience even originates or exists. 

The spiritual endurance athlete doggedly pursues his practices with dedication and constancy, not so much in order to gain any highs, but must have as his prime motivation the sustaining of a connection to God who he sees as the foundation of his very existence.  For the one who does this in the Christian tradition, that foundation is the endless and energizing love that flows out eternally from the persons of the Trinity. 

The clearer one is of this in one’s life, the more one will see that all other pursuits are but commentary.

1 comment:

  1. Except for the challenging and endurance bit, the quest for the spiritual life is unlike the pursuit of the endurance athlete.

    In re-reading the meditation series with Dante Alighieri at the moment, I remain transfixed by these lines – “God, the Supreme Goodness, breathes forth your soul directly and falls in love with you, so that from then on you always desire God.” .......and then it goes to say that “we perceive that the human soul never finds what she is ever searching for: the supreme good, God.” This explains why our pilgrim hearts, travelling on Life’s journey, believes that every house seen from afar is the Inn of Rest......but it’s never going to be and so our spiritual pursuit goes on. It is a seeking, a keening for something/someone...........ever ancient and ever quell the strange restless disquiet of the soul.

    So unlike endurance athletes’ pursuits, like what you said - “it answers the human being’s need to test ourselves and to see where our limits are ................. people who seek to address our identity through a narrative, which is acted out in feats of fortitude and courage.” This pursuit is not about one self anymore
    It is however, a life-long quest to confront the one who had imprinted his beauty forever on us, his created - and it would seem that we would remain ‘faceless’ unless we come face to face with him, whom our hearts desire. Our spiritual pursuit is thus, both enduring and endearing.

    God bless you, Fr