With Lent nearing completion and Easter almost here, my Lenten practice kicks into high gear this weekend, slows down over the next few weeks, and then ends as I cross the finish line on Divine Mercy Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter. I began Lent seemingly without any spiritual discipline, but by refocusing on what I was already doing, I was able to find spirituality in the banal tasks of everyday life.
Come Ash Wednesday, I still had not given much thought to what I would practice for the next 40 days or so. I had purchased a copy of Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth, but after the initial blitz of reading that comes with the purchase of a new book, it sat mostly ignored on my bookshelf. As the days flew by, I still ate chocolate and had a few drinks with friends. I admitted that this Lenten season might be a wash in terms of sacrifice and devotion. Work and life had overtaken too much of my time, and it looked as if I'd have to wait for Lent 2012 to make any serious spiritual changes.
I had been training for a marathon for a few weeks, and one afternoon, as I tied my sneakers and prepared for another long-run, wishing I were doing almost anything else (I run by at least 10 bars offering happy hour specials in the first 15 minutes of each session), I realized that these hours of solitude had been informally serving as moments of spiritual contemplation for awhile now. I was a regular runner anyway, and while running a full marathon had been a personal goal for sometime, I didn't see how training for the race might be a spiritual discipline in itself. But perhaps with some tweaking, I could take the next month or so and intentionally use this time to reflect on life and faith.
My long runs take me to areas of the city I hadn't yet explored, including trails that wind through woods and streams, where I forget about work and bills and deadlines for awhile. Along the national mall, I dodge giant groups of tourists and try to redirect my contempt for these people who dared walk in my running space and instead try to focus on their joy in being on a trip with friends (easier said than done). I can see the US Capitol during much of the run, and I reflect on the struggle for justice that takes place in those chambers. I smile at little kids who wander freely, unaware of their surroundings but happy to be outside.
One afternoon, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, I was feeling particularly beat and was ready to be finished, in spite of the 10 miles or so left ahead of me. I was looking at the all the people milling about, taking snapshots and bickering with family, when I noticed a young guy, about my age, in a gray ARMY t-shirt. He was fit, attractive, and smiling. He was also in a wheelchair, missing both his legs and one arm. I was running, so I didn't look long, but on the back on the chair was a sticker identifying him as a veteran of the Iraq War. Seeing this young guy, maimed forever by war and violence, sent a flood of emotion to head and heart. I had several more miles to reflect, and sometimes prayer feels trite, so I instead turned to silence. I turned off my music, and ran in silence, past war memorials and giddy groups of junior high students. I tried not to think of anything, but focused on getting one foot in front of the other. As I left behind the crowds and monuments, I was surrounded only by budding trees, the quiet river, and a focus on silence.
People run for lots of different reasons, and though I didn't begin to run as a spiritual exercise, transforming how I thought about what I was doing made all the difference. I now try to view the moments of joy I experience as examples of grace; I try to embrace the long bouts of silence and solitude as opportunities for reflection; and when I don't think I can muster the energy to finish, I try to remember that others get through much more trying episodes than this, and dig for the strength to continue. In a few weeks the training will be complete and the race finished. But I will have spent several weeks looking at something I already do in life through a lens of faith and reflection, a practice that literally changes how you see your world, your tasks, and your goals. While this Lent began without any specific practice, it may end up teaching me something much more valuable than a month without chocolate ever would.
Michael J. O'Loughlin