Running and Breathing


Years ago, when I was meeting with the Commission on Ministry, the board whose job it was to decide if I would advance in the process of becoming a priest, they surprised me by asking a question about my running. 'When you run,' a kindly older man asked me, 'what are you running towards and what are you running away from?' I was taken aback. I had never thought of running in this way, and I am not sure I do now. I was also young and rather intimidated given the circumstances, so I am sure I sputtered something that sounded vaguely spiritual, like I was running towards a better relationship with God and running away from stress and busyness.

None of that was deeply true, not even then. But ever since then I have wondered about the connection between my love of running and my love of God, or if there even is one.

There is the question of whether running, or any exercise, is a spiritual practice. I have heard it described this way. I cannot deny that there is a certain peacefulness to running, and sometimes a complete sense of 'disappearing' into the world around me, but personally, I reserve the words 'spiritual practice' for those things that are intentionally about deepening and strengthening my Christian faith: prayer, worship, study, rest, forgiveness, sharing resources, etc.

Still, the question about I what I am running from and what I am running towards has lingered for 20 years in my brain, I think because it both intrigues and frustrates me. Intrigues me because I never think of running as a pursuit, even though I love to race and exalt in getting faster and running farther than ever, even as I approach my 50th birthday. But it's not like anything or anyone is chasing me! In fact, one of the reasons I love running so much is that even as I get better at it, I am still a solidly mediocre runner in the great scheme of things. Running is one thing I don't have to be best at, which gives me a great sense of relief.

And this is what frustrates me, too, about that long-ago query. I never got the chance to give a good answer, because the question was not one I would have ever asked. If I had been asked, 'Why do you run?' instead, I would have answered, 'I run to breathe.'

Breathing is, of course, fundamental to running, and to life. Running makes me breathe hard, but if I run long enough, I get to a place where I suddenly relax again. The breathing becomes easy, and I settle into a space that is just me and the road. It is my literal breathing space, away from everything and everyone else, a place to be so fully in my body that I can forget it, and the dreams and thoughts and conversations in my head have all the room in the world.

Yesterday I ran ten miles, and I am also getting over a cold, so every once in awhile I would have to stop and cough, interrupting both my breathing and my train of thought. It reminded me again of both the fragility and the strength of my body, and also the holiness of breath. I thought of Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples in the Gospel of John; the surprise and shock of babies taking their first breath; the mystery and pain of those taking their last.

And so I guess my love of running is somehow intertwined with my love of God, or at least with my gratitude for my life. I still can't think of anything I am running away from or towards, although my answer was apparently satisfying enough that the Commission on Ministry did ok my ordination. It's not a journey, I don't think, despite the miles and miles and miles. It's just a need.